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Monday, June 28, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

"First" spouse roles change

By Diane Scarponi
The Associated Press

BOB CHILD / AP
Lou Rell, seen swearing in his wife, Connecticut Lt. Gov. M. Jodi Rell, for her third term, will be one of a handful of "First Gentlemen" when his wife becomes governor of Connecticut on Thursday.
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NEW HAVEN, Conn. — The spouse of Connecticut's soon-to-be governor won't be doing flower shows or society balls, charity appearances or tourism promotions.

Lou Rell has no plans to be a visible sidekick to his wife, Lt. Gov. M. Jodi Rell, when she takes over on July 1 from Gov. John Rowland, who is resigning amid a federal corruption investigation and legislative impeachment proceedings.

As more women become governor, and as more wives of male politicians have their own careers, the traditional role of first lady is changing.

"The role of the governor's spouse really has evolved over the years, regardless of sex," said Marcia Lim, who directs spouses' programs for the National Governors Association. "There's greater flexibility, and they are not so tied down to a traditional definition of what is a governor's spouse. Each one is really defining it for themselves."

Eight states have female governors, five of whom are married.

The first consideration is what to call the husband of the governor. Some men settle on "first spouse," since "first husband" has its own connotations.

"I want you all to know that he's my 'first husband' — and I hope the last," Rell joked this past week.

Bill Shaheen joked that he was "first hunk" when his wife, Jeanne, was governor of New Hampshire.

The "y" disappeared from the door of the office of the first lady in Utah when Olene Walker became governor, making her husband, Myron, the "first lad."

U.S. Magistrate Gary Sebelius, husband of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, likes the title "first dude."

And Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm's husband, Dan Granholm Mulhern, prefers "first gentleman."
 
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Mulhern gave up his business coaching executives for leadership roles and now consults on a volunteer basis for his wife's administration, in addition to duties such as charity work.

Bill Shaheen gave up a state judgeship and went back to his private law practice when his wife was elected governor.

Being "first hunk" was fun, he said. He got great Super Bowl seats, judged a beauty contest for tow trucks and modeled a tuxedo in a charity fashion show.

The only awkward thing was that people occasionally would introduce him as "the governor's wife."

"They make mistakes, they get nervous, and you have to laugh it off," he said.

Mulhern agreed: "There are definitely moments like that, and I've come to appreciate what women have experienced for hundreds of years, as an invisible partner people have looked past."

Lou Rell, 63, a retired airline pilot, has decided to completely stay out of the spotlight and turned down a request for an interview. He plans to accompany his wife to official functions, but he does not plan to do any of the things that Patricia Rowland did, such as promote Connecticut tourism or write a children's book for charity.

He runs a business that shuttles people to medical appointments, and has served as a volunteer firefighter and police commissioner in Brookfield.

"He will not have any official duties," said Cathy Hinsch, spokeswoman for the lieutenant governor.

Political scientist Harriet Applewhite, who teaches a class about gender and politics at Southern Connecticut State University, said this awkwardness over the "first spouse" is really about unease with the idea of women in power.

"It's really a new role, and roles need to be invented, they need to be developed over time," Applewhite said. "There's just such a tradition of men holding the power, and women getting it indirectly by being close to the man in power, and there's no tradition of a man getting power by being the spouse of the woman."

Bill Shaheen had some advice for Lou Rell: "Don't take life too seriously, don't take yourself too seriously, have fun, help out in any way you can, and remember: She is the governor, not you."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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