For Weicker, O'Neill and Rowland, popularity seemed to be tied to how people felt about government and the state in general. In the mid 1980s, the economy was pretty good, and the state seemed like a decent place to live. So people liked Bill O'Neill, electing him in 1982 and 1986. However, when the late 1980s brought economic downturn and O'Neill was forced to raise taxes, voters turned on him and his ratings shot down.
Weicker never managed to have a sustained stretch of anything resembling popularity, although his willingness to force through and sign the income tax probably saved the state from financial oblivion.
John Rowland wasn't initially a particularly popular governor--his ratings were in the 50s for a very long time--until the boom years of the late 1990s boosted him into the 60s. He was most popular after September 11th, with a December 2001 rating of 74%, although his popularity sank back into the 60s for the 2002 election.
None of these three men can match Rell. That's odd, considering the economy is so-so, property taxes are high and transportation is a nightmare. So what's happening? Why is Rell so popular? Why do so many people from all over the political spectrum like her, despite what seems to be adverse circumstances?
One: Governor Everywoman
Rell, as suggested by this cartoon which ran today in the Courant, is adept at finding the middle ground and camping out there. Rowland was too ideologically conservative for a lot of people, but Rell doesn't fit that label. Civil unions? Public financing of campaigns? Stem cell research? These issues, all of which came from the landmark 2005 session, would never have made it past Rowland's desk.
Rell's ideas aren't radical. She doesn't seem ideological at all, in fact, and that's a big part of her appeal. She's Governor Everywoman: straightforward, thoughtful, honest and willing to compromise for the good of the whole. In an age where politicians all seem slick, fake, corrupt and blinded by power or ideology, that image is golden.
She probably doesn't deserve it. Rell is actually a skilled political player who is very, very good at keeping Democrats and even her own party off-balance to achieve her aims. Also, some Republicans grumble that she's too willing to sell them out to look good.
Two: Governor NotJohn
This has been the biggest reason given by Democrats for Rell's popularity, and there's a lot to it. Rell has been very good at distancing herself from Rowland in both policy and personality, and it's been a breath of fresh air for the state.
Rell's forceful backing of campaign finance reform in the face of what looked like Democratic apathy helped to turn around all the reform credentials the Democrats had amassed from the Rowland scandal. By the end of 2005, Rell seemed like the reformer, while the Democrats seemed like they were blocking the way.
Rell's uncanny ability to float above both Rowland's and her own administration has helped her to come out of every rough patch unscathed. Rowland scandals? Sorry, didn't know. Moody? Garfield? Never heard of them. Every scandal in the Rowland administration seemed to stick to the governor--not so in the Rell administration. She's teflon.
Three: Governor Grandma
She's just so likable. Remember the story about the kid who crashed into the governor's car? Do you remember what she did? Here's the quote:
Rell "got out of the car and went over and hugged the young lady and said, basically, `They are just cars and cars can be replaced. We're all fine,'" Wiltse said. (Pazniokas)Wow. Can you imagine Lowell Weicker doing that? Or John Rowland?
That, and the fact that she doesn't live in the governor's mansion but in her family home in Brookfield, is a breast cancer survivor, dropped out of college to get married in the 1960s and, as the newspapers have been reminding us, is now a grandmother, makes her seem human. Normal. You want to root for her. Other governors and political figures seem to exist in a plane above our own. Rell doesn't. People liked Ella Grasso for the same reason: she seemed unpretentious and genuine.
It's easy for politics watchers and others to dismiss Rell as all artifice, and to point to her thin record on the economy and health care as reasons why Connecticut can't afford for her to stay on until 2011.
But what if it isn't all smoke and mirrors? What if you peeled away the layers of image and found pretty much the same woman? What if she really does deserve that high approval rating, even just a little bit?
Pazniokas, Mark. "How Not To Meet a Governor..." Hartford Courant 22 February, 2006. B3.