Thursday, December 29, 2005

Jodi Rell, Saint or Sinner

"This is not, I think, what any of us would have expected,” said a disappointed Lieutenant Governor Kevin Sullivan, “from a governor who has set a very high standard for everyone else.”

Sullivan, a Democrat, said he withheld comment on what some are calling Moodygate for a couple of weeks so as to give the governor an opportunity to clear her head, but Rell simply had not measured up to her own high ethical expectations of the behavior of other politicians, mostly Democrats. The governor’s Chief of Staff, Lisa Moody, may have broken the law when she distributed fundraising invitations to several of the governor’s commissioners. Investigations by Chief State’s Attorney Christopher Morano and the State Elections Enforcement Commission are underway. The governor has suspended Moody without pay for two weeks, a sanction characterized by New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, one of two Democrat candidates for governor, as “a holiday vacation.”

“I have been very reluctant to comment on these serious allegations of illegal and unethical conduct,” Sullivan said. “Since Governor Rell has made so much of her high standards for others, we all expected her to be even tougher and more forthcoming when the misconduct involves her own office. Instead, it has been disappointing to see the Governor try to minimize the situation. Worse still, she refuses to disclose the campaign contributions that have been returned in a way that avoids any official record and then invites the same suspect donors to contribute again anyway. But it’s not too late, and full disclosure should not require that this information be extracted through the freedom of information laws or subpoenaed by either those investigating or legislative authorities.”

Rell got the jump on Democrats in the matter of ethics reform, and the loyal opposition now is attempting to scuff up the governor’s squeaky clean image in hopes of bringing down her sky-high poll ratings. In politics, this is called “making the best of a bad situation.” Now that Rell is bent over an ethical barrel, Democrat leaders, despite Sullivan’s touching solicitude, may be expected to roll it down the slippery slope. The governor’s ethical strictures, Democrats gleefully point out, are more stringent that the law Moody may have broken, and the governor’s chief of staff violated both with impunity.

So, what happens now?

The investigations will proceed slowly and deliberately. It took Morano months to investigate charges in connection with Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy’s campaign fundraising activities, making Malloy the only gubernatorial contestant put through the investigatory ringer and found innocent. Democrats will continue to press their considerable advantages. With one fell swoop, Moody’s putative “illegal” solicitation implicated all the governor’s commissioners. Rell first raised expectations of full disclosure and then refused to release the names of the solicited commissioners. The governor’s press secretary, Rich Harris, argued that the return of the contributions relieved her of the necessity of revealing the names because the contributions never made it to the bank. Democrats have polished their campaign lines and may be expected to sing in chorus that the governor is chronically incapable of noticing the ethical flaws of her compatriots, a tad hypocritical in insisting that others do what she says but not what she does, and unwilling to purge offenders that are close to her.

All this may or may not affect the polls -- for reasons that may seem odd to politicians and ethicists. Politicians, who see themselves darkly in media mirrors, do not always understand that most people are not like them. Common folk have a realistic understanding of the frailty of human nature, which is why slighting references to former governor John Rowland in the upcoming campaign, after he is released from prison, may not fall on fertile ground. Most people have an appreciation of reality different and more faithful to essential truths that of politicians, whose perceptions are altered by considerations that lie outside the experience of ordinary people. People admire politicians who are authentic, and the attack on Rell is an assault on her authenticity. Rowland did wrong, and paid for it dearly. Any attempt to use him as a political foil to skewer the governor, now that he has given up a pound of flesh for his wrongdoing, may seem too much like the act of a schoolyard bully, and authenticity itself is the most effective response to assaults on character.

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