To no one’s great surprise, no sooner did Gov. Dannel P. Malloy suggest that he wasn’t ruling out running for a third term in 2018 than a Republican legislator, Rep. Christie Carpino, R-Cromwell, proposed adding term limits to the state constitution.
Rep. Carpino shouldn’t worry too much. Not only is a third Malloy term vanishingly unlikely, but no governor in our history has ever served three full four-year terms. A second term can be a blessing for governors, but a third is usually a curse.
The main argument against more than two consecutive terms is that being in office for over a decade seems like far too long. This is true, but after Connecticut switched to four-year terms for the 1950 election, no governor has ever actually managed to hold the office for that much time. Three governors served longer than two terms, but none of them made it to that 12-year mark for a variety of reasons.
Gov. John Dempsey, mostly famous now for being the namesake of the UConn Health Center’s main hospital, was the lieutenant governor of Gov. Abraham Ribicoff, who resigned midway through his second term to join the Kennedy cabinet. The liberal, reform-minded Dempsey was a fairly popular governor, and he won election in his own right in 1962 and again in 1966. Dempsey wisely chose not to run in 1970 as the economy slowed and funding his projects became much more difficult. He’d served as governor for a decade, longer than anyone since Gov. Oliver Wolcott Jr. (1817-27).
In the closing days of 1980 another lieutenant governor rose to the top job, this time in much more difficult circumstances. Gov. Ella T. Grasso was dying of cancer, and Lt. Gov. William A. O’Neill assumed her post after she resigned. Grasso would pass away not long after.
O’Neill was governor for the rest of the 1980s after that, winning election in 1982 and again in 1986. The vibrant economy ensured his popularity, but when that collapsed at the end of the decade so did his support. O’Neill sharply raised taxes, and took the brunt of the public’s anger. He had contemplated running for another term, but after a poll showed him trailing former U.S. Sen. Lowell P. Weicker and U.S. Rep. John Rowland, he decided to opt out and retire. His replacement on the ticket, Bruce Morrison, finished a distant third. O’Neill left office in January 1991, a little over 10 years after he had taken Ella Grasso’s place.
In fact, only one governor has actually ever won three terms without taking over for someone who had resigned their office — and that was Gov. John G. Rowland. After losing to Weicker in 1990, he narrowly won the governor’s office in 1994 on the back of a wave of anti-income tax anger. He won twice more, beating the hapless Barbara Kennelly in 1998 and Bill Curry in 2002. His approval ratings were always fairly high up until his last six months or so, and if he had stayed in office he would have been the longest-serving governor in modern times, beaten only by the great patriot Jonathan Trumbull, who was governor from 1769 to 1784 as he shepherded Connecticut’s transition from colony to state.
Of course, Rowland didn’t stay in office. Scandal drove him out, and he ended up serving about nine and a half years altogether.
So, historically, the deck is stacked against third terms. Times change, the economy sours, and, most importantly, the public often just wants someone new. That desire for change happens even here in the Land of Steady Habits.
Besides, Gov. Malloy is already an unpopular guy; his approval ratings have never reached the heights of O’Neill, Rowland, Rell, or Dempsey. He won re-election in 2014 thanks in large part to weak opposition; something he wouldn’t be able to count on in 2018.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Malloy never has to make the choice to run for that third term, though. He could very well find himself vacuumed up into a Clinton administration, should one come to pass, or find other enticing work at the national level after his stint as head of the Democratic Governor’s Association this year.
Therefore, I don’t think we need that amendment to block third terms. The public usually takes care of that for us, and getting rid of a competent politician just because time is up seems less and less useful to me anymore.
If Republicans want to ensure that Malloy isn’t governor after 2018, then they should get to work finding a great candidate instead of tinkering with the constitution.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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