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Rowland Redux

With Rell leaving, will lawmakers let campaign finance reform die?

Gregory B. Hladky

December 08, 2009

One early December day six years ago, a popular Connecticut governor lied about gifts (including a hot tub) he'd accepted from state contractors, political pals and government flunkies.

John Rowland's lies would lead to an impeachment investigation, revelations about free trips to Las Vegas and multi-million-dollar contract corruption, a resignation that made Jodi Rell governor, a 10-month prison term, and campaign finance reform.

"Without Rowland being forced out of office, Jodi would never have become governor," said state Rep. Arthur O'Neill, a Southbury Republican who was co-chairman of the General Assembly's impeachment committee. "Without Rowland, no Rell; and without Rell, no campaign finance reform."

I have to admit I miss those days. It was a kick writing about dirty deeds by self-righteous, arrogant bastards like Rowland and his henchmen. I loved that Rowland, who detested campaign finance reform, was ultimately responsible for its passage.

This is all coming to mind now, around the anniversary of the beginning of Rowland's downfall, for many reasons, including the fact that Rell, who built her astounding relationship with Connecticut voters on being the "Anti-Rowland," recently said she won't run again. There is also another governor down in South Carolina staring down an impeachment gun barrel for lying. But mostly it's because campaign finance reform may not have much longer to live.

Last week, legislative Republicans proposed using the $30 million in the public campaign finance fund to help plug Connecticut's budget gap, an argument that may play well with taxpayers weary of spending cuts and tax increases.

Rell has called lawmakers in for a Dec. 15 special session to solve that $650-million-plus deficit. She also wants them to try and save the 4-year-old campaign finance system, which is threatened by federal court rulings that it's unconstitutional.

The fate of that system will lie with the Democrats who control the legislature, many of whom didn't want the damned thing in the first place.

"The Democrats, while they talked a good game about campaign finance reform, always relied on Rowland to veto it or on Republicans to talk it to death," recalled O'Neill, a Republican who has always had doubts about using taxpayer money to pay for political campaigns.

Rell changed the political dynamic after Rowland resigned in 2004. As Rowland's lieutenant governor, she was desperate to prove she wanted to clean up government. Campaign finance reform became part of her package.

The fascinating thing is Rowland was never charged with taking illegal political money. "There was nothing in the Rowland scandal you could say would be prevented by campaign finance reform," said another member of the impeachment panel, state Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven. "It was basically him taking bribes."

Rowland, by the way, was back in the news just as that six-year anniversary of his famous lie was approaching. In late November, he got a warm reception at the Torrington Rotary Club, where he talked about finding Jesus in jail and how arrogant pols can end up doing "stupid things." Our former-governor-turned-felon now enjoys a lovely $95,000 annual salary working for a Waterbury regional chamber of commerce.

Speaking of arrogant pols and stupid things, Rowland's old impeachment lawyer, Ross Garber, has been down helping South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who is facing his own impeachment. Sanford allegedly brought "extreme dishonor and shame" to his state for visiting his mistress in Argentina while telling everyone he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

Politicians seem to have an infinite capacity for making themselves look like arrogant jerks, including Connecticut legislators who insisted on creating a luxury-model public finance program.

O'Neill thinks the current finance system is simply too expensive to survive this budget crisis. "This was campaign finance reform in the most expensive way possible," said O'Neill.

Lawlor doesn't know what's going to happen, but he's convinced "people really do want to rescue this public financing thing."

Or maybe, now that Rowland's scandal seems to be fading from public memory and Rell is leaving, lawmakers will just let campaign finance reform drift away.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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