From June 1990, this profile of then-gubernatorial candidate John Rowland is the first in a series of three articles that was selected by longtime editor Charles Monagan as being among his favorites articles from his time at the helm of Connecticut Magazine: "For pure reading entertainment and gonzo insight, it was hard to beat Barbara Roessner’s three-part summer series on Connecticut’s gubernatorial candidates of 1990. John Rowland, Bruce Morrison and Lowell Weicker all got their due, with their strengths and weaknesses pinned down like butterflies on a corkboard."
This article is being posted to the web in September 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration.
JOHN ROWLAND COMES MARCHING HOME
At age 33, after six years in Washington, he's ready to lead the Republican run at the governor's office. He’s savvy, and he's as brash and unpredictable as his hometown, but the question lingers: How much of him is wise and now much is wise guy?
by Barbara T. Roessner
Illustration By C.F. Payne
A squat cube of a guy with an Irish name and an Italian mug is shouting above the dIN of the band, regaling me with an old story of John Rowland throwing up at the GHO. “Remember that, John?" Rowland winks madly in my direction, beseeching me not to believe a thing this nutball says. “Yeah, sure,” Rowland says, still winking. “Sure I remember.”
Debi Rowland grips my elbow and Tows me from the ballroom of the Waterbury Sheraton, gingerly navigating through clouds of hair spray, galaxies of sequins, bolls of bargain toupees, and acres of overstuffed decolletage.
The hotel’s dance floor is gyrating. The singer, in gold lame, with a great nest of black hair, is "caught between a rock and a hard place...." There are cops all over the place, and firefighters, in uniform. There are nuns, in habits, taking snapshots of Joey Santopietro, whose third term as mayor of the great city of Waterbury we are all duly helping to inaugurate.
At last, we arrive at the Rowlands’ hospitality suite, where we perch on the edges of the twin beds for an intimate discussion of Debi’s friend’s strapless gown and the breath-defying undergarments required to keep it afloat.
This is the world of politics, Waterbury style: vivid, brash, uninhibited. Intensely parochial, baldly manipulative, highly entertaining. And just a bit off-color.
Waterbury is the home, the heart—the essence—of the 5th District congressman and almost-certain Republican nominee for governor, John Rowland. It’s where he was born and raised, and where he returned after college to join the family insurance business. It’s where he lives now with Debi and their three small children, just around the comer from his childhood home. It’s where he has attended the same church and gone to the same barber for all of his 33 years.
It’s where his father, his mother and his grandparents all ran for or held political office, and where he won his first election to the General Assembly back in 1980 It is the hub of the district he has represented in Washington since 1984.
Waterbury is a down- and-dirty, rough-and-tumble place—gritty and volatile, not given to subtlety or shading, shy personalities or soft politics. It’s a place that requires loyalty and rewards guts. It is, in every respect, John Rowland’s place.
Rowland was once asked what period of history he would like to have lived in. The Wild West, he replied. 'I've always wanted to be a cowboy.” Later, I ask him who his political role model is. “Ed Koch," Rowland says. "I like people who're direct." When I ask how he wants to be seen by the voters of Connecticut this year, his answer is succinct: "As a guy who’s not bullshitting anybody.”
John Rowland has had an astonishing political career. He is America’s youngest congressman, first elected at the tender age of 27 with more than a little help from Ronald Reagan. He’s a Republican from a Democratic stronghold, a conservative from a liberal-leaning state, a smart-aleck kid who beats the grown-ups at their very serious game.
His first run for office in 1980 is typical of his political resume. He had just led a mutiny within the local Republican Party and lost a bid for the town committee. The GOP establishment then turned around and nominated him for a legislative seat no Republican had held in a quarter- century. ‘I was a sacrificial lamb,” Rowland chuckles. “But I worked like hell. I knocked on every single door in that district. And I won.”
After two terms in Hartford, he embarked on another seemingly quixotic quest, this time against incumbent Democrat U.S. Rep. William R. Ratchford, a mild-mannered liberal. Rowland made the campaign a referendum on Reagan’s economic policies and the district’s dropping employment rate. He beat Ratchford by 21,000 votes. In 1986, Rowland's margin of victory swelled to 35,000 and in 1988 to 91,000.
Rowland’s run for governor is characteristic of his political temperament. His detractors may question the depth of his thought process, but when it comes to taking bold action, Rowland has even his critics a bit dazzled.
“John Rowland is a great risk taker, and I have to say I like that about him,” concedes Thomas J. D’Amore Jr., co-chairman of Lowell Weicker’s gubernatorial campaign. “He’s not the kind to stay in a safe place. When he takes the jump, it’s quantum.”
Rowland is tall, handsome and personable. He’s quick and well-spoken. He’s adept with a quip. He’s funny. He’s fun. He’s flip. He’s come so far so fast, you gel the feeling that he’s almost as amazed as everyone else— and that his youthful exuberance is still at odds with the sobriety normally expected of someone in his position. For instance, Esquire magazine once described him as the only congressman to have seen Animal House eight times, while The Wall Street Journal dubbed him one of the 10 most likely power brokers in the year 2000.
He has a keen political instinct and a slashing style. He can be unabashedly opportunistic. And he isn’t exactly shy in front of a TV camera.
Whack! Down goes the hammer on a Toshiba tape recorder, flying shards of plastic creating the ultimate video visual. Rowland objects to Japan’s sale of high-tech submarine technology to the Russians. What better way to express his outrage than a little Japan bashing on the lawn of the nation’s Capitol?
Surprise! Up pops Rowland from the floor of the House, demanding his colleagues begin each day reciting the same Pledge of Allegiance with which George Bush is pummeling Michael Dukakis. An infuriated Democratic leadership screeches McCarthyism, jingoism, and obscene partisanship.
Whoops! Rowland is antiabortion; no, wait, he’s pro- choice. One of the great moral issues of our time, one that most tries our conscience, and he makes the big switch five days before announcing his gubernatorial bid. His explanation: The voters want a pro-choice governor.
Rowland will do what it takes—to draw attention, to unnerve the enemy, to get elected.
While his approach may be rather zealous, Rowland’s objective—to win—is hardly unusual among the men and women who seek or want to hold on to political office. But few wield the sword with such open delight. Few confront and confound with such a gleam in the eye. If he were a few years older, he’d be far less conspicuous, Rowland says. “If you do or say certain things at 32, you just don’t get the same reaction as you would at 62,” he says. “I’m not 62, and I can’t act like I am.”
Rowland’s youth could be his greatest asset in this race; it’s what sets him apart from the pack and identifies him with “the future.” It makes his candidacy exciting. But it cuts the other way, too. It gives one pause. And it raises a host of nettlesome questions—about his maturity, his depth, his ability to withstand the harsh scrutiny of a statewide race.
It isn’t too soon to pick up such criticism out there on the hustings:
“Nobody's laid a glove on John, and already the kid is whining,” jabbed Weicker, the former Republican U.S. senator and now an independent candidate for governor, when Rowland said Weicker had promised him he wasn’t going to run.
“John Rowland is the Dan Quayle of Connecticut,” declared John F. Droney Jr., Democratic state chairman. “I don’t think 33 is too young to be governor, but Rowland is too young. He’s young beyond his years.”
Droney is not known for heaping praise upon the opposition. He’s the most quotable hatchet man the Democrats have had in a long time. But his animosity toward Rowland is striking, and it smacks of an entirely new generational feud, the buds of which are just starting to appear on the American political landscape. The baby boom versus the Reagan generation. The descendants of JFK and Vietnam meet the children of MasterCards and microwaves.
“Rowland comes from a group of militaristic young saber rattlers in their 30s, none of whom have ever been in the military, none of whom have ever heard a shot fired in anger, yet they’re committed to committing us to various illegal wars in Central America,” Droney, 43, says. “As a Vietnam vet, I promised myself that when I came back—if I came back—I would never, ever stand by and be quiet about people like John Rowland....The only shot he ever heard fired in anger was from a cap gun when he was a schoolboy in Waterbury.”
But it isn’t Rowland's age alone that’s at issue. It’s what happens when you combine his years with his posture and his personality. The rub is in the guy’s attitude.
Rowland has a quirky sense of humor, for example. If you get the joke, he’s funny; if you don’t, he’s an ill-mannered young whippersnapper. He’s amusing. He’s irritating. He’s a close cousin of Eddie Haskell.
One congressional colleague remembers Rowland addressing a group of senior citizens known to be particularly savvy and sophisticated on the issues. A woman stood and asked a complex question about dental-care coverage under Medicare, to which Rowland responded with a big Hollywood smile: “You want it? You got it.”
In an arena of gross pomposity and self-aggrandizement, there’s something refreshing about a politician who sees the game for what it is, who doesn’t take it—or himself—so deadly seriously. “John’s running for office, not finding a cure for cancer," explains Rowland’s chief political strategist and campaign manager, John Mastropietro.
Still, you’ve got to wonder. Does Rowland take anything seriously? Politics is a game, yes, but it's a game that has a profound impact on people’s lives. It's okay to be light and playful, but underneath there’s got to be some solid core, some genuine sense of purpose. And just what is it that motivates Rowland? What makes this man run?
It is safe to say he is not a burning ideologue. His entry into public service wasn’t spurred by a war or a social injustice. He’s in politics because he was born into politics, local politics, and unlike his four younger siblings, he happened to have the intestinal fortitude for it. “A lot of it is just personal drive,” he says. “And I grew up around politics. I just grew up with the idea of public service.”
John first became politically involved while a student at Villanova University, managing a local legislative campaign and serving as youth director for the campaign of Republican Gov. Richard Thornburgh, now the U.S. attorney general. He was president of the college’s Republican Club. When he came back to Waterbury after graduation, he was naturally drawn into the political fray.
Today, Rowland’s perspective remains unabashedly parochial; he says he’s in Washington to assist his constituents in their dealings with the government and to advance a legislative agenda that mirrors their desires. “I get much more enjoyment from the constituent side than I do from debating Social Security cuts,” Rowland says. “What’s really important is talking to people...Supermarkets, bowling alleys, factory gates—that’s where I’m the most comfortable.”
He has no easily identifiable system of beliefs. He says that by Connecticut standards he is conservative—certainly the most pro-defense, pro-business member of the state’s congressional delegation, a moderate-to-liberal bunch. But by national standards, Rowland insists he’s hardly a right-winger. He may have arrived in Congress as a committed Rea- ganite, but he quickly established an independent streak and he’s perfectly comfortable, indeed friendly, with George Bush.
Rowland serves on the Armed Services Committee, the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Veterans Affairs Committee. He has firmly attached himself to the POW/MIA issue, twice visiting Vietnam in search of new information on soldiers still unaccounted for. He’s been an outspoken member of the House Republican Leadership Task Force on Drugs, arguing for more education and treatment, as well as tougher criminal penalties. He was a strong supporter of the Reagan economic agenda. He also went his own way on some social issues, teaming with the late Claude Pepper, for example, on a long-term health-care bill.
Throughout his congressional career, he has skillfully courted the media. One legendary attention grab came in 1985, when Rowland happened to be in Berlin as news broke of the Iran hostage release. He immediately flew to Frankfurt, arriving just in time to get on television when the hostages set foot on the tarmac.
“He’s the kind of candidate and congressman the Republicans wish they had more of,” according to the Almanac of American Politics. “A brash self-starter generally faithful to the party but who also stakes out his own positions and builds up his own popularity.”
Rowland’s colleagues in the Connecticut delegation praise his shrewd understanding of the legislative process. U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays (R-4th Dist.), who succeeded the late Stewart B. McKinney, says he has relied heavily on Rowland’s advice and counsel. “He’s very wired into the process. I was just amazed when I first came down here,” Shays says.
Shays, who is backing Rowland in the gubernatorial contest despite strong ties to Weicker, discounts charges that Rowland is shallow or unprincipled when it comes to taking a hard stand on the issues: “On the abortion issue, I just think he’s recognized the broader picture. I think he’s just showing that he’s open- minded.”
Rowland says he’s running for governor because he “cares deeply about the state” and is “drawn to grappling with the difficult problems we’re facing.” As he has in all his campaigns, he hammers on the notion of smaller, more efficient government that will cost the taxpayers less. He vows to streamline the bureaucracy, compress 26 state agencies into 13, and cut corporate taxes. He has taken the proverbial pledge against a state income tax. He says battling illiteracy and drugs will be a top priority of his administration.
In a late April news conference, he unveiled a key strategy of his campaign when he pinned much of the state’s fiscal disorder on a bloated, inefficient and top- heavy bureaucracy. He suggested returning state employees to a 40-hour workweek, making them pay for part of their health insurance and freezing the salaries of those earning $45,000 or more.
But Rowland doesn’t relish a detailed discussion of the issues. At that April news conference, he “appeared to grow testy” when he was questioned closely, according to a newspaper report. And when, during a four-hour conversation, I press him on some of the more volatile topics—school desegregation, for example—he is elusive. He says he doesn’t have a “perfect position” on every subject. I say I want to know whether he’s serious about the issues.
“Am I serious about the issues? Yes. But am I serious about the issues on a Sunday afternoon sitting on a park bench in Fulton Park? No. It’s not the right setting." I suggest, from my end of the bench, that thoughtfulness is usually portable. He gets defensive, starts turning the questions back on me: “What’s your position on binding arbitration?" he barks. I remind him that he’s the candidate.
There is a strain of anti-intellectualism here, a hostility toward people who’re “so busy being serious...their chests all puffed out talking about how they’re going to change the world.” At one point during a taped interview he calls me a “liberal intellectual.” Similarly, when I mention Hartford Courant columnist Don Noel, an intellectual sort who has criticized Rowland for being superficial on the issues, he explodes.
“I don’t give a shit about Don Noel....He hates me. He hates my guts....I’m not in this business to try to appeal to him, to try to convince him I’m a good candidate, ’cause he doesn’t like anybody. That’s his problem, not my problem. He’s a very unhappy guy. I’m a very happy guy. He’s got a chip on his shoulder so damn big I'm surprised he can even walk out the door.”
Rowland may be feeling a little testy these days because, as a gubernatorial candidate, he’s suddenly being held more accountable for things. Voters may think of Congress as a two-year term, but the pols know it as a “life term.” You can do and say pretty much what you want in Washington. Either the folks back home don’t hear about it or don’t care. As long as you show up at the Knights of Columbus ball and the Rotarian luncheons, the odds are overwhelming that you’ll be re-elected.
But, especially on the abortion issue, Rowland is now being forced to own up. When Reagan was king and the pro-lifers were his court, Rowland vehemently opposed abortion, voting against Medicaid funding even in cases of rape and incest. Then came the Supreme Court ruling in the Webster case and the reawakening of the pro-choice majority in Connecticut. Suddenly, Rowland was out of sync. He could stick with a position now increasingly unpopular across the state or attempt a half gainer. He took the dive.
“Rowland’s really a classic example of a whole group of people the Republicans attracted in the early and mid-’80s, people whose analytical process was very superficial,” says a House colleague from the other side of the aisle. “He’s like Jim Courter in New Jersey [a conservative Republican congressman who lost a gubernatorial bid last year]. He’s young, he’s attractive, he smiles, but when he’s forced into an honest debate of the issues, it just blows up in his face. He’s never had to think things through.”
Rowland insists he’s being crucified, particularly on the abortion issue—“the vultures have eaten me up pretty good”— for being candid about the political considerations that shape his positions and tactics. If he publicly acknowledges the obvious political influences, does that make him sleazier than the rest? Why not admirably honest?
“To get up and walk through this false game, I’m just not going to do it,” he says. “Would that be honest? Would that be sincere?”
Says Mastropietro: “If being candid causes a credibility problem, then there’s something radically wrong with this whole system. John would rather give up his office tomorrow than be muzzled.”
Rowland acknowledges he might have played the abortion issue more conventionally, putting a greater emphasis on the “soul-searching” that led to his new position. His revised stance still seems rather uncertain, however. He says he “wouldn’t change a thing” about Connecticut’s pro-choice laws and regulations. Literally in the next breath, he says he’d support mandatory parental notification for minors, which the state does not require now.
Perhaps Rowland should take a cue from his wife, Debi, who provided me with a logical explanation of her husband’s “evolution” on the issue, and a heartfelt statement of her own position.
“John is a staunch Catholic,” she told me. “Over time he just became more sympathetic, more open-minded to the fact that you could look at it another way.”
Is she pro-choice? Debi puts her fist to her chest and speaks slowly, deliberately. “No one down in Washington has the right to tell me, Deborah Joan, how to run my life. I’m the one who’s going to be raising that child. I’m the one’s going to be taking on that huge responsibility. It’s got to be my decision.”
Let’s face it. There’s a persistent suggestion—a sort of low, constant rumble—that John Rowland is not all that intelligent. “He’s no brain surgeon,” one of his friends whispered to me, not so much as a slur but as a simple observation. My own conclusion is that while he may well be intelligent, he is not at all cerebral. He runs on instinct. That’s the root of the candor, the brash personality, the raw politics, the parochialism. It’s also the key to his political success.
You need look no further than his home—Waterbury—to see how the instinct was spawned and honed. It is an exquisitely unpredictable place—one of the few spots on God’s earth where you can find Republicans who look like Hell’s Angels and Democrats who picket Jane Fonda movies. The rules one usually applies to the electorate simply do not stick here. You can plan and poll all you want. “But you gotta know this district,” Rowland says. “I know this district.”
“That's my grandfather’s house.... That’s my father’s house,” Rowland says as he chauffeurs me around the neighborhood in the family station wagon. We have just left his own house, where 3- year-old son RJ., in comfortable dishabille, is watching Mary Poppins in a room that was obviously once meant to be his father’s office. Now, the congressman’s desk, with all those pictures of Reagan, Bush and other famous men, has been crowded into a comer by a flood tide of Fisher-Price toys. The house is big, old, comfortable and unpretentious. It bears the telltale sign of thorough child-proofing; There is nothing of value within sight, or at least not within reach.
But now we are touring the hilly streets of Rowland’s youth—and his adulthood. He points out the church, St. Margaret’s, he’s attended all his life; now his 5-year- old daughter Kirsten (a second daughter, Julianne, is 1) goes to kindergarten there. Should he lose the governorship, he says he’d be perfectly happy to return to the insurance business that’s been in the family for 145 years.
“I’m just kind of a homebody. That’s not unusual around here. The people who live in these houses grew up in other houses in the neighborhood. When I was a kid, I painted these houses, I shoveled these driveways, I delivered newspapers. ...I like the sense of history, the tradition here. It’s so hard to protect tradition these days. Everything’s so transient.”
At a Sunday afternoon fund-raiser at the municipal golf course, half the contributors are old high school chums. The parish priest puts in an appearance. “These are the people I grew up with,” Rowland says proudly.
At first, it’s difficult to reconcile the homebody with the man on the move, the devoted father so snugly ensconced in third-generation familiarity, with the headstrong candidate who’s chucking the safest political career there is for a wild and wacky adventure with a highly uncertain end.
But then you realize how neatly the two aspects meld. He’s risking it all so he can come home to Connecticut (Debi and the kids want him back), and because he knows his home so well. His roots give him the confidence lo just go for it—with all the rambunctious directedness of a greyhound who’s picked up the scent.
Rowland tells me he’s never had a speechwriter. He’s written a few speeches, but only a few. “They were awful,” he says. He much prefers winging it. When he decided to announce his gubernatorial bid in October, his staff had fits. Mastropietro was apoplectic. What? No exploratory committee? No trial balloons? Rowland couldn’t bear the charade.
I keep thinking of poor Mastropietro, a careful, methodical, organizational type. I’d repeatedly heard him described as the master pulling the strings on the Rowland marionette. But 1 imagine him instead as the guy holding the leash, being dragged down the sidewalk, into a busy intersection, lurching through traffic, desperately shouting, “Heel!”
I ask Rowland about campaign strategy, message, (heme. He guffaws. “I can’t articulate it. It’s all up here,” he says, tapping his forehead. “I just want people to see me as an aggressive young guy with his feet on the ground, a guy they might not agree with, but they can respect.”
But how? How is he going to accomplish this? “I haven’t the foggiest idea,” he says, grinning like a frat brother who’s about to pull off the dare of his life.
Barbara T. Roessner, former chief political writer for The Hartford Courant, writes a weekly column that appears in newspapers nationwide.