An In-depth Look At Governor John Rowland
Story by John Murray
The wise man edged close to the youth and whispered a secret in his ear. “Listen carefully,” the man said, “and you will live a long and happy life. Work is doing something you don’t enjoy doing. Find something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
John Rowland logs staggering hours as governor of Connecticut, but you won’t find him complaining about his whirlwind schedule — he’s too busy having fun. As the youngest governor in the United States, Rowland has found his passion. He tours Connecticut like a heated neuron, heads up a massive 52,000 employee workforce and routinely works 12 to 14 hours a day.
His schedule and duties sound like the recipe for a daily migraine, but wherever Rowland goes he seems to have more fun than anyone else.
Humor is his calling card. He teases and jabs at anyone entering his space. Quick doesn’t come close to describing his wit and penchant for spewing out brilliant one liners. His strategy is simple — it’s hard for opponents to stay angry when they’re doubled over laughing.
During a press conference in New Britain to announce a neighborhood revitilation zone, Rowland followed Mayor Pawlak at the podium. Pawlak rambled for a few minutes about how important state funding was to the project and praised Rowland’s leadership. Then Rowland took the microphone. “If that speech went on any longer,” he said, “I was going to take the money back.”
The Governor said he uses humor as a stress management tool and because he likes to entertain an audience. “People want to be entertained,” he said, “so the first thing I always do is start with a joke.”
But he doesn’t rely on prepared speeches or canned jokes. He wings it. “I never know what I’m going to say. I just try to read the audience.”
To do that, he mingles with the crowd before a ribbon-cutting or press conference. Like a mad chef whipping up a gourmet meal, Rowland plunges into the crowd seeking material for his speech.
“He is very hard to keep up with,” said his wife, Patricia Rowland. “People are always laughing when they are around him. His greatest humor is self-deprecating. He loves to make fun of himself, or me, or the family. It’s his way of saying, `I may be Governor, but I’m just like you.’”
His comedic style has been called brash and arrogant by some, but Rowland possesses a rare ability to connect with people from all walks of life. He plunges into the role of Governor like a cannonball at a pool party.
The man makes a splash.
The Observer spent several days during the past 18 months following Rowland on the job. We rode in his car with him and trailed him into the Governor’s mansion, his office, press conferences, fund raisers and golf tournaments.
The intent was to capture the variety of demands placed on any person presiding as Governor, whether it’s Rowland, Bill O’Neill or Lowell Weicker. The Observer project didn’t focus on issues and ideology, because they are as fleeting as shadows cast by the late afternoon sun.
Photo: Rowland at the Brass Mill Center Mall during its grand opening.
Issues change from day to day, campaign season to campaign season. Instead we focused on capturing a general job description that takes a more holistic approach to the office than state statute 3-1, which says, “The supreme executive power of the state shall be vested in the Governor. He may, personally or through an authorized agent, investigate into, and take any proper action concerning any matter involving the laws of the state and the protection of its citizens.”
Instead of trying to decipher that, we focused on the variety of interactions a person experiences as governor, and the personal traits needed to capably perform in that role. John Rowland has been criticized by his opponents for being more style than substance. He has been called the Bill Clinton of Connecticut by former opponent Tom Scott. But Rowland’s immense people skills are his greatest asset as a politician. His ability to interact comfortably with anyone, rich or poor, black or white, gives him a common-man touch that the people of Connecticut identify with.
STRIKING A BALANCE
Rowland’s style of management seems to have struck a balance between policy wonk Jimmy Carter and the great communicator, Ronald Reagan. Carter was a brilliant man who completely immersed himself in minute detail of policy. He had great ideas, but wasn’t able to build coalitions and communicate his vision to the public. Reagan, on the other hand, gave his subordinates visionary framework and let them fill in the details. Then, using his personal charm, he’d go on television and woo America into buying into his dream.
Rowland’s style is somewhere in-between. He says he’s a hands-on guy who on his worst day knows as much about the issues as any state representive, but readily admits he doesn’t like to micromanage. We began the project by asking Rowland to define the role of Governor in Connecticut.
“There is the constitutional paragraph that defines the duties,” Rowland said, “but sometimes I find myself wondering, what the hell is this job?”
Photo: Election night 1994 in his parent’s kitchen in the Overlook section of Waterbury.
The Governor selects 30 commissioners to run state agencies, makes hundreds of political appointments ranging from judge to sewer inspector and attempts to navigate his political agenda through the state legislature.
In addition the Governor cuts ribbons, smooches babies, signs autographs and reads books to kindergarten classes. The first move any newly elected Governor should make is to invest in Kodak stock. During the next four years they will pose for thousands of photographs and those pictures will hang in pizza shops and diners for as long as the Governor is in office.
Rowland is arguably the most recognizable face in Connecticut. When the governor leaves the state he has to write a letter telling the lieutenant governor and the state police when he is leaving and when he will be returning. While he is out of state the constitutional power switches to the lieutenant governor. “I have to inform them exactly what hour I will be leaving and exactly what hour I will be returning,” Rowland said.
“Every time I leave the state I have to write a letter.”
As a former three-term Congressman, Rowland has a unique perspective on the legislative and executive branches of government. “They are incredibly different,” he said.
“In Congress I had to show up and worry whether I was going to push a red or green button. As chief executive you can make 25 decisions a day. Ultimately the responsibility stops in the executive branch.”
Photo: Rowland shakes hands with children during the opening of the Brass Mill Center Mall in Waterbury.
One of the big decisions a governor makes is deciding what to engage in. What issues do you want to grab on to? When do you insert yourself in the process? When do you empower someone under you?
“How involved you get comes back to process and principles and determing how much engagement you want,” Rowland said. “You can empower commissioners to figure out solutions, you can empower private business to figure out their own solutions. I’m a free enterpriser and a firm believer that we don’t have to have all the answers in goverment.”
How about personal characteristics needed to effectively govern?
“You have to be able to listen. The guys I’ve seen who are unsuccessful at being mayor, first selectman or governor are the ones who think they have all the answers. Sometimes the best characteristic is simply being able to define the problem.”
Rowland used Waterbury as an example. He said he has a strong emotional attachment to the Palace Theater, but isn’t going to insist that the theater be a part of a massive state-funded renovation of downtown Waterbury.
“I have to find out what’s best for downtown Waterbury. So you go ask the neighborhood associations, the various boards, the business people, the bankers and chamber members and then go ask Kay Wyrick (director of PRIDE on Cherry Street) what she thinks. I’ll listen to everybody because they are there. They are living it.”
Instead of ramming his agenda down Waterbury’s throat, Rowland tries to get everybody on board, headed in the same direction.
“There is a tendency and trap in government to think you have all the answers,” he said. “Sometimes when you engage the neighborhood groups you make them part of the solution. The old story is if you’re not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”
The other vital characteristic Rowland belives an effective governor must possess is a willingness to share the credit. On his desk sits a glass plaque with the inscription: “There is no limit where can go and what one can accomplish if one is willing to share the credit.”
Rowland said he keeps that in mind when dealing with the Democrat-controlled legislature. “I never could have gotten the rebate check through the House and Senate if I weren’t willing to share the credit with Democratic leaders. I let them sign the check.Weicker never would have allowed that to happen. It wasn’t his style.”
Winston Churchill once defined what a person needs to be a good politician. He described it as “the ability to foretell what will happen tomorrow, next month and next year — and to explain afterward why it didn’t happen.”
You have to be quick on your feet and tough enough to withstand the inevitable wave of criticism. And Rowland has had his share of controversy. For accepting free tickets to the Meadows Music Theater he became the first governor in state history to get hit with an ethics fine. He took a lot of heat from the media when he purchased a cottage on Bantam Lake from the White Memorial Foundation. It was reported that he used his political connections to get the inside track on a unique property that the general public didn’t have access to.
Rowland was also embroiled in a flap over camping equipment that was improperly removed from a military surplus warehouse and showed up at the governor’s mansion. The equipment was quickly returned and Rowland said he knew nothing about it.
The year before he was elected Rowland earned nearly $400,000 as a consultant. He took a massive pay cut — down to $78,000 — to be governor. But he has a car at his disposal, a driver, security and lives in an opulent mansion on Prospect Street in Hartford. The food and staff at the mansion are provided by the state. He also earns a $5,000 pension for every year he serves as Governor. If elected to a second term, Rowland would receive a $40,000-a-year pension after he reaches 55.
There are perks to offset the stress and strain of having 3 million people pulling you in 3 million different ways. But it’s not the perks that motivate Rowland, he says its the interaction with people and the diversity of the job. Patricia Rowland said the opportunity to connect with people is what drives her husband. He just loves people, she said.
Photo: Signing a bill into law in 1998, in the parking lot at Frankie’s Hot Dog Stand in Waterbury.
How much of the role is purely politics and how much is ribbon cutting and baby kissing?
“There is some politics involved in everything I do,” Rowland said. “To say that it’s not is silly. But I’m also a firm believer that good policy is good politics. Pure politics is more when I step out of my role as governor and step into my role as Republican leader (which he said he did for the first time in four years at the Republican convention July 24 and 25 in Hartford).”
Despite being elected after a vicious campaign four years ago, Rowland said he tries to be non-partisan. “I don’t go around saying those no-good lousy Democrats, it’s their fault, or say something bad about Barbara Kennelly. It doesn’t serve my purpose to play the partisan role.”
In some ways, it’s all part of a game in which Rowland is a master showman. He uses his personal charm to disarm opponents and shares credit with Democratic lawmakers to help fashion his own agenda. He says he knows almost every legislator by sight and name and invites them into his office for bill signings and announcements.
The Governor looks to former President George Bush for inspiration on handling his executive role. “He invited members of Congress to the White House for dinner and took some of us up to the Lincoln bedroom to pose for pictures. He shot the Polaroids with a camera he just got for Christmas. It was an amazing personal touch, one we will all remember.”
Bush campaigned for Rowland in 1984, ’86, ’88, ’90, ’94 and this year. Rowland was the first Congressman to endorse Bush for President and the two have been close for 18 years. “I’m like one of his boys,” Rowland said. “They have Jeb in Florida, George W. in Texas and Rowland in Connecticut. There is a paternal instinct, I’m sure.”
What it boils down to for Rowland is loyalty, another characteristic he said is critically important in politics. He was the first congressman to support Bush and the first governor to support Bob Dole. “They don’t forget that stuff and I don’t forget that stuff either. I’ll never forget the first state rep and first selectman to endorse me. It’s easy when you’re riding high, you’re out front. But when you are starting out, it’s hard. So you remember who stood up for you. I’m fiercely loyal.”
Photo: Rowland at the Republican National Convention in 1998.
Another characteristic vital to the Governor is expect the unexpected. “Nothing can prepare you for the horror you feel when you read the case report on the death of a battered child. No one sends you to school to learn how to be Governor. There’s no manual to tell you what to do when a crisis erupts in the middle of Sunday dinner. You take responsibility and use your God given instincts and respond.”
Rowland needed to muster all his instincts in March when four state employees were gunned down at Lottery headquarters in Newington. The Governor was having a breakfast meeting when a state trooper pulled him away from the meeting and handed him the phone.
Then-Public Safety Commssioner John Connelly told him that there had been a shooting and he believed four people were dead. “My heart was racing and I knew I had to go down there,” Rowland said. “My first concern was to notify the families of the victims. I didn’t want anybody finding out about this on TV.”
The Governor personally knew two of the victims, and when Peter Mlynarczk arrived on the scene it was Rowland who told him that his wife, Linda, the former mayor of New Britain, was dead.
“That was tough,” Rowland said. “Certainly not part of the world of taxes and politics.”
In addition to the families of the victims the Governor had to worry about 100 traumatized Lottery employees, many cut and bruised from diving through windows to freedom. Rowland ordered 25 phones down to Lottery headquarters so the employees could call home to tell their loved ones they were alive.
Over the weekend Rowland ordered Lottery headquarters cleaned up and brought in contractors to redo the place. “We had a building full of employees coming back to work on Monday and we had to do something.”
On Monday morning there were 20 counselors on hand for the employees to talk to and the Governor and his wife personally went down to greet the employees. The Rowlands went to the funerals and met with the victims’ families. The Governor eulogized Ott Brown at his service.
But he didn’t stop there. Rowland read a letter in the media written by Donald Beck, the father of the gunman. The father was devastated by grief and shame and apologized for his son’s action. He wrote that he had saved his son’s life a year before and now wished he hadn’t done so.
“When I read that letter I realized the Beck family had been victims too,” Rowland said. “So I called Donald Beck and tried to comfort him and tell him that there was nothing he could have done. In many ways that was as difficult a phone call as calling the families of the other dead.”
Nothing could prepare the Governor to handle a situation like that. “It was an unbelievable week,” he said. “I’ve never been through anything like that before. It wasn’t part of the job description I had thought about.”
LOSS OF PRIVACY
There is an aura around the concept of governor. Four years ago Rowland could walk down the streets of Waterbury alone and now he is swarmed wherever he goes. As soon as he walks into a room the energy level perks up and eyes are upon him.
“The loss of privacy is hard to take,” Patricia Rowland said. “He has become public property. When we are out for dinner in public people will come and sit at our table and want to talk issues. The steam will start to come out of my ears but John is really good at handling the situation.”
Photo: Everywhere Rowland traveled campaigning in 1998, all eyes were upon him.
The Rowlands have found that if they want privacy they have to retreat to the mansion, stay at their cottage on Bantam Lake or go out of state. “Sometimes it’s very hard sharing my husband with 3.3 million people,” Patti said. “I have great empathy for the Clintons. They have to deal with that all over the world. There is no place to escape.”
There is occasional speculation that John Rowland might make an attractive candidate for higher office. The thought makes his wife roll her eyes. “People tell me that one day he might be president,” she said. “My response is, `I hope not.”’
Patricia Rowland plays the role of bad cop at many public functions. She’s the one who says it’s time to go. She whispers in his ear, “Let’s get out of here.”
“He needs protection,” she explained, “and I don’t mean security. He needs a safe place, a private space. That’s what I do for him. I create that private space and he enters it.”
Sometimes she has to take out the hook and sweep him off stage. “I have trouble knowing when enough is enough,” Rowland said. “Patty’s my protector. If she didn’t get me out of the scene I might still be talking to people three days later.”
The Governor needs a loyal staff to shield him from the public and guide them in the arduous task of running the state. Christina Corey is the guardian of the door. She has worked for Rowland for 14 years and plays the role of air traffic controller, piecing together Rowland’s daily schedule.
All requests for Rowland to appear at a school or ribbon cutting or event is reviewed by the senior staff. Rowland personally signs off on everything.
“We have to weigh the requests,” Corey said, holding up a stack of letters that arrived in that day’s mail. “People who want the Governor to speak at a breakfast, lunch or dinner have to request him two months in advance.”
Corey is the hub of Rowland’s activity. She builds in fudge time in his schedule because she knows his personality, and that he likes to mingle and talk to people. “When he gets into a group of people he is unmovable,” Corey said. “He’s like Bill Clinton in that way, a real people person.”
Rowland said the chances of him staying on schedule all day are slim to none. Top aides storm the door saying, “I’ve got to see him, it’ll only take five minutes.”
Corey rolls her eyes. “Those visits are killers. John Rowland doesn’t do anything in five minutes,” Corey said. “After five minutes he’s still asking about your family. I have to block an hour off for anything.”
In determining where Rowland goes, his staff’s number one consideration is keeping within the framework of his agenda. If the legislature is in session Rowland meets with lawmakers to discuss bills. Now it’s fundraising and re-election in high gear. His schedule is jammed through November. There are 3 million residents and at times it seems like half the state wants the Governor at their scout meeting or garden club.
“Everybody wants a piece of him,” Corey said. “But he’s only one man and he can’t be everywhere at once. He says yes to eveybody and we have to protect him from himself sometimes.”
Kathy Mengacci is his executive secretary. She handles correspondence and paperwork from state agencies and has the daunting task of sending thank you notes to just about everybody the Governor has encountered the day before.
“He writes tons of handwritten notes,” Mengacci said. “He is the king of follow-up.”
One elderly woman wrote Patricia Rowland a note telling her that she thought the Governor was cute. Rowland read the note, was amused, and called the lady on the telephone. “The woman almost died,” Mengacci recalled, laughing. “He does that kind of stuff all the time.”
After high level meetings Mengacci enters the Governor’s office and cleans out cups and mugs and plates. “One of the things I do is get him coffee,” she said. “People ask me if that bugs me and I tell them `No, he’s a great guy, and he’s the Governor.”’
Mengacci marvels at Rowland’s ability to keep his composure. He is constantly being tugged and poked at, yet he doesn’t get angry, she said. “He’s pleasant and appreciative and a genuine great guy. He doesn’t have any airs about him, what you see is who he is. He is not a show.”
THE ANSWER MAN
As a former journalist, Dean Pagani understands the media’s needs. He is soft-spoken, even-tempered and unassuming. But he plays a vital role in disseminating information to the state. Pagani acts as Rowland’s spokesman. He sits in on most interviews so he has a general knowledge of the Governor’s way of thinking.
“I’m placed between two opposing forces,” he said. “I spend a lot of my time explaining to the Governor that the press isn’t out to get him and explaining to the press that John Rowland isn’t trying to pull a fast one on them.”
Pagani said the Governor’s time is split evenly between issues he wants to work on and circumstances that are forced upon him. Half the time he is dealing with events no one can predict. “He didn’t think part of being governor involved the well-being of 20,000 kids cared for by DCS,” Pagani said. “It was something he hadn’t thought about.”
No one knows from hour to hour what’s going to happen. The Governor starts each day with a schedule, but it could be thrown out the window in a second.
“He deals with so many things no one has contemplated,” Pagani said. “And the kinds of issues he deals with change so rapidly.”
There was a strange scene a year ago, Pagani recalled. A woman with a complicated case entered the Governor’s outer office. She was upset and agitated and demanded to see the Governor. It was an emotional scene. The staff was nervous and unsure how to handle her. Rowland came out of his office and spent 30 minutes listening to her. By the time she was leaving the womam had calmed down and Rowland was showing her family pictures hanging on the wall.
Part of Pagani’s job is to get the boss prepared for interviews. On March 4, Carole Bass of the New Haven Advocate was scheduled to interview Rowland at 11:45 a.m. about his environmental record. Ninety minutes before the interview, Pagani gave the Governor the lowdown.
“It seems like she has her mind already made up,” Pagani said. “I don’t think this is going to be a favorable article.”
“Deano, get me some ammo,” Rowland said. “Environmental stuff about Long Island Sound.”
The New Haven Advocate had been a bitter adversary of Rowland after he was elected in 1994. Bass’s husband, Paul Bass, had written a column placing a bounty on the Governor’s head. Anyone providing the Advocate with information resulting in Rowland being forced from office would receive a $100 reward.
After the columns, the Governor’s staff refused to talk to Advocate reporters. When Pagani arrived, he suggested re-establishing communication with the Advocate, which resulted in a favorable article by Paul Bass describing the Governor as a regular good guy, someone you’d like to hang out and drink a beer with.
This year The Advocate has been vicious in its depiction of Democratic candidate for Governor Barbara Kennelly, which is more a pro-Bill Curry stance than a pro-Rowland stance.
When Pagani re-entered the Governor’s vast office with several pages of information, Rowland scoured the pages for a few minutes and declared himself ready for the interview. “Let the games begin,” he said. “It’s time to rock and roll.”
As Bass and an Advocate photographer were brought into the office, Pagani said, “She’s going to ask specifics that he doesn’t know. It’s part of my job to brief him on those specifics.”
Rowland holstered his playful teasing personality during the interview as Bass grilled him about specific DEP employees and their job qualifications.
“You’ll have to ask the commissioner,” Rowland said. “I don’t micromanage. There is not enough time and energy for me to know about all my employees.”
As the interveiw progressed, Rowland seamlessly spouted off the answers Pagani had briefed him on minutes earlier. He came off informed, in touch with the subject. He was low-key, subdued.
Bass bore in on the Governor, reading a statement from a special interest group that lambasted the Governor’s environmental record.
“There is always an interest group out there on every issue that doesn’t agree with me,” he said. “I live with that every day.”
Seconds after the interveiw ended and the journalists were out the door, Rowland relaxed, put on some cheap sunglasses and joked, “I’m blinded by dilated pupils, I can’t see.”
Weeks later a cartoon version of Rowland appeared on the cover of the Advocate sitting on a pile of dead fish. There was one quote in the story from the hour-long interview.
Overall Rowland says he has a wonderful relationship with the media. “I tease them,” he explained. “I want to disarm them, keep them off balance.”
His strategy is never let them see you sweat, don’t duck issues and never lie, he said. “I try to have a professional relationship with the press,” he said. “It’s not friendly because they don’t want it to be friendly.”
Every move the Governor makes is scrutinized and picked apart. “There is a lot of sensationalism and negative news gets top billing,” Rowland said. “But anybody who goes into this business and doesn’t know this… well, shame on them.”
Rowland’s energy level is just slightly below that of the Energizer bunny. “I have to stay up,” he said. “I have to be motivated. My staff needs energy and if I’m down they get down. It will spin. I have to stay up and keep everybody motivated.” How?
By constantly pouring positive thoughts into his head. The Governor uses index cards to scribble down motivational messages and looks at them while he’s driving to an event. Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” hangs in the bathroom in the Governor’s office. One card reads, “The greatest failure in life is not that you tried and failed, but that you failed to try.”
Another says “A smart governor will let difficult challenges make him a better person, not a cynical one.”
Rowland is talking to a church group on a commuter train heading to New York City. He is onboard for only 20 minutes; he’s getting off at the South Norwalk station for a press conference on traffic congestion.
“What’s the meeting about, Governor?” one of the young students asks.
“Oh, just a bunch of suits going blah blah blah,” Rowland said. But when he gets off the train, the Governor makes a seamless transition from the church group and plunges into the world of suits, politics and big business.
Dozens of commuters were milling about the station and Rowland plowed through them to talk with Betty Champion, who was running a coffee and pastry stand.
“The Governor is very smart,” Champion said later. “He saw I was the center of attention and he came right over. Everybody wants their coffee and paper in the morning and he knew I was in control of the room. He knows how to play the room.”
Minutes later, at the far side of the station, Rowland began the press conference in front of a bank of television cameras and 100 dignitaries and guests. “I was supposed to get off the train and Mayor Esposito said he would meet me with coffee and doughnuts. I met a nice lady at the concession stand as we came in. After I’m done talking, let’s all head over to see her for doughnuts and coffee on Mayor Esposito.”
Laughter. Everyone looks at Esposito and he gives a sheepish grin.
On the other side of the tunnel, out of earshot of the press conference, Champion was closing up the concession stand. She was talking up the Governor and telling her customers that Rowland had just been at the concession stand. Twenty minutes later, after the press conference was over, several journalists climbed aboard a train headed north to get back to their cars. As the train pulled away, the late morning sun beamed through the large glass windows and illuminated the Governor and 20 men in suits gathered around the concession stand drinking coffee and eating doughnuts.
They were laughing and joking, and there was a smile on Betty Champion’s face.