Connecticut confronts ousting its governor

Lawmakers mull impeaching John Rowland for misconduct, raising deeper questions about when to remove a politician.

Connecticut - founded as the refuge for the true Puritan believers - is now jokingly known as Corrupt-icut.

And the people here don't like it. Embattled Gov. John Rowland - the scion of a muckraking politician from the 1930s - may take a fall, in part, because of it.

For the first time in more than a decade, state legislators gathered Monday to begin considering whether to impeach their governor, a move that's rarely taken in American politics.

Only 17 governors have been constitutionally condemned in the nation's history - and most of them were ousted before World War II. No Connecticut governor has ever been impeached.

California's almost circus-like recall of its governor last year may have created the impression that it's easy to oust the unpopular. But the question of if, and when, to remove a democratically elected official remains one of the most difficult for American political leaders and their constituents to confront.

"The impeachment process is in itself a profound mechanism that was never intended to be used lightly," says John Pavia, a law professor at Quinnipiac University and a former prosecutor.

Governor Rowland has readily admitted his offense: receiving favors and lying about them. But he insists that he's broken no laws.

And while he's apologized several times, including in a contrite televised address last week, polls show the statement only served to further alienate his once enthusiastic public. He was elected to an unprecedented third term in 2002.

"The more informed people are of the controversy, the more likely they are to be in favor of his resignation," says Doug Schwartz, of the Quinnipiac University Polling Center in Hamden, Conn.

The strong reaction to Rowland's lapse is due in part to what some analysts are calling scandal fatigue. In the past four years, the proud, independent state of Connecticut has been disgraced by a series of higly public political humiliations.

A state treasurer was jailed for taking bribes, and two mayors have been convicted, one for graft the other for sexual misconduct.

In December, when the once-popular Republican admitted he'd lied about who paid for renovations on his summer home, the people in Connecticut had had enough.

"There's an overwhelming response that he needs to go," says John Orman, a political science professor at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn. "Comparatively, it wasn't the gifts that were all that bad, what was bad was the cover-up."

So far, the governor has dug in his heals and insisted that he won't resign. So, last week, House Democrats made it clear they're in favor of impeachment.

On Sunday, Republican supporters in the Senate said they favor forming an investigative committee to determine whether impeachment is warranted.

The calls for his resignation increase daily. One poll shows that 56 percent of state residents want the governor to step down. On impeachment, the state is split: 42 percent are in favor, 46 percent are against.

A new poll released Monday shows 63 percent favor resignation, and support for impeachment has also grown.

But more residents still favor resignation, analysts say, because the word impeachment carries with it the stigma of Watergate and Monica Lewinsky, as well as the prospect of a drawn-out and politically painful investigation.

Indeed, since World War II, the impeachment process has rarely been invoked to oust governors, according to University of North Carolina professor Thomas Beyle.

Of the seven governors forced out of office since then, only Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham was impeached and convicted.

That was in 1988. Most of the others resigned after criminal convictions.

Impeachment is rarely invoked, in part because on both the federal and state levels there is no clear definition of what is an impeachable offense other than a criminal conviction. The federal constitution defines it as "high crimes and misdemeanors," an intentionally vague standard, according to scholars. Connecticut's constitution is even less specific.

"There's no consensus about what constitutes an impeachable offense," says Dan Lowenstein, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles.

"The question comes up in different contexts, and whenever it comes up it presents very difficult problems."

The Connecticut House is expected to decide this week whether to begin the process against Governor Rowland.

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