Growing up in Virginia, Mary Carolyn Reavis - now known as Jodi Rell - wanted to be a teacher. In fact, she told her hometown newspaper that after taking a public-speaking class in high school, she swore she'd never give a speech again.
But in her years in Connecticut, moving from homemaker to PTA volunteer to state legislator and finally to lieutenant governor, Ms. Rell has grown adept not only at giving speeches, but at building consensus. Known as a steady, tough, and savvy politician, she's also earned a reputation across the state's 169 towns and cities as someone who is genuinely nice.
And in the wake of Gov. John Rowland's resignation, as she prepares to become the state's second female governor - and the ninth woman governor currently serving in the US - it's that last attribute that many are counting on as they look to the future.
"In her role as lieutenant governor she's earned the respect of both parties," says Leslie Lindenauer, professor of history and women's studies at the University of Hartford in West Hartford, Conn. "People will turn to her now as a potential force for good in a state that's terribly troubled."
Since last December, when Governor Rowland first admitted that he lied about who paid for renovations at his summer cottage, there's been a steady stream of revelations about lavish gifts he received, from fine Champagne to custom-made suits. The subsequent investigations and impeachment proceedings have produced a paralyzing partisan gridlock in the state capitol. Among many residents, there was also a growing revulsion with his seeming lack of ethics. Rowland's announcement on Monday that he'll step down July 1 , produced a wave of relief from leafy, elegant Litchfield to Bridgeport's gritty downtown.
"The relief is greatest among Republicans, who don't have to be saddled with him anymore," says Howard Reiter of the University of Connecticut in Storrs.
And Rell is part of that. While she's kept a low media profile during most of her ten years as lieutenant governor, she's made lots of friends at the grass roots. Rell has met personally with almost every local elected official, worked to get every school and library wired to the Internet, and championed issues from prison reform to breast-cancer awareness.
Some Connecticut pols see parallels between Rell and Connecticut's former Gov. Ella Grasso, the first woman elected to a state governorship in her own right. She is still revered for her ability to reach across party lines, build consensus, and take controversial stands she believed were right. But others note that Rell was a less forceful legislator than Governor Grasso and is now becoming governor only by default.
Indeed, while Grasso exuded toughness, Rell has a softer demeanor - at least so far. "She has a little more genteel manner, but there may be reserves of toughness and determination that we haven't seen yet," says Professor Reiter.
Rell still has to take control of her own party and "clean house" to establish her own administration - two tasks that present difficult challenges. Still, most experts believe this is a positive moment for Rell and the state.
"She's got a great asset going for her in that she's not John Rowland, and that means for a few months everyone will give her a pass so she can create a Rell administration," says John Orman a professor of politics at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn. "Every day she'll have to come out and say: 'I'm not John Rowland, we don't accept any gifts, and we're going to move on from there because we've got a lot of problems to deal with.' "