Former Governor William A. O'Neill died today at age 77 after a long illness. He died at his home in East Hampton with his wife of 45 years at his side. Bill O'Neill, a conservative Democrat who rose through the ranks and became the longest serving Governor is modern history, brought a working man's perspective to politics.
He did it all and never put on any airs or thought much about the trappings of power. Bill O'Neill served his country in Korea with the Air Force, came home to Connecticut and operated a popular tavern in East Hampton. He ran and won a seat in the Legislature and made friends easily. They in turn made him their Majority Leader where he also won election as chairman of the state Democratic Party.
Bill O'Neill knew how to count votes and it was a talent that came in handy. It always does in politics and while liberals and Republicans would often decry his policies, Bill O'Neill often had the last laugh. He had the votes.
When he ran for State Party Chairman, he opposed Hartford lawyer and national big wig Peter Kelly, who was also the candidate of then Governor Ella Grasso. Many thought O'Neill had no shot, but he knew where the votes were, not in the Governor's office but with the State Central Committee and the town chairmen He won.
Within a few years, O'Neill was plucked by Grasso to be her running mate at Lt. Governor when the incumbent, Robert Killian, took on Grasso in a primary and lost badly.
In two years, terminal cancer forced Grasso to step down shortly before dying. O'Neill was suddenly Governor and he was immediately underestimated by friend and foe. But O'Neill knew to succeed, you needed smart, loyal people. He hired young, aggressive whiz kids like Tim Bannon and Dave McQuade and kept close counsel with his old pals, Jack Mahaney of Waterbury, George Hannon, Chad McCollum, his chief-of-staff and the sly fox, attorney Jim Wade.
O'Neill beat Lew Rome in 1982 and slaughtered Julie Belaga in 1986, sweeping the Democrats back into power in the Legislature two years after the 1984 Reagan landslide.
Bill O'Neill did many good things for the state - he rebuilt the roads and bridges, kept the income tax off the table and began to rebuild the state's higher education system. He was tight with the buck and was in no mood for the liberal social agenda.
He was tough but never cruel. He was always deferential to those who disagreed with him and he never forgot a face or name.
When Bill O'Neill left office in 1990, he left without fanfare. He fit effortlessly into private life along the banks of Lake Pocotopaug in East Hampton, offered his counsel when asked, kept his sense of humor and always had time for old friends or colleagues.
He was from the old school when old school was a good thing.
Republicans from across the state mourn the loss of a good and decent man who served his state and country with distinction. We send our love and prayers to Nikki O'Neill during this time of loss.
24 November 2007
Posted by Chris Healy at 19:48