When Gov. M. Jodi Rell announced that she wouldn’t seek re-election on Nov. 9, 2009, the question that arose was not whether she would be a “lame duck,” but rather what type of lame duck she would be for the remaining 59 weeks of her term.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines lame duck as an “elected official … continuing to hold political office during the period between the election and the inauguration of a successor or one whose position or term of office will soon end.”
That definition would certainly make Rell a “lame duck.”
For those keeping track of such things, applying the term “lame duck” to a politician whose time has come, can be traced back to January 1863 when the Congressional Globe (the official record of the United States Congress at the time) wrote the following: “In no event … could [the Court of Claims] be justly obnoxious to the charge of being a receptacle of ‘lame ducks’ or broken down politicians.”
However, according to “Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable,” the term actually arose in the counting houses of London in the 1700s and was used to describe “a stock-jobber or dealer who will not, or cannot, pay his losses.” A no good debtor who has to “waddle out of the alley like a lame duck.”
Thus taking on the mantle of a “lame duck” is usually followed by a slow and painful exit from the public arena.
On the other hand, it is said that only lame ducks can act on principle rather than by the findings of the latest public opinion polls. There must be examples, although none come to mind, where a politician used lame duck status to be free from the confines of electoral politics and to use the remainder of a term to stand up and “do the right thing.”
So what type of lame duck is our governor?
With Rell now into her fifth month as a lame duck, her style has become increasingly clear. Over the last few months, she has had a virtually unbroken track record of failure and missed opportunity.
Recently we learned that the Rell administration failed to garner any of the special federal transportation funding that was recently made available to the states despite the fact her Transportation Department applied for more than $300 million of those funds.
Meanwhile, the governor who once boldly proposed an across-the-board income tax increase to pay for a major initiative to transform education in Connecticut, was unable to get any of the $190 million the state sought from the “Race to the Top” federal education fund.
On top of all of this, as if to telegraph her approach to her final year in office, the governor failed to even attend the National Governors Association meeting where she would have had a unique opportunity to lobby federal officials for redress.
If Rell’s approach was limited to her interaction with Washington, we might write these failures off as some misplaced dedication to her belief in state’s rights and the notion that we don’t need the federal government’s help, even in these difficult times.
However, her particular lame duck leadership style is just as evident as the state faces its most serious fiscal crisis since the Great Depression.
Take for example, Rell’s latest deficit mitigation plan, which is truly a sad tribute to lameness.
At the very moment that Rell could rise above the politics of inaction and put Connecticut back on sound fiscal footing, she proposes dealing with the $500 million deficit by failing to make a $100 million pension payment, shifting money from next year’s budget into this one, imposing a tax on hospital care, legalizing keno gambling (despite a very real possibility that it would void the landmark deal with the state’s Native American tribes and actually cost us more than $300 million), undermining the public campaign finance program (which she said was one of her greatest achievements), while making devastating cuts to some of the most vital state services.
Incredibly, at the very moment she is free to put partisan politics aside and set things right, she proposes a plan that fails by any measure and does nothing to put Connecticut’s fiscal house in order.
Lest observers point out that the Democrat-controlled legislature also has failed, let me add that there is certainly more than enough blame to go around. In fact, some Democrats would do well to remember the old adage that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. That said, it is Rell who is Connecticut’s chief executive officer, it is Rell’s administration that must implement the absurd budget that she allowed to go into law, and it is Rell herself who created her lame duck status last November.
Rell still has nine months left in her term. While to date she has focused almost exclusively on the “lame” part of the phrase “lame duck,” there is still time should she want to create a lasting legacy.
Jonathan Pelto served as a member of the House of Representatives from 1984-1993. He was Deputy Majority Leader and member of the Appropriations Committees during the income tax debate of 1991. He presently works as a strategic communications consultant.