Years from now, historians and political junkies will look back at Gov. M. Jodi Rell's service and credit her with restoring the trust of residents in the governor's office but failing to reinvent the way Connecticut political leaders conduct business.
Rell, who announced last week that she won't seek re-election, sent clear signals early in her administration that she would be different than disgraced former Gov. John G. Rowland by appointing well-respected professionals to run state agencies instead of the types of political cronies who dominated the Rowland years.
Yet, Rell's administration became increasingly political and thin-skinned over the years, with the governor's blind loyalty to top aide Lisa Moody tarnishing her image, especially when Moody did things like strong-arming state employees for campaign contributions.
Rell also stripped money from the budget for what should have been a key state initiative in the post-Rowland years: the convening of a panel to oversee the awarding of state contracts. Rowland's fall came as a result of deep flaws in oversight of the awarding of state work and recent revelations of the awarding of no-bid projects and use of taxpayer money for political purposes prove the need for such a committee is still strong.
Local business leaders will tell you they generally considered Rell a friend to their causes, pointing out that she preserved sales tax credits, supported transportation infrastructure improvements, worked to consolidate state agencies and fought large tax increases proposed by the Democrats.
"She had a good working relationship with business groups," said Oz Griebel, president and CEO of MetroHartford Alliance. "She made an effort to listen to businesses' perspectives. The business community generally supported her willingness to say no to special interests."
Rell was also a strong supporter of early childhood education by increasing the number of slots available for preschool, said John Rathgeber, president and CEO of the Connecticut Business & Industry Association.
The next governor, Griebel and Rathgeber agree, will need a creative vision to structurally transform the way state government operates, especially with shrinking revenues from poor job retention and growth and growing needs for services.
Rathgeber also points out that there could also be major change in the state's insurance industry depending on the reform that comes through with the federal government.
"The next governor needs to have a consistent policy agenda that supports addressing those challenges," he said.
You can't give Rell a pass on the failure to create and retain jobs, even in the context of the country's economic downturn. For instance, she ultimately gave in to the Democrats over a temporary business surcharge.
"Revenue increases don't come from taxing businesses; they come from growing the business base," said Milo Peck, a Fairfield University accounting professor. "You have to make it convenient for businesses to locate here."
The next governor will face an extreme challenge in helping to restore the state's economy and making it competitive again for high-quality jobs and business attraction.
Growing the economy and fostered a vibrant business climate should be the priority.