History Time: The Ten Year Curse

There’s kind of a ten-year curse on the governorship. Once-popular governors who serve that long in the modern era seem to wear out their welcome, and leave office under a cloud–if they make it to the end of their third terms at all.

Jonathan Trumbull served from 1769-1784, leading Connecticut through its transition from British colony to U.S. state (there’s a post about this great man kicking around in my head for some future date). Then Samuel Huntington, a Founding Father who signed the Declaration of Independence and also served as the first President of the United States in Congress Assembled, held the post for ten years from 1786-1796, and then Jonathan Trumbull Jr. held it from 1797-1809, and Oliver Wolcott (who had been the second Secretary of the Treasury under Washington and Adams) was governor for ten years from 1817-1827.

Since then, however, only three people have held the post for anything approaching ten years. Even Connecticut’s Civil War governor, Republican William Buckingham, was governor for only eight years. One was John Dempsey, who inherited the office from Abraham Ribicoff, who left to join the Kennedy Administration. He was a popular governor who followed the 1960s trend of spending on massive social programs, but left office in 1971 after the economy went south and the grand social programs he’d sponsored fell out of favor. The office was snapped up by a Republican, Thomas Meskill, in the 1970 election–who became Connecticut’s first Republican governor since John Davis Lodge lost to Ribicoff in 1954. Dempsey served from 1961-1971, ten years.

Another governor who found himself on the outs after ten years was Bill O’Neill. He’d taken the office in January, 1981, after the resignation of Ella Grasso (who would die soon after), and proved to be a very popular governor during the boom years of the 1980s. However, he found himself out of favor as recession and financial crisis took hold in the late 1980s, and suddenly decided not to run again as 1990 approached. Bruce Morrison stepped into O’Neill’s shoes, but lost to independent Lowell Weicker. Democrats haven’t won the governor’s office since. O’Neill served from 1981-1991, ten years.

John Rowland is the last example. He won three successive elections, the only governor in the modern era to do so, and looked to be on track to serve twelve full years as Connecticut’s governor. Yet Rowland proved to be his own downfall, and resigned in the summer of 2004, having served nine and a half years.

Maybe there’s a warning to Jodi Rell here? If she runs and wins in 2010 (a distinct possibility), she’ll serve until January, 2015. That would be ten and a half years from July, 2004, making her Connecticut’s longest serving governor since Jonathan Trumbull Jr. Even the most popular governor find that the public sours on them after such a long time in office.

Of course, Gov. Rell may not care about that one bit.

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