Hobknobbery and Corruption
"She was a powerful woman in the 1970s when politics was a male-dominated world. … Her resignation closes a chapter in Connecticut Republican politics."
- GEORGE GALLO
STATE GOP CHAIRMAN
Rell To Fill GOP Posts
Three Resignations Give Her Chance To Leave Signature
January 12, 2007
By CHRISTOPHER KEATING, Hartford Courant Capitol Bureau Chief
With the resignation of "Mama Jo" McKenzie and two other GOP stalwarts, Gov. M. Jodi Rell has the chance to place her stamp directly on the state Republican Party by filling the organization's most important positions.
In declining health at the age of 75, McKenzie is stepping down after more than 16 years on the Republican National Committee and after more than 30 years as a fixture in state GOP politics.
Known as the cape-wearing grande dame of the party, McKenzie was a huge player as a key confidante to both Gov. John G. Rowland and first lady Patty Rowland. She personified the administration as the $84,000-a-year aide to Patty Rowland, chief of protocol and overseer of the governor's mansion. McKenzie was seen often at both the Capitol and the mansion with her close friend, co-chief of staff Peter Ellef, who is now serving a federal prison term on corruption charges as part of the Rowland scandals.
Enjoying virtually unlimited access to the first family, McKenzie described Rowland as "the son I never had" and referred to Patty as her fourth daughter.
But McKenzie, who in 1979 became the first woman ever elected chairwoman of the Connecticut GOP, was well-known among political insiders long before her association with the Rowlands.
"She was a powerful woman in the 1970s when politics was a male-dominated world," said George Gallo, the state GOP chairman. "She blazed new trails. ... Her resignation closes a chapter in Connecticut Republican politics."
McKenzie's departure comes at the same time Connecticut's other Republican National Committee member - Charles Glazer of Greenwich - is stepping down after being nominated by President Bush as ambassador to El Salvador. Glazer served as Rowland's chief fundraiser for more than 10 years before switching over to raise money for Bush. Little known to the general public, Glazer played a key, behind-the-scenes role in helping Rowland get elected three times and was rewarded in 2003 with the Prescott Bush Award, the state party's highest honor.
Gallo, too, will be leaving soon as the party's chairman, and he has already accepted a position as chief of staff for the state House Republicans. But Rell has asked him to remain in the position until a new leader is selected, which could occur in the coming weeks. He said it is historic that the three leaders will be replaced virtually simultaneously.
"These positions are coveted by a lot of our Republican base," Gallo said. "To have all three of these open at the same time is a unique situation. It's a unique opportunity for our governor to put a stamp on Connecticut Republican politics."
Some of Rell's aides had been unaware of McKenzie's departure, and the office declined to comment Thursday night. The office had previously declined to comment when former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons was mentioned as a possible replacement for Gallo.
Although the 72-member State Central Committee will officially choose the national committee members and the state chairman, Rell is effectively the head of the party and will play a role in the selections.
Longtime party insider Patricia Longo of Wilton is already campaigning for McKenzie's seat, which must be filled by a woman under the national committee rules calling for one man and one woman from each state. Longo now serves as the state party's vice chairwoman, and her elevation would open up another leadership post to replace her.
State Rep. John H. Frey, a Greenwich native who now operates a real estate brokerage firm, is among those being mentioned to replace Glazer.
McKenzie, who could not be reached for comment Thursday, sold her longtime home in Madison and moved to 1210 Prospect Ave. in Hartford in order to be just down the block from where the Rowlands lived in the governor's mansion.
Less than three months before Rowland resigned in 2004, McKenzie became enmeshed in an intra-party fight when attorney Ann M. Moore challenged her for the national committee seat. Rell, who was lieutenant governor at the time, sat out the contest, comparing the situation to a Republican primary and saying she would avoid picking one candidate over another. McKenzie survived the challenge, but insiders said the presumptive move against a close Rowland ally would have been unthinkable if Rowland had not been facing impeachment.
The flamboyant McKenzie suggested improvements at the Rowlands' cottage on Bantam Lake, which became the centerpiece of an FBI investigation that eventually sent Rowland to federal prison for accepting gifts from state contractors and failing to pay taxes on them. McKenzie appeared in front of a federal grand jury and endured a videotaped deposition that was shown publicly during Rowland's impeachment hearings.
For decades, McKenzie relished her role in high-level Republican politics - having access to national figures on a frequent basis. She served on the special committee that decided to hold the Republican National Convention in New York City in 2004.
In her former picture-filled office at the state Capitol, McKenzie kept a photo of herself standing between New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. She also kept a picture of herself with her longtime political buddy, P.J. Delahunty, sitting together on a golf cart. Delahunty, a former state employee, paid workers from a company owned by his family to install the new ceiling in 1997 at Rowland's lakefront cottage.
House Speaker James Amann of Milford, leader of the 107-member House Democratic caucus, said that McKenzie was involved in various controversies but will always be known as one of the memorable characters at the Capitol. He placed her in the same category with recently retired Sens. Biagio "Billy" Ciotto and George "Doc" Gunther.
"The place won't be the same," Amann said, "without people like that."
Contact Christopher Keating at email@example.com.
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