When M. Lisa Moody, Connecticut Governor M. Jodi Rell’s chief of staff, distributed invitations to state commissioners earlier this year asking them to donate money to Rell’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign against New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and to help raise funds for the campaign, Moody was violating a well-known policy prohibiting state appointees from soliciting campaign contributions.
But the policy against soliciting the help of state commissioners was not an official one — it was Rell’s own in-office rule. That’s why DeStefano’s mention of Moody’s misstep at a recent debate with Rell may have backfired.
Instead of coming across as corrupt, like her predecessor John Rowland, for not firing Moody, Rell explained that she had put the policy in place herself and had disciplined Moody by relieving her of her duties for two weeks.
Fitting in with the theme of her campaign, Rell appeared like a wholesome grandmother — just minutes before the debate, an advertisement for Rell had appeared on screen featuring dozens of small children, including her grandson. And “integrity” was the first trait the commercial listed as a reason to vote for Rell on Nov. 7.
Many will take that advice, at least according to the polls.
“Her approval rating has been in the stratosphere,” said Douglas Schwartz, director of the Quinnipiac University poll. “Anything is possible — you saw Lamont coming out of nowhere in the Democratic primary to beat Lieberman — and that’s why you never want to say never, but it’s hard to envision a scenario where [DeStefano] could overcome such a large lead.”
For many Yale independents and Republicans, Rell’s image is by no means a facade. Many students interviewed said they think she is the real deal: honest, moderate and less an attention-grabbing politician than other 2006 candidates such as Joe Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67 and Ned Lamont SOM ’80.
Then again, her opponent, DeStefano, is not unpopular, at least not in New Haven, where he has been reelected for six consecutive terms. His proponents laud him for revitalizing the downtown, nursing the Yale-New Haven relationship and overhauling the public school system.
But as mayor of an effectively one-party city, where all but one of the city’s aldermen are registered Democrats, DeStefano rarely had to reach out to Republicans until his gubernatorial campaign. Nor has he had a chance to groom a public television image, he said while on a tour of college campuses last weekend, since he is mayor of a town in which everyone knows him personally.
“In New Haven, everyone knows you and everyone has an opinion after thirteen years,” he said. “Now, it’s a bigger playing field … a more complicated environment.”
Rell, Connecticut’s second female governor, assumed power in 2004 after her predecessor, Rowland, left office and was convicted on corruption charges. She quickly won over the majority of Connecticut residents with her straightforward image, soaring to 80 percent approval, the highest rating for a governor in the state’s history. She had previously served as Lt. Governor since 1994 and before that as a state representative beginning in 1985.
Rell, who is married to a former pilot, is a mother of two and became a grandmother in April. She underwent surgery two years ago for early-stage breast cancer.
The DeStefano campaign questions whether the image Rell has cultivated — intentionally or not — is based on actual accomplishments.
“If you ask most people either what Gov. Rell stands for or what has been her big accomplishment, most people would be hard-pressed to give you a specific answer,” Derek Slap, DeStefano’s campaign spokesman, said.
But Rich Harris, spokesperson for Rell’s campaign, said he “hardly knows where to start” when asked to explain her effectiveness. He said the perception that she is not engaged on the issues is incorrect, and that she has gone to “more fairs, forums, parades and the like” than he can count while balancing her official duties as governor.
“John DeStefano wants to sell gloom and doom, he wants to tell everybody that our economy is terrible, that the governor hasn’t done anything, we don’t have any health care, you’re going to lose your job, everything is horrible,” Harris said. He pointed to Rell’s ethics reforms, transportation bill, backing of stem cell research, and early childhood education initiative as evidence that Connecticut has improved.
Whether or not Rell has been the most effective governor, by rallying around some liberal causes — such as stem cell research and civil unions for gay couples — rather than taking a hard-line conservative stance, Rell has taken much of the wind out of Democratic sails. Even some staunchly loyal Democrats have trouble denying her crossover appeal.
“Her involvement on clean elections was impressive,” Yale College Democrats president Brandon Gants ’08 said. “[But] her involvement in a lot of other issues has not been as impressive.”
To borrow from baseball lingo, oftentimes it only takes one to hit a home run. And for Rell, her cross-over appeal might be her grand slam.
A September poll released by Quinnipiac University indicated that Rell enjoyed the support of 42 percent of Connecticut Democrats. Rell signed a law allowing civil unions for gay couples in April 2005, introduced ethics and campaign finance reform, and supported an August 2005 lawsuit against the administration of fellow Republican George W. Bush ’68 for denying Connecticut adequate funding for education.
“She’s a good New England Republican,” King said. “She’s not overly conservative, and she keeps the good moderate appeal. She has a really good head on her shoulders.”
Like King, Matt Klein ’09, vice president of the Yale College Republicans, said he is particularly impressed with Rell’s ability to maintain unprecedented popularity in a traditionally Democratic stronghold state. He said the choice of whom to support, for many voters, has boiled down to common sense.
“Quite frankly,” he said, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”