NEW HAVEN, Conn. – Once a GOP rising star, Gov. John G. Rowland (search) is stepping down amid swirling corruption allegations, giving both Republicans and Democrats hope that they can somehow emerge stronger from the long-brewing scandal.
In a short speech Monday that barely touched on his legal difficulties, Rowland said he would leave office next week. He becomes the first U.S. governor in seven years to resign under pressure.
Democrats hope Rowland's resignation will give them a better chance to reclaim the governor's office in 2006, while Republicans hope Rowland's departure came soon enough to give the party a chance to rebuild.
Lt. Gov. M. Jodi Rell (search), a Republican, will be elevated to governor when Rowland's resignation takes effect at noon on July 1. But she hasn't said if she would seek the office in her own right when it's up for election in 2006.
State and federal authorities have been investigating allegations that Rowland took gifts and favors from friends, state contractors and state employees in exchange for political influence, an accusation the governor has denied. A special House committee also had been considering whether to recommend Rowland's impeachment.
On Tuesday, Rowland's attorneys continued their fight to block the testimony of former legal aide Ann George, who has been subpoenaed to appear before the federal grand jury investigating the governor.
Rowland, citing attorney-client privilege, argues that she cannot be forced to testify. But federal prosecutors argue that George worked for the office of the governor, not Rowland himself. A three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (search) heard arguments in the dispute Tuesday in a closed session in New York.
With a Republican governor leaving amid turmoil, Democrats hope to reclaim the office they haven't held since the tenure of Gov. William A. O'Neill, who served from 1980 to 1991.
Three Democrats have already formally announced bids for governor in 2006, Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz.
"The next governor is going to be a Democrat," Malloy said. "In the history of these kinds of transfers of power, almost 100 percent of the time there is a change in leadership in the next election. I have little doubt that's exactly what's going to happen."
Still, with all the attention on the presidential election and the ongoing federal investigation of Rowland's administration, the 2006 governor's race seems far away and far from certain.
"I don't think it's at all certain the Democrats will be in the governor's mansion in the next election. It looks good for them, but anything can happen," said Scott McLean, a political science professor at Quinnipiac University.
For the past decade, Connecticut has been led by Rowland and a Republican-turned-independent, Lowell P. Weicker (search), although the state at its core still leans Democratic and the Legislature remains solidly in Democratic hands.
Rowland made his announcement Monday from a quiet garden patio at the governor's mansion, surrounded by loyal friends, family and staffers. Some cried quietly; others wiped their eyes.
"Tonight is both a beginning and an end for me," Rowland said, as his wife stood by his side.
Shortly before his 6 p.m. address, he met on a patio with about 60 members of his staff in a brief talk described by some in attendance as philosophical, saying things happen for a reason.
"It was pretty somber, but in some ways it was uplifting," said Rowland's budget director, Marc Ryan. "He sort of gave a very good speech to us about how we had a great 10 years worth of accomplishments."
The last governor to step down under pressure was Arizona's Fife Symington, who was found guilty in 1997 of defrauding lenders during his previous career as a real estate developer. The conviction was overturned on appeal.
Rowland's resignation effectively brings an end to what was once considered a remarkable political career. He was elected to the state House at 23 and quickly became the boy wonder of Connecticut politics, using his charm to get elected to Congress at 27 and become governor at 37.
By his third term, he was on hugging terms with President Bush, who affectionately called him "Johnny." Lately, though, Rowland had lost the support of many in his own party and when Bush stumped in Connecticut, Rowland was nowhere to be seen.
Politically, it would be easier for the Democrats if Rowland was still in office, DeStefano said. Rell, 58, will now have two years of media attention if she decides to run.
Even before the governor's gift-taking scandal broke, Rowland, 47, was expected to make his third term his last, and Rell was mentioned as a likely successor.
Rell, a former state legislator, is untested. As lieutenant governor, she has no official power except to preside over the state Senate and fill in when the governor is out of state.
One of her first tasks as governor will be to work quickly to set up a new administration that is free of Rowland cronies, McLean said. "She'll have a honeymoon period and everyone will want to work with her, but the first budget battle will be her baptism by fire," he said.
Republicans, meanwhile, are going to have to work to rebuild the party's prowess and prevent other Republican candidates from being damaged by association.
"I am confident that our great state and the Republican Party will move forward under the leadership of Lieutenant Governor Rell. These are challenging times for all, but I expect that both parties will work together to assist in this transition," said state Republican Party Chairman Herb Shepardson.