NB Politicus

Remembering Senator Joe Harper: “One Of A Kind”

Posted in In Memoriam, New Britain history by nbpoliticus on May 23, 2018

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.

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Joe Harper at a rally for Democrats in 2010.

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.

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30 Years Ago: Joe Harper (back center) led New Britain friends and delegates, including Connie Wilson Collins, Emma Pierce and John McNamara, to the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta.  Harper, working  with SANE Freeze and the United Auto Workers, formed the delegation in the old 6th Congressional District in a display of his coalition building skills.

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.”

 

 

Remembering April 4, 1968

Posted in 1968, civil rights, In Memoriam, national politics, Poverty by nbpoliticus on March 31, 2018

By John McNamara

I remember exactly where I was on April 4, 1968.

That sunny and warm Thursday,  like many others in my senior year in high school, I drove to Bradlee’s Department store on the Lynnway in Lynn, Massachusetts after school to punch in for the evening shift, earning some money before entering Boston University in the fall.

News spread quickly into the evening that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was dead at the age of 39.

It didn’t take long to realize that my shift as a retail clerk would be different from all the others. The store quickly emptied out. Not a customer in sight all night. No need for Mr. Silverman, the shaken and somber store manager, to send me out on outside carriage control. The bullets in Memphis were enough to bring a normal business day to a halt in Lynn and most of the nation as big cities teetered on the brink of a violence that King sought to avoid with acts of non-violent resistance.

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New Britain’s Memorial at MLK Park.

Just five short years before I had come home from junior high on a late summer day to watch King deliver his “I Have A Dream” speech – an event that would inspire so many of us to become community and political activists.

There are many good remembrances of what King said and stood for on his national holiday and at the permanent memorial in Washington every year.

But the nation could stand to be reminded again of the day King was killed and why he was in Memphis a few years after the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts became the law of the land.

By 1968, Rev. King was widening the concerns of his movement. In Where Do We Go From Here?  King, much to the consternation of the more cautious members of his movement and the political establishment, opposed a Vietnam policy that had begun to break the nation further apart. The lunchroom sit-ins and battles over accommodations and voting rights were giving way to a broader agenda. He was planning a new march on Washington – “the Poor People’s Campaign” — when he decided to take up the cause of 1,300 Black sanitation workers in Memphis, a city of southern segregation, where the white power structure opposed the right to unionize and the Mayor vowed never to bargain in good faith in a way that would give the sanitation workers their dignity. The strike and a citywide economic boycott were a cause King knew he could not ignore.

King’s prophetic “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech on the eve of the assassination is his best known from Memphis. But two weeks earlier, on March 18th, King galvanized support for strikers by saying: “So often we overlook the worth and significance of those who are not in professional jobs, or those who are not in the so-called big jobs…..One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive.” Following King’s assassination, the Memphis power structure gave up its intransigence – recognizing the union, awarding pay raises and instituting merit promotions.

Fifty years later Rev. King’s  work goes on and is being renewed for a new generation. Led by the Rev. William Barber of North Carolina and others a “moral direct action” campaign is mobilizing a 2018 Poor People’s Campaign  for the same principles  that led Rev. King to Memphis and his last days.

King’s campaign for striking AFSCME sanitation workers reaffirmed his greatness at the hour of his death and resonates today in the cause of social and economic justice. That’s why I’ll always remember 4/4/68 as a day frozen in time not to be forgotten.

Adapted and updated from an April 2007 post.

Art Perry’s Fighting Spirit and Boundless Optimism Will Not Be Forgotten

Posted in In Memoriam, labor by nbpoliticus on August 13, 2016

New Britain’s and SEIU’s Art Perry died this week after an extended and brave battle with cancer at the age of 63.

I knew and will not forget Art as a union organizer of fighting spirit and boundless optimism through too many political and union organizing campaigns to count. He worked at it for 34 years mostly for District 1199 and from 2004 to 2011 as political director for SEIU’s 32BJ – a period of inspiring and successful union drives at public and private employers on behalf of janitors who won better wages and working conditions for the first time.

In New Britain Art Perry, with Susan McKinley Perry, always has been here for progressive candidates and working people,  mostly winning and sometimes losing, but always standing up for fairness and social justice. “You are who you hang with,” he quipped last year. And Art Perry was one of us in the labor movement and progressive politics in New Britain.

Art Perry (right) in the New Britain delegation at a Democratic State Convention (Gerratana photo)

Art Perry (right) in the New Britain delegation at a Democratic State Convention (Gerratana photo)

In 2011 Art joined the CT Labor Department in the commissioner’s office where he applied his organizing skills to public policy and allocating resources to job creation and workplace rights. Notable has been Art Perry’s work to bring the Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) program to Connecticut. JAG is a national non-profit working with state-based organizations delivering supports and interventions to help “most at risk” young people stay in school, get to college and obtain sustainable jobs.  Says Liz Dupont-Diehl, the JAG-CT Director: “Art was the heart and soul of Jobs for America’s Graduates, Connecticut. It would not exist without him. He worked tirelessly to bring this program to CT and it has already touched hundreds of young people.”  The JAG program has been established at New Britain High School and in other communities in Connecticut since it began.

 

At Democratic dinner: from left Alton Brooks, Emma Pierce Susan McKinley Perry and Art Perry (Gerratana photo)

At Democratic dinner: from left Alton Brooks, Emma Pierce Susan McKinley Perry and Art Perry (Gerratana photo)

There are sure to be many war stories and remembrances of Art’s work and life in the days ahead that will let Susan, Art’s sons and family know that they are not alone in their sorrow. “To many people he was a mentor, a leader and a walking vacation if they needed,” posted his son Joshua Perry. “To our family he was an individual of never-ending wisdom, subtle smoothness, and a provider of the deepest love you could find.”

I am better for having known Art Perry because he was able to instill some of that  fighting spirit and boundless optimism in me.

John McNamara