A familiar kind of summer is coming to Connecticut. The light’s getting stronger, flowers are pushing up from below the ground, and former Gov. John G. Rowland is caught up in a corruption scandal that cost him his job.
I suddenly feel 10 years younger.
We can be forgiven for thinking we’ve seen this play before, but there’s no excuse for acting surprised about it. It’s a little different this time around, but the story is at its heart the same kind of clumsy grab for money as it was in 2004. Instead of misusing the power of his office to get favors in exchange for contracts, among other things, the latest scandal is about Rowland allegedly misusing his afternoon radio show to favor a congressional candidate, Lisa Wilson-Foley, who was circumventing campaign finance laws to pay him.
As of this writing, Rowland has not been charged, but there’s a lot of speculation that it’s only a matter of time. He held on to his radio show for a few days before dropping it on Thursday, and he has thus far refused to comment because he wants to “respect the process.”
That may change quickly as well.
In retrospect, it was pretty clear that something fishy was going on. Mark Greenberg, another Republican who was running against Wilson-Foley, said that Rowland had offered him the same sort of deal — campaign help in return for being paid through an animal shelter operated by Greenberg and his wife. Greenberg turned him down, much to his credit.
Rowland, after making the alleged deal with Wilson-Foley, went on to attack Andrew Roraback, another Republican in that same congressional race, when Roraback was a guest on his radio show. Attorney and watchdog Ken Krayeske filed an FEC complaint against Wilson-Foley for that, but it went nowhere.
Before that, Rowland had a sweet deal with Waterbury (naturally) where he got $350,000 from taxpayers to be an economic development coordinator, although what he actually did for the city is still not all that clear. It’s good to have friends, especially the kind of friends who have access to lots and lots of money and the will to spread it around.
The current allegations and what happened when he was governor are remarkable for how brazen and clumsy they all are. It amazes me that he thought this would all stay hidden. He’s like the Hamburglar of corruption scandals.
It’s fitting, somehow, that the latest Rowland campaign finance scandal blew up during the same week as the latest Supreme Court ruling scrapping campaign contribution limits. This country belongs to rich, powerful, and connected guys like John Rowland. It’s no wonder that a poll done by the libertarian magazine Reason found that 75 percent of respondents believed that politicians are corrupted by campaign donations and lobbyists.
It’s also fitting that this all happened during the same week that legislation rolling back harsher punishments for selling drugs near a school advanced out of the Judiciary Committee. In cities like New Haven, almost the entire land area of the city is within a “drug free zone,” and so pretty much anyone caught dealing even small amounts of drugs in our cities faces mandatory sentences of two to three years.
Rowland served 10 months for cheating an entire state out of its money, for comparison. The system is his friend, even when it’s punishing him.
What we need is the bright sunlight of summer to chase this winter away. On July 1, 2004, I got up early and drove down to Hartford to watch M. Jodi Rell march up the Capitol driveway to become the 87th governor of Connecticut. It was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky. Rell wasn’t a particularly inspiring governor, and there would be other scandals waiting for her, but on that afternoon everything felt clean again.
We need that same summer sun now. John Rowland had a second chance, something a lot of people don’t get, and he’s blown it. Spectacularly. He shouldn’t get another; Connecticut’s politics will be better off without him.
But more than that, we need to stop pretending this sort of thing isn’t constantly happening. The constant corruption scandals of the past few years prove otherwise. We should have seen this coming, but we prefer to turn a blind eye.
We need to stop making excuses for corruption, strengthen what campaign finance and disclosure laws we can, and shine that sunlight everywhere.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.