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Notably Norwich: Remembering an era in politics when compromise was possible

Election season was always a busy and exciting time in our household back in the 1960s and early 1970s when my father, William B. Stanley, was running for office and serving two terms representing the 19th District in the Connecticut State Senate.

U.S. Sens. Thomas Dodd and Abraham Ribicoff visited our home. So did Vice President Hubert Humphrey in 1968 when he was running for president against Richard Nixon. Gov. John Dempsey came over occasionally as did John M. Bailey, who served both as Democratic State Chairman here in Connecticut and, concurrently, as John F. Kennedy’s hand-picked Democratic national chairman.

The large rec room in the basement of our home would be converted every two years to a campaign bunker where dozens of us at various times would take turns addressing and stuffing envelopes, making phone calls, arranging for delivery of campaign signs, checking voter lists and all the other things associated with an energetic political campaign.

Every two years, a cadre of great family friends would fill the downstairs bunker, volunteering many hours of their time and earning the nickname “The Fighting Tigers” for their ferocious loyalty to their candidate.

Dad was convinced to run for office by his good friend Phil Shannon, a bare-knuckled Irish political force of nature who ruled the local party with an iron fist for more than a quarter-century, earning and living the nickname “Boss.” Phil and his wife, Stella, were fixtures at our home, as were Chuck and Anne Mitchell, Art and Yvonne Sylvia, Charlie Witt, Jake Fusaro, John Suprenant, Maureen “Mo” O’Keefe, Al Vertefeuille, Bill Gunn and others.

Not having sought political office before, Dad needed something in his first try that would provide name recognition and bring attention to his campaign. So, he called his younger brother, my Uncle Jim, who was a marketing executive in New York City. Jim called back a short time later with an amazing offer: the Aston Martin DB5 from the James Bond movie series, replete with .30 caliber machine guns, bullet-proof shield, ejector seat, tire-shredding blade, an oil, smoke and water emitter and top speed of 143 mph.

Also coming from New York City was a “regular” DB5 and two stunt drivers from the Bond movies. Can you guess who my new best friends were that summer? Yes, the guys who took me out for occasional 120 mph rides on what was then Route 52.

Ever go 120 in a small sports car? Wow!

Well, it worked. The Connecticut State Police usually escorted the Aston Martin, which was sometimes driven to campaign stops by the stunt drivers and other times on the back of a flat-bed truck.

Wherever we went, large crowds would show up: families, young men, kids, gearheads and anyone else who was a fan of sleek cars and/or the very popular James Bond series. The campaign speeches were incidental to most, but that was OK; people now knew the name, even in the district’s small, outlying towns like Franklin, Bozrah and Lebanon.

In all, as I remember, there were five primaries and two elections. Dad won three of the primaries and both elections and was the last Norwich resident to serve in the state Senate.

He unseated incumbent Democrat Al Gaffney of Taftville in a 1966 primary, then defeated Republican Larry Gilman in the general election. In 1968, he won another primary, this time defeating Ed Kelly, then going on to win the general election against Attorney Vincent Laudone, a Norwich World War II hero and state representative.

It was a hard-fought campaign that included some negative advertising, but when the election was behind them, Dad and Vin Laudone became good friends. Seven weeks after Dad had defeated him in a primary, Sen. Gaffney and his wife were kind enough to have us into their Taftville home on Christmas Eve.

If only we could see such civility in today’s political world.

After two terms, Dad ran for the Second District U,S, congressional seat left vacant by the untimely death of William St. Onge of Putnam, who succumbed to a heart attack at age 55. After a narrow loss at the district convention at Ocean Beach, there was another primary against state Sen. Jack Pickett of Middletown, who won by 380 votes out of more than 30,000, just above the 1 percent threshold that would have resulted in an automatic recount.

It was a close race, in spite of Dad’s ambitious proposal at the height of the environmental movement for a world-class jetport/industrial city in northeastern Connecticut and western Rhode Island.

He worried 50 years ago that eastern Connecticut was overly reliant on the defense industry and that an end to the Cold War would result in thousands of lost jobs and have a devastating impact on the region. Who knew?

Ultimately, the congressional seat was won by Republican Bob Steele, a dynamic man who left what seemed to be a safe seat in Congress after only two terms to run for governor against beloved incumbent Democrat Ella Grasso. Ella defeated him convincingly to become the first woman elected governor in the U.S. without being the wife or widow of a previous governor.

Two years later, in 1972, Dad tried to regain his seat as 19th District state senator, but was defeated in yet another primary by incumbent Democrat James J. “Jerry” Murphy. Sen. Murphy would serve 14 years, including his final four as President Pro Tempore of the Connecticut State Senate, the third highest-ranking elected position in the state.

Sadly, Sen. Murphy, who used his influence to do great things for eastern Connecticut, passed away only last month at age 84.

While my father remained on the Democratic Town Committee and would be among Norwich’s delegates at state conventions, his primary loss to Sen. Murphy ended his political career. It was difficult to accept at first, but the silver lining was that our mother had her husband back, my sisters and I had our father back and as a family, we had our lives back.

We cherished the many other friendships that were made in politics, including but certainly not limited to Govs. Grasso and Bill O’Neill, Lt. Gov. Joe Fauliso, U.S. Sens. Joe Lieberman and Dick Blumenthal, Attorney General Bob Killian, Secretary of State Gloria Schaffer, state Sen. George “Doc” Gunther, state Reps. Tom Sweeney, Leo Flynn, Ruby Cohen, Jay Levin and even some Republicans like former state Rep. and current Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom.

Dad didn’t return to the state Capitol until 1988 when the state Senate hosted its annual reunion that coincided with the dedication of the new Legislative Office Building to which all current and former legislators were invited. At the time, I was The Day’s capital bureau chief and persuaded Dad to attend.

When he got there, he viewed the new multimillion-dollar building in disbelief, with its ornate cherry wood doors, brass railings, imported marble floors and polished granite exterior. Every one of the state’s 187 legislators — senators and representatives — would have their own offices in the LOB.

“They’ve taken good care of themselves,” Dad said of the legislators. “When I served up here, my desk in the Senate chamber was my office,” he said, recalling that only senior-most leaders had offices.

We ran into my good friend, Judd Everhart, who at the time was the Capitol Bureau Chief for the Associated Press.

“Well, Senator,” Judd said, removing his notepad from his back pocket, “what do you think about this new Legislative Office Building?”

Gazing around the opulent five-story atrium, Dad replied: “It reminds me of Rome.”

Rome? We asked, puzzled.

“Yes, Rome,” he replied, “just before the fall.”

Bill Stanley is a former reporter at The Day. He can be reached at billstanleyjr@aol.com.

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