Regime change in Connecticut has been less dramatic than in, say, Baghdad. But Jodi Rell, the state's new governor, is enjoying a lot of goodwill simply by presenting a different face.
In July, Rell succeeded fellow-Republican John Rowland, who finally stepped down when impeachment proceeding appeared imminent. Rowland's fault lay in accepting gifts from state contractors and running an administration in which rigging contracts became standard practice.
Although Rell served as his lieutenant governor for a decade, she was not part of his inner circle and appears to have clean hands. She has hired an ethics lawyer to work on proposals to restore trust in government and axed some of Rowland's more controversial appointees. She also set up a commission to revamp the way the state doles out contracts. "There's a golden opportunity here," says Rell, who insists that her moves to impose uniform rules on bidding amount to nothing more than "common sense."
Rell is lucky in her timing--the legislature won't meet again until January, allowing her plenty of opportunity to get her own team and proposals into shape. Income-tax receipts are curving up after a period of trending down (although the state lost 6,000 jobs in June). Rell will face an assortment of fights over health care, property tax relief and medical malpractice, but the budget is now in surplus.
A big question awaiting Rell is whether Democrats will want to cooperate with her, or whether they'll sense a political opening in Rowland's downfall. Democrats control both chambers of the legislature and are eager to win the governorship, something they haven't done since 1986.
So far, everyone is making cooperative noises. "Democrats will seem small and petty unless they organize their opposition over something meaningful," says John DeStefano, New Haven's Democratic mayor. Nevertheless, he says that Rell will need to push a substantive agenda of her own if she wants to extend the current era of good feelings.
Rell had spent a decade as a state legislator when Rowland asked her to be his running mate in 1994. She had a reputation as a hard worker, trying to read every bill, and moved up into minor leadership positions by imposing "Rell's Rule," which held that Republicans could get more accomplished by sticking together as a caucus rather than letting their ideological rifts translate into split votes.
Rell kept a traditional low profile as lieutenant governor. (Referring to her suddenly "quadrupled" workload, she says, "I can see now why I got to do all those ribbon cuttings.") As governor, in addition to promoting ethics, she plans changes to the $57 million juvenile justice center that was at the center of the Rowland controversies. Built under questionable circumstances by cronies of the former governor, it was designed more as a prison than as a school, and is considered by many to be unacceptable for rehabilitating young people.
Rell takes the state's top job at a time when the legislative leadership is changing as well. The House speaker is retiring and the Senate president pro tem moved into the lieutenant governor's office. Jim Amann, expected to be the new speaker, says the changing of the guard offers "a breath of fresh air" to a public convinced that too many decisions were made in back rooms.
With economists predicting a couple of smooth budget years ahead, that leaves ethics as Rell's main challenge. A former state treasurer is in prison for his part in a corruption scandal and two former mayors are doing time as well. "The way things operate in Connecticut right now allows people to exploit government for their own interests," says Andy Sauer, executive director of the state branch of Common Cause. "It won't be easy for her to restore the public trust, but she's committed to doing it."