Rell Exults After Vote

*GOP legislators parted with governor

By Mark Pazniokas, Courant Staff Writer

Gov. M. Jodi Rell celebrated the passage of far-reaching campaign finance reforms Thursday, even though fellow Republicans largely abandoned her on the issue and a court challenge is possible.

"We have set the standard," Rell said. "We are now a role model for the rest of the nation. I think that Connecticut can be very proud of this bill."

The Democratic-controlled Senate and House combined for nearly 14 hours of debate Wednesday night and Thursday morning, concluding at 2:44 a.m. with passage by the House on an 82-65 vote.

Seven hours earlier, the Senate voted 27-8 to approve the legislation, which bans contributions from lobbyists and contractors and creates a voluntary system of publicly financing campaigns for state office.

Only four Republicans in each chamber supported the bill, which was drafted by Democrats.

House Minority Leader Robert M. Ward, R-North Branford, rebuffed overtures from Rell's senior staff and led a vigorous floor fight against a bill that he described as badly flawed.

The political parties and legislative leadership's political action committees will be permitted to make unlimited expenditures, such as paying for direct mail appeals, on behalf of candidates who accept public financing.

"I found that loophole to be so overwhelming I couldn't support the bill," Ward said.

Rell said that she also was troubled by those provisions, but that bans on lobbyist and state contractor dollars, as well as public financing, go far to minimize what she called the corrosive influence of special interests in politics.

"I believe we got 85 percent or more of what I had hoped we would be able to have in a bill at the end of June," said Rell, who intends to sign the bill in the next few days.

The legislature had ended its regular session in June deadlocked over campaign finance reforms, an issue that Rell had made a priority soon after succeeding John G. Rowland as governor in 2004.

Rell said that she would seek legislation in the 2006 regular session to correct flaws in the bill. She wants to limit party and leadership expenditures and lower the threshold that petitioning and minor-party candidates must meet to qualify for public funds.

Petitioning candidates must gather signatures from 20 percent of affected voters, nearly an impossible task, to qualify for the same public funds available to Democrats and Republicans.

The Green Party is considering challenging the provision in court, said Michael DeRosa, the co-chairman of the party.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut is exploring a challenge on two grounds - the unequal treatment of major and minor candidates, and the violation of lobbyists' free speech rights. Courts have held that political contributions are a form of speech.

"We are obviously concerned about the constitutional issues raised by the law," said Roger C. Vann, executive director of the state's ACLU chapter.

Vann said that he expected no decision on a lawsuit for weeks.

"This kind of case potentially would go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. It would be potentially a long and difficult battle," he said. "We don't take these decisions lightly."

Passage of the legislation was a personal victory for the Democratic legislative leaders, who had been repeatedly outmaneuvered by Rell on the issue, most recently by her calling legislators into special session to tackle reform after they had refused to do so on their own.

House Speaker James A. Amann, D-Milford, and Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, delivered on a promise made Monday: If necessary, Democrats could have passed the measure without a single Republican vote.

The strong Democratic votes gratified the two leaders, who had been long frustrated by the Republican governor's taking the lead on campaign reform and chiding Democrats for failing to act.

Among the Senate's 24 Democrats, only Joan Hartley of Waterbury voted against the bill. The Democratic majority was joined in passing the bill by four Republicans: John A. Kissel of Enfield, Thomas J. Herlihy of Simsbury, Leonard A. Fasano of North Haven and Anthony Guglielmo of Stafford.

Only four House Republicans voted for the measure, despite Rell's support: Al Adinolfi of Cheshire, Antonietta Boucher of Wilton, Raymond C. Kalinowski of Durham and Diana S. Urban of North Stonington.

Amann belittled Rell's efforts on behalf of the bill.

"She delivered four votes today," he said. "It's unfortunate we didn't get more Republican support."

Democrats also needled Rell by including language banning any elected official from appearing in a state-funded ad one year before an election. Current law imposes a ban five months prior to the election.

The immediate impact is to immediately take television commercials featuring Rell off the air.

Rell shrugged off the provision.

"I'm fine with it. Let it go," she said.

Reform advocates praised Rell for keeping campaign finance reform alive beyond June by calling a special legislative session and Democratic leaders for delivering the votes for passage.

They took no chances, however, on Wednesday.

At one point, they called Stamford Mayor Dannel P. Malloy, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate and a supporter of public financing, and asked him to intercede with reluctant members of the Stamford delegation.

Malloy was seen on the House floor, talking to his local delegation. Both Malloy and New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr., the other Democratic gubernatorial candidate, support public financing.

After the vote, Rell's chief of staff, M. Lisa Moody, embraced Tom Swan, the executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group. Swan was a strident critic of Rell's former running mate, Rowland.

It was those unlikely alliances that made reform supporters say that a far-reaching public financing bill could not be rejected over even some significant loopholes.

"To have the stars aligned on this piece of legislation after 15 years is a major step," said Rep. Christopher Caruso, D-Bridgeport, a leading reform proponent. "Those stars don't often align on campaign finance reform. Sometimes opportunity knocks once."

Copyright 2005, Hartford Courant

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