Gov. M. Jodi Rell will not run for re-election next year, saying Monday that she plans to dedicate her last 14 months in office to solving Connecticut's ever-darkening economic problems.
"It's time," Rell said, her voice breaking. "I want to thank the people of Connecticut for the honor of serving as their governor."
Rell has been Connecticut's governor since 2004, when former Gov. John Rowland resigned in a corruption probe that would eventually lead to a conviction and prison time. She was elected to her own term in 2006, becoming the first Republican woman elected the state's chief executive.
Her announcement came as a surprise at the Capitol and to her staff. Though her family knew of her plans, she said she gave them about an hour notice that she was going to make the decision public.
Saying there was no single reason for her decision, Rell said she's not trying to dodge a fight, but said the state's budget problems will require her full attention.
Connecticut did not pass a budget until September, which Rell allowed to become law without her signature. The budget is already in deficit, and the governor has said she plans to call lawmakers back to make more cuts.
"It's not going to be a pretty year," Rell said. "That's why I need to focus right now, my attention on getting our budget in balance and dealing with the legislature."
The 63-year-old Rell said her health and her husband's health are fine. Both have had successful battles with cancer during her term. The governor, in 2004, underwent breast cancer surgery while her husband, Lou, had a small cancerous growth removed from his esophagus in 2007.
Connecticut's only other woman governor, Ella Grasso, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1980 while in office, and died of the disease in 1981.
Over the past year, Rell has welcomed her second and third grandchildren, prompting speculation among some Capitol observers that she might not seek re-election.
"I know you're all looking for one particular thing, or a whole host of things," Rell told reporters assembled for an early evening news conference. "It isn't just that we had such a difficult, bad budget year, and it's not getting better."
Rell, who does not have a college degree, began her career in politics on the local parent-teacher organization in Brookfield, Conn. She was elected to the state House in 1984, and lieutenant governor in 1995.
As governor she cultivated a folksy image, shopping for her clothes at discount stores and greeting voters in her stocking feet after a long day of campaigning. Her job approval reached an all-time high of 83 percent in a Jan. 13, 2005, survey.
Rell choked up while listing her favorite memories while in office, including meeting those affected by the passage of public health insurance for the poor, updates to mass transit, and improvements to the state's education system. She cited a gay couple who hugged her at Stafford Motor Speedway after she signed the nation's first voluntarily passed civil union bill.
"All they said was, 'Thank You," she said.
But her numbers have dipped in recent Quinnipiac University polls, due mostly to the state's budget problems. A Sept. 16 poll showed 59 percent approve of how she's handling her job while 34 percent disapproved _ the lowest approval number during her tenure.
Rell's administration has also become the focus of two investigations into the hiring of a University of Connecticut professor to oversee a two-year, $220,000 project aimed at streamlining state government. Democrats say e-mails first obtained by The Day of New London show that at least part of the work conducted by Professor Ken Dautrich, former director of the school's polling institute, was done to help the governor politically.
Her departure, a week after Republicans won the statehouses in Virginia and New Jersey, leaves the party without a candidate with strong statewide credentials in Connecticut, where a Democrat has not been governor since William O'Neill left office in 1991.
The Democratic Governors Association said it was moving the race near the top of its list of potential pickups, meaning it will get more attention and funding.
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero Jr. of Norwalk, Senate Minority Leader John McKinney of Fairfield and Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele, a political unknown before being named Rell's running mate in 2006, are all considered potential GOP candidates.
Cafero and McKinney said they were surprised by Rell's announcement, and had hoped she would run.
"The timing sort of took me aback," said Cafero. "I had absolutely no idea."
McKinney said: "I think the state needs her."
Fedele said it's "a pretty good bet" he will run.
Among Democrats, businessman Ned Lamont, who became a national political figure in 2006 by defeating Sen. Joseph Lieberman in the Democratic Senate primary, announced last week he was forming an exploratory committee.
"Now is the time for a fresh start," he said in a statement Monday night.
Former House Speaker James Amann has already declared his candidacy, and exploratory committees have been formed by Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz, Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy, state Sen. Gary LeBeau and Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi.
"Clearly this does open it up even more for Democrats," said state party chairwoman Nancy Dinardo.
AP Political Writer Sue Haigh contributed to this report