After 25 years in politics, former Gov. M. Jodi Rell is pleased to be retired and settling into an easier routine back home in Brookfield.
Rell, who handed the governorship off to Gov. Dannel Malloy in January, said people are already noticing she looks more relaxed. While shopping in Brookfield recently, a resident approached her, telling her just that.
“That was the sixth person to say that to me since I’ve gotten back,” Rell said, having recently returned from a trip to Florida.
At first she was taken aback. But residents have since explained to her that she looked worn down before and now seems rested and back to her old self.
Rell admits now those people are probably right. While she said she does truly miss the job, she’s ready to pull back from public life for now to be with her family, even if some members of that family may not be ready for it.
After handing the governorship off to Gov. Dannel Malloy in January, one of Rell’s young grandchildren asked her, “Mema, do you miss the big house?"
She answered that she did, but told her grandson: “There’s a new governor now and it’s his turn."
“Well, I miss it,” the grandson replied.
During the first two years as governor, Rell said she made the trip between Brookfield and Hartford daily, however “after the second year, we spent more and more time in Hartford.”
Rell and her husband lived primarily in the Governor’s Mansion through her full term, returning to Brookfield to see their dentist, dry cleaner and visit with friends. Otherwise, she was rarely able to spend much time in her hometown.
“There are some things I might like to do, some offers that are interesting,” Rell said of the next step in her life, though she does not expect to run for public office again. “I’d love to be in the classroom,” but, she qualified, "nothing full time.”
“I don’t have any interest in being involved” directly in politics, at the local or state level, she said, though she “will always be involved” in some capacity. “It’s time for new faces, new blood.”
For the time being, Rell, now 65, is enjoying finally getting to be a full-time grandmother.
“I see her a lot less now,” said her son, Michael Rell, who works for the House Republican Caucus in Hartford. “I see her less, but I also see more of her. I see her with my children and I see what she was like as a parent.”
Though he sees her once again as a mother and grandmother, Michael said he is regularly reminded of the achievements of his mother’s political life.
“Five/six times a week, someone asks me, ‘Can you just tell your mom to please run again?’” he said. “That makes me smile and realize that she really accomplished something.”
State Rep. David Scribner (R-107), who holds Rell’s former legislative seat, remembers meeting her years before she was a politician.
“I knew her as a community volunteer,” Scribner said, recalling when Rell was a member of the PTO, Republican Town Committee (RTC) and the fire department’s women’s auxiliary.
Rell began her career in 1985, succeeding retiring Republican State Rep. David Smith (R-107) and serving Brookfield and part of Bethel for five terms in the state legislature. In 1994, she joined then-Congressman John Rowland (CT-5) on the Republican ticket for governor and went on to serve as lieutenant governor into Rowland’s third term before he stepped down amid a corruption scandal.
Rell succeeded Rowland in July 2004 and won reelection in 2006, garnering nearly 710,000 votes, the highest total for any gubernatorial candidate in Connecticut history.
Scribner was a member of the RTC in 1984 when Rell tossed her name into the race to succeed Rep. Smith and, having worked on Smith’s previous campaign, the young Scribner was tasked with coordinating the local debate. While she was an active community member, Scribner said he didn’t immediately see the governorship in Rell’s future.
“She was a very community-minded person but there was no track record in place” of elected service, he said. “I saw her as a very interested person, looking for ways to solve problems."
“We always knew she would be serving in some sort of capacity, either an elected position or serving on a school board or on the PTO,” Michael Rell said.
“In ’94, [Rowland] chose her for a reason and she said yes for a reason,” Michael said. “Not just to be lieutenant governor, but she was prepared to step up if necessary” and take the reins of the state.
“I remember when he and I sat down to coffee,” Gov. Rell said of when Rowland asked her to join the ticket. “He was the representative from the 5th District at the time and was really good for things I needed on veterans and the like,” giving her a strong respect for his office and his time in politics.
However, Rell laid down one important stipulation: “If you’re asking me because I’m a woman, don’t,” she told him.
“Opportunities in politics are often circumstantial,” Scribner pointed out, adding that if Rell hadn’t been asked to join Rowland on the ticket in 1994, “I don’t think anyone would have thought of Rep. Rell for governor.”
In Rell's case — serving 10 years as a state representative and nine years as lieutenant governor — she was well qualified to run the state, Scribner said.
Rell said she had considered running of her own accord in 2002 if Rowland had decided not to run for a third term.
“That was the closest I ever came” to considering an open run at the top seat in the state, she said. “But he ran for a third term and we were ready to be snowbirds” and retire when that four years was up, she said.
Rell assumed the governorship in July 2004, after Gov. Rowland stepped down in the wake of an investigation that ultimately led him to plead guilty on charges of graft and corruption for abusing his position to garner favors.
She finished the term, and said "it was a toss up” as to whether she would run for a full term of her own. She remembered it was the advice from her son Michael that ultimately helped her make a final decision. “You should leave when you’re at the top of your game,” he told her. “And with this smirk on his face he turned around and said, ‘But you don’t know if you’re at the top of your game yet, do you?’”
Rell went on to win her full term in a landslide.
The former governor said she had “no regrets at all” about her time in Hartford and her decision not to run for a second full term.
“’If you had run again, you would have won,’ my son told me,” she said. “That’s what I was afraid of.”
Time As Governor
A number of people have asked Rell if she is going to write a book about her unlikely political career. She said she has “no interest in doing that.”
Looking back on the story of her governorship, Rell said the biggest accomplishment from her perspective was the work done with the Base Closure and Realignment (BRAC) Commission to stop the closure of the Groton submarine base in 2005.
“That was a big deal for the state,” for keeping jobs at the base and cultivating other business in the New London area, she said.
The former governor was also proud of the work that went into the construction of the Super 7 bypass in Brookfield, which is a project she began working on while a member of the state legislature.
Scribner pointed out that exit 11, which feeds to the intersection of Federal Road and Candlewood Lake Road near the Danbury line, was completed in 1976, though the bypass did not open until more than 30 years later, in November 2009.
“I was at the store and someone approached me and said, ‘Governor, thank you for Route 7,’” Rell recounted. “I said, ‘It was only 20-something years coming,’ and he said, ‘Yes, but I use it every day.’”
Brookfield also “did very well under STEAP [Small Town Economic Assistance Program] grants” during Rell’s tenure, she said, though she is quick to point out that her hometown did not get special treatment.
“The goal was to make sure that every town that qualifies gets something,” Rell said.
“I’ve always respected the office,” Scribner said, “I’ve never felt it appropriate, that just because Gov. Rell was from Brookfield, to trade in on that.”
That said, Scribner quickly added that he was “never reluctant to go to her; she was always responsive if there was a way she could help.”
As for the scandal surrounding her chief of staff and longtime friend, M. Lisa Moody, Rell said that she did not want to “rehash” the 2005 incident, in which Moody allegedly asked state commissioners to solicit campaign contributions at a fundraising event, contrary to state law.
“All that has been investigated, Lisa has been fined,” Rell said, adding that Moody is a very intelligent, articulate person who “served the state well and served me well.”
When speaking about failure during her term, Rell stated that she had wanted to remove the property tax on automobiles and “let the state take that tab,” however, with the economic climate at the time, the measure did not get far.
“The battles that I had were not fought against people,” she said, “They were against policies,” though often she found her positions “met with the folded-arm attitude.”
“We always had a good working relationship,” according to State Sen. Donald Williams, Jr. (D-29), who was a seated senator while Rell was lieutenant governor and president pro tempore of the senate through her term as governor to today. “There were times when we disagreed significantly — such as the budget debate two years ago — but on other things like ethics reform we were able to work well together.”
As lieutenant governor, Rell was “a major presence,” Williams said, adding that he “always enjoyed her quick wit.”
As a governor, Williams asserted that Rell and Gov. Malloy embody opposite governing styles.
“Malloy comes from the experience of being a big-city mayor,” he explained, “Versus Gov. Rell,” whose experience was largely legislative.
Malloy has “much more of a hard-charging approach — much more involved in the management of government, pushing toward better performance,” in Williams’ assessment. “Gov. Rell was much more relaxed and informal.”
“You give a little and take a little,” Michael Rell said. “She realized that and understood it, but her Republican roots were never in question… Facing a Democratic majority in the legislature and in the general public, she always knew she had to work with both sides of the aisle.”
That relaxed, compromising style served the governor well, according to former Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele.
“Obviously when the loan issue occurred, she had the right temperament for the time,” he contended, adding she was a politician who could bridge the gaps in the legislature while staying true to her conservative roots.
While not working directly with the legislature, as she did as a representative and lieutenant governor, “She was able to use the bully pulpit to shift the debate,” Fedele said.
“Now, we’re faced with a governor that likes to tax rather than find efficiencies,” he added.
Advice for Current Administration
Gov. Malloy’s administration is “trying very hard to balance the budget,” Rell acknowledged, “But you can’t dangle numbers out there and say we expect to get $2 billion in savings — what if you don’t?”
Rell questioned certain parts of the budget, namely projected reductions in expenses that she considered unsubstantiated.
“It’s a dangerous precedent to have a budget, and have signed it, that’s not balanced,” she warned.
“If Gov. Rell had put out this budget,” she said, “They’d be ripping it apart.”
Rell remembered advice given to her in her early days as lieutenant governor by the late Dick Belden, a leader among Connecticut Republicans and a state representative from Shelton.
“Always do what’s right and follow the rules,” Belden told her. “You will never do anything wrong.”
Rell said she tried to take that to heart and apply the same principles to her governorship.
“If you make a ruling that’s never been made before, it goes down in the history books and others will follow,” she said. “You might set a new precedent but it better be good and it better be right.”
Battle with Cancer
Less than six months after assuming the highest office in the state, Rell was diagnosed with breast cancer and was scheduled for a mastectomy 10 days before opening her first legislative session in January 2005.
“I had to give the opening session speech in January,” the first of her tenure as governor, only 10 days after surgery.
Rell promised the doctors the speech would be under 10 minutes, and while she went a little over, it was one of best, most memorable speeches of her career.
One line of the speech still resonates with Rell today on a personal level:
“Yes, it has been a difficult year for Connecticut, in so many ways. We have been tested and we have been tried, but we have prevailed. And we will continue to prevail, if we work together, with steadfastness of purpose and without the self-imposed shackles of convention and partisan politics. For this is our moment. This is our time.”
The former governor said that she likes to talk about her struggles with cancer.
“If somebody can read a story or see a comment I’ve made and they go and get checked,” then her willingness to speak can save lives, she said.
Rell recounted the story of a Brookfield volunteer firefighter who had seen a Valentine’s Day public service announcement featuring Rell telling husbands to “give your wife the best Valentine’s Day gift ever: bring her to the doctor.”
The firefighter did just that and though his wife was fine, she asked him to pass on a message: “Please tell Jodi I said 'thank you.'”
Rell said it warmed her to hear about the direct results of her efforts as well as the rise in the number of mammograms administered in the state in the years after she was diagnosed.
Back in Brookfield
Rell described herself as a homebody and said she was happy to be back home in Brookfield.
“I keep thinking it’s nice not to have a schedule,” Rell said, though she still receives letters and phone calls regularly to attend award ceremonies and give speeches.
“I ask them, ‘You want me? I’m a has-been,’” Rell asserted, as she has returned to being a private citizen. “They say, ‘No, you’re Jodi Rell.’ It’s very flattering.”
Rell left for vacation in Florida shortly after Gov. Malloy was sworn into office in January and returned recently to accept an award from Ability Beyond Disability in recognition of her efforts to help the disabled.
Though she plans to escape the winters now that she and her husband are retired, Rell said Connecticut is home and always will be.
“Even though I want to travel, to be able to go south in the winters, there are a couple little kids here that will keep me coming back,” she said, referring to her grandchildren.
Though she and her husband no longer live in their home on Long Meadow Hill Road (her daughter and son-in-law now own the house), they still reside in Brookfield and intend to stay.
“Even though we’ve grown so much in the 40 years we’ve been here, even though the town has grown, we’re still a small town with a small town feel and small town values, and I mean that in a good way,” Rell said of her love of Brookfield.
“There are great people here, not just in Brookfield, but all over the state,” she explained of why she’ll stay in the state. “It’s certainly not the weather.”
Now back in Brookfield as the weather gets nicer, Rell said she is looking forward to spending time in the town’s more serene spots, such as and the (along the Still River, behind Town Hall), though her favorite place is a particular big, flat rock that sits behind the house on Long Meadow Hill Road, a special spot where she likes to picnic with the grandkids.
“It’s good to be home,” Rell said. “Good to see friends and neighbors again. I’m ready for the summer.”