July1, 2004, seemed like a perfect day for a new beginning.

I parked across the river and walked over the bridge into the city. I slowly made my way to the Capitol area, past bands warming up in Bushnell Park and bored police. I found a spot far behind the rows of chairs near the north steps of the building, and waited. There was a sense of electric anticipation. The Rowland era was finally coming to an end, after too many long months of misery and scandal. The future seemed as bright and boundless as the deep, clear sky.

I didn’t bring a camera. I didn’t take notes. I hadn’t started blogging yet, so I was just there, in a way I wouldn’t be for many other political events. I watched the new governor march up the Capitol drive, and then strained to see the brief swearing-in ceremony.

The governor pledged that ethics would be her first priority. I liked her. It was hard not to. That’s still true, even now, as her era sighs to a halt. I remember leaving the inauguration feeling hopeful about the future, that Jodi Rell had the potential to be a great governor. Now, here, after six years and a series of seismic changes, I’m left wondering just where all that potential went.
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It’s hard to get a handle on the Rell years. John Rowland left us a legacy in concrete and disillusionment, buildings and scandal. Lowell Weicker left us the income tax, for which many will never forgive him. What Jodi Rell leaves behind is much more insubstantial, so much so that it’s hard to believe she has much of a legacy at all.

The Rell years saw Connecticut limp along from surplus to deficit, from a fair economy to utter disaster, through crime and crisis. The euphoria and potential of her first year in office has faded to a dull ennui. There was so much promise in her, and so much of it seems unrealized.

As a chief executive and as the state’s leading political figure, Rell could either be shrewd or hopelessly reactive. She seemed to enjoy needling or unbalancing the legislature, and the people were robbed of a wonderful sideshow when her greatest and most hapless foil, House Speaker James Amann, left office in 2009. But many of her ideas never found a receptive audience, even among the members of what was technically her own party.

What, then, does she leave behind? I’ve been thinking about this, and did what I do best: I assembled a list.

So here are, in no particular order, some of the hits and misses of the Rell Era.

HITS

1. The Civil Rights governor: Rell’s neutral, let-it-happen stance on civil unions and, later, gay marriage was a welcome change from the charged debate in other states. She voiced her personal objections but did nothing to block two landmark court decisions.

2. Campaign finance reform: One of Rell’s first tasks as governor was to try and undo some of the damage caused by the Rowland scandals. The campaign finance law, which included restrictions on money from certain special interests and a public financing system, probably would not have happened without Rell’s prodding. The new system has radically changed Connecticut’s political landscape.

3. Nonpartisanship: Jodi Rell was often a governor without a party, despite technically belonging to one. This was bad for the tiny and demoralized Republican Party, and in the end was bad for Rell’s legislative agenda, but citizens found her to be a relief during a hyperpartisan era. Rell seemed to be beyond ideology, which is perhaps how she could encourage massive education spending and new taxes one year, and fiscal conservatism the next.

4. Coming and going: Jodi Rell’s greatest moment as governor was her very first one. She took the page and turned it. Low-key Rell was the antithesis of the bombastic, conservative and tarnished Rowland, and the state welcomed her. She is also wise to leave the top job now, when the state is desperately in need of something new and different.

MISSES

1. Messing with due process:  A serial rapist was released on parole to his sister’s care in upscale Southbury, but not before Rell had inquired whether or not he could be kept in prison beyond his time. Later, she urged his re-incarceration for apparently violating his parole by wandering outside of the yard for fifteen minutes.  Her interest in this particular case was puzzling and disturbing, given that offenders are released into society after serving their sentences all the time.

2. Governor Surprise: In a classic case of governing from the backseat during one’s commute, Gov. Rell randomly decided to ban highway billboards from state property, apparently without consulting anyone. The perplexing move is emblematic of her govern-by-surprise, hit-or-miss administration. Rell was fond of surprise announcements and last-minute moves against the legislative leadership, but was less adept at long-term planning.

3. Lisa Moody: I know the governor couldn’t manage without her friend and top aide, but according to many reports Moody was a toxic presence in state government, and was either the star or a player in several ethics scandals. The persistent belief that Moody, not Rell, was really in charge dogs Rell to this day.

4. Missed Opportunities: Governor Rell had an opportunity to radically remake state government in the wake of the fiscal crisis, and failed to do so. Her proposals, while sometimes new and interesting, often died quiet deaths. One reason: she had less clout with the heavily-Democratic legislature than any governor in recent memory, including Lowell Weicker. Still, she never found a reliable way to translate her tremendous personal popularity into meaningful legislative victories, especially during her second term, leading many to accuse her of playing it safe.

No matter what her legacy ends up being, it’s clear that the next governor, whether Dan Malloy or Tom Foley, will be very different from Jodi Rell. January 12, 2011, will be a good day for another new beginning.

Susan Bigelow is the former owner/author of Connecticut Local Politics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.

Susan Bigelow

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.