By John McNamara
Joe Harper, New Britain’s former state senator and a local Democratic Party leader for a generation, died May 20th at the age of 69.
Harper’s public service — mayoral aide, state representative, state senator — is being remembered as “iconic” and legendary by former colleagues and state Capitol observers. Mark Pazniokas in the Connecticut Mirror aptly described Joe Harper as “a Falstaffian, old-school politician who zealously protected his New Britain district as a Democratic state lawmaker.”
That stemmed from Joe’s reputation as a consummate and crafty lawmaker. His legislative career began as the 24th District State Representative. Reflecting his labor and progressive roots, he was a liberal firebrand in his two terms in the the House at one point calling for a state takeover of public utilities to rein in electric rates. By the time he reached the Senate he knew how to wield his legislative powers as the Chair of the General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee with his House Co-Chair Bill Dyson of New Haven. Working with then Senate President John Larson and Governor O’Neill, Harper’s priorities over six terms usually prevailed to the benefit of his constituents in New Britain. In that state senate triumvirate of Larson, Majority Leader Cornelius O’Leary. and Harper, Joe was the strategist who drove the legislative train. O’Leary and his close friend, Congressman Larson, would be the first to say so.
For Harper’s political “family” in New Britain Joe became an unofficial patriarch and mentor to contemporaries and those who would follow him into the Legislature and politics over the last 30 years.
Outside of the state capitol the “old school” politics, going back to Joe’s time as an aide to Mayor Matthew Avitabile, included its share of Town Committee fights and local contests tinged with the rough and tumble of ethnic politics. And most of the time Harper won because he brought people together.
Former Town Chair John King recalls his election as Party Chair came in 1984 when Harper teamed up with unlikely allies Don DeFronzo and Mayor William “Billy Mac” McNamara to win 14 district races for town committee. “Joe was a very good friend and mentor and was responsible for my becoming Chair,” recalls King, an ally of Mayor McNamara. Five years later, in 1989, Harper was the driving force in the coalition that formed around DeFronzo in his successful bid to unseat the six-term Mayor McNamara.
Following his legislative career, Harper’s work continued by serving as a deputy state treasurer, vice president of Central Connecticut State University and a vice president at the Hospital for Special Care (HSC).
In recent years Joe Harper, with care and support from HSC, took on the disease of obesity, displaying extraordinary character and courage to overcome a personal health challenge that would not defeat him and never stopped his public service that leaves a legacy of benefits and accomplishments in New Britain.
To all who worked with him through the years on campaigns and policy making Joe Harper’s loss is like losing a brother in your own family.
His gregarious nature and good humor brought a joy to politics that is increasingly harder to come by these days. He was, in the words of 24th State Representative Rick Lopes ” one of a kind.”