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Rell The Reformer

Though she was Lieutenant Governor in former Governor John Rowland’s administration, Governor Jodi Rell has managed to position herself as a reformer, a marvel to opposition Democrats. Leaders in the dominant opposition party look upon Rell as a puritan in petticoats. But the governor has trumped the Democrats on ethics, and her critics are not marveling too loudly.

There is some reason to believe that the amusingly frantic concern for ethical behavior among state politicians when Rowland almost daily was being turned on a media spit for several months has waned since the former governor, an annoying threat to Democratic hegemony, had been removed from office.

The tepid reaction of leading Democrats to the FBI investigation of state Sen. Ernest E. Newton suggests a nostalgic desire for a return to business as usual. The Newton case eerily parallels Rowland’s downward spiral. Newton is accused of accepting a $5,000 bribe from Warren Godbolt, the executive director of Progressive Training Associates in Bridgeport, a payment intended to purchase Newton’s aid in procuring a $100,000 grant from the State Bond Commission to renovate Godbolt’s headquarters.

Godbolt only recently pleaded guilty to bribery and conspiracy to embezzlement charges -- six months after the scandal had first surfaced in the press. During this period, Republicans had been beseeching Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams to remove Newton as deputy president pro tem, but their earnest entreaties had fallen on deaf partisan ears.

Newton’s Democrat friends in high places have been biting their swelling tongues for months. Even after Godbolt’s guilty plea, Lt. Gov. Kevin Sullivan, a persistent critic of Rowland and one of Newton’s mentors and friends, declined to comment, though he has had a little over 4,000 hours to think of something clever to say.

The governor’s popularity ratings are driving the opposition batty. With the juicy Rowland scandal in hand, Democrats had a veritable bazooka to blow up Republican gubernatorial prospects. Yet, Rell has been able to dodge the missiles. So far, none of the muck attaching to Rowland has stuck to Rell.

The media seems favorably disposed towards the governor, perhaps because she has taken care to wave liberal flags in the air: Rell supports campaign finance reform and civil unions. She has deemed “reasonable” a hike in the minimum wage and at one point seemed willing to consider a millionaire’s tax, the third rail of Republican politics, causing both Democrats and Republicans to gag on a spoon.

The watchword of moderate Republican governors in Connecticut, out numbered and out financed in the legislature by opposition Democrats, has been compromise, half a loaf being more nourishing than no loaf at all. The problem with premature compromise as a strategy is that the political undertow in the state pushes all the players off center to the left. Opposition Democrats prefer opening any negotiating session with a demand for the whole loaf. And if the Republican Party – weak and ineffective -- surrenders half a loaf before negotiations have begun, they end up with crumbs. Then too, if you are a compromise prone governor, every attempt at conciliation softens and deflates the resolve of your political base.

Rell’s poll numbers are being driven upwards by, among other things, her uncompromising attitude towards ethics reform – not her willingness to give way on issues dear to the heart of Democrats who, not so long ago, were crying from the rooftops for Rowland’s political execution, but who now suffer in embarrassing silence when one of their own finds himself in a tumbril traveling towards the guillotine.

The lesson that voters are likely to draw from Rell’s resolute stand on ethics reform is that resolve equals seriousness, a message fatal to Democrats who use compromise as a castration device. Democrats have not been willing to extend the standard for ethics they supported during the Rowland scandal beyond gubernatorial precincts because, most people are beginning to realize, they wanted to use the scandal as a crowbar to wedge Republicans from the executive office. Democrats already own most other centers of power and influence in Connecticut politics.

Republican resolution – which, when you come to think of it, is pretty much the opposite of compromise and conciliation – presents a danger to Democratic hegemony. Parties are not built up through compromise. The centrifugal force of principles is the generative center of parties. Democrats have nothing to fear from a Republican governor inclined to go along to get along – as long as the usual power brokers are in the driver’s seat plotting the travel route. What Democrats fear most is a resurgence of Republican principles that may be more enticing to voters than the political snake oil routinely peddled by both parties in Connecticut.

It is not Rell’s success in compromise that is giving the opposition mind cramps. It is the dread suspicion that there is a stiff spine somewhere concealed behind the petticoat.

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