Rell Brings Clean Image to Connecticut Governorship

 

Some call her a Steel Magnolia, a tough and savvy politician who has a soft spot for family and a passion for NASCAR racing, a reflection of her Southern roots. But since July 1, citizens of Connecticut call her governor.

M. Jodi Rell, a native of Norfolk, Va., will need her genteel but determined leadership style to restore Connecticut's political integrity following years of scandals and the near-impeachment of her predecessor, Gov. John Rowland (R). Rell's running mate for the past three elections, Rowland resigned June 21 in the face of federal corruption and state ethics investigations. Rell will serve out the rest of Rowland's term, which ends January 2007.

"She is the right person for the job. ... She has a clean image," said Howard Reiter, who chairs the political science department at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. "People who know her well talk about a core of iron inside a more genteel exterior. Rowland was more bluster and (had a) more in-your-face style," Reiter said.

Rell, 58, (see photo on official Web site) brings to nine the number of U.S. governors who are women -- more than at any time in history. She's the first Republican woman to be sworn in as governor of Connecticut, but she didn't plan it that way. She got into state politics by chance. She attended a political tea for a local state representative as a way to get involved in the community when she and her husband, Lou, moved to Connecticut, and she never looked back.

She was swept into state office as part of the Reagan Revolution in the 1980s, elected to the state House of Representatives to represent the 107th district in Brookfield, an affluent, highly educated district dotted with white-picket fences. She has remained a force in state politics ever since, spending the last nine years as lieutenant governor.

"I don't consider myself a politician," Rell told The New York Times. "I consider myself a person first and a government leader, not a politician," she said.

In her first two weeks in office, Rell cleaned house and is trying to mend fences. She e-mailed rank-and-file government employees thanking them for their service and ordered all top Rowland appointees to resign, deciding which officials she wanted to stay on.

Rell comes across as down-to-earth and easy-going and most people simply call her "Jodi" even though that's not her first name. (It's Mary). Jodi is not even her middle name. Very few governors can say -- or will admit -- that their nickname comes from an ex-beau's affinity for a 1960s go-go dancer. The story goes that Rell's college boyfriend thought Rell resembled Joey Heatherton, a 1960s dancer and actress. "I told him her name was Joey, not Jodi, and he said something like, `Joey, Jodi, well you look like a Jodi to me," Rell told The Connecticut Post.

The nickname stuck. So does her reputation for being courteous, soft-spoken, but efficient and thorough. "Jodi doesn't shoot from the hip. She is prudent, cautious and careful," said state Rep. Arthur O'Neill (R), who met Rell in the 1980s at a GOP fund-raiser in honor of Prescott Bush, the father of former President George Herbert Walker Bush, grandfather of President George W. Bush, and the U.S. senator for Connecticut from 1952 to 1963.

Rell is considered a moderate Republican in a largely Democratic state. Democrats wield control in the Statehouse and hold both U.S. Senate seats. Connecticut was a "blue" state in the 2000 presidential election, going for Al Gore when native son Joe Lieberman was on the ticket.

During her 10-year stint in the House, Rell was known for combing word-by-word, line-by-line through amendments and bills. She also is well-versed in state budgets from her time on the House Finance committee, said O'Neill, the House assistant minority leader.

State Rep. Bob Godfrey (D), deputy majority leader, calls Rell "just a delightful person" and the definition of high character and morals. "She will get a lot of support from both parties and both houses," said Godfrey, who worked closely with Rell on a variety of issues because they represented neighboring districts.

Rell had a reputation in the Legislature for working hard to unify differing opinions on major issues, dubbed "Rell's Rule," a principle she followed during her years at the Statehouse. While in the House, "she was someone who with a very steady hand, very competent but not overbearing personality, would be able to bridge differing opinions, not just between members of different parties, but within her own party," said John Pavia, an attorney and adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University Law School in Hamden. Rell this month appointed Pavia to a blue-ribbon panel charged with reforming state contracting, an area that drew the scrutiny of federal and state investigations during the Rowland administration.

Rell will need her consensus-building skills not only to get along with the Democrats who control the Statehouse, but with her lieutenant governor, Kevin B. Sullivan, a Democrat who was appointed to the post after Rowland resigned. For the first time in decades, Connecticut's top executive team is not from the same party. Sullivan had been the state Senate president pro tempore when he was promoted to the second-in-command spot. Sullivan is already sparring with Rell over a state ethics panel's dealings.

Rell as lieutenant governor largely stayed out of the limelight. Her initiatives included bringing the Internet into classrooms to make young students "cyber-ready" by the 6th grade. She also headed up a commission charged with revitalizing Hartford, the state capital.

Rell said in her inaugural speech that her first order of business as governor is "to restore faith, integrity and honor" to state government." Her top priorities include streamlining state agencies, building bipartisan alliances and strengthening ethics and campaign finance laws.

Rell has a clean image, but it's not spotless. In 1995 her son Michael was in hot water for having a stolen Jet Ski. Michael, who now works for the state House Republicans, had told investigators that he didn't know the Jet Ski was stolen, and he was never charged. Her daughter, Meredith, is not as involved in Connecticut state politics, living in Denver as an interior designer.

Rell and her husband Lou, a retired airline pilot, have a home in Brookfield. Lou is keeping a low profile and has no plans to be the state's "first husband" with an agenda. He plans to stay busy with his small business, a transport business that shuttles people to medical appointments, and golf.

Although she has spent the past 20 years in state politics, Rell still is introducing herself to the state. She spent three hours shaking hands and dispensing her Southern hospitality to nearly 1,000 people who attended an open house at the State Capitol July 15. "This open house is a small but important way for me to express my deep gratitude to the people of Connecticut," she said in a statement. Rell also spent an hour July 14 taking calls from listeners of local radio station WTIC-AM.

Rell is not attending the National Governors Association summer meeting in Seattle this week because she is too busy launching and organizing her administration, her spokesman said. She expects to make her national debut during the Republican National Convention in New York City next month. She will head the state's delegation. 

 
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