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O’Neill RIP

Former Governor Bill O’Neill passing is a sad day for the state, though few will remember why.

O’Neill was an honorable man and a watchful governor, an oddity in modern politics. He was ushered into office at the death of former Governor Ella Grasso. Personality wise, she left him with large shoes to fill. Grasso was brash, bold, commanding, and those who knew her said that on occasion she had a salty tongue. O’Neill had a quiet presence and dignity that suited the state well.

His political acumen was vastly underestimated by almost everyone. People somehow mistook his gentility for weakness; but as a former House majority leader, Democrat chairman and lieutenant governor, O’Neill was a formidable politician.

Both Democrat governors were by temperament and disposition fiscal hawks, which is probably why they were followed by a succession of Republican governors disposed to give away the state’s silver plate to all comers. Former Gov. Lowell Weicker, now officially a resident of Virginia, will best be known in the state as the father of Connecticut burgeoning income tax. When Weicker pulled up his Connecticut roots and left the state, some of his critics suggested that he was doing so to protect his vast wealth from the income tax wolf he had posted at the state’s door. Former Gov. John Rowland served some time in prison because he had misused his office. The termination of O’Neill’s career marked the end of an era in Connecticut politics. In the major cover story in the Harford Courant following his death, O’Neill is referred to as “the conservative O’Neill,” very likely the last of the breed in Democratic politics. He continually thwarted the liberals in his own party and effortlessly defeated the Republicans, who caught up with him in 1990, when he was more of less run out of office by an income tax hungry liberal press.

O’Neill was married to the same woman for 45 years; that in itself is an accomplishment in an era when successful politicians are much in the habit of ditching their first wives, the mules of their careers, and re-marrying or reinventing themselves.

Gov. Jodi Rell said of O’Neill, “No description of him would be complete without the words ‘decency’ and ‘fairness,’ and he understood that government must take its lead from the people it serves.” True and fair enough. Even truer still is former state chairman of the Democrat Party John Droney’s characterization of O’Neill: “He was, in my view, the Harry Truman of Connecticut.” All analogies are imperfect, but O’Neill was plainspoken, a tough as nails politician who disposed of vast gentlemanly reserves, a masterful political organizer, and someone who, like Truman, would rather be right than president.

At the end of his career, O’Neill was forced out of office by liberals who had prospered in the shade of his branches. The Courant story does not report how fierce its editorial board was in support of the income tax. Not only the editorial board but Charlie Morse, the paper’s chief political columnist at the time, singed O’Neill with charges that he was relying upon a decrepit tax structure, rife with niggling additional sin taxes, to balance the state’s budget. Morse later went to work for the Weicker administration.

O’Neill simply kissed the liberals off and declined to run again for office. Presently, in the post income tax era, we have returned to the status quo ante of pre-income tax days. Budget deficits, to be sure, are gone, replaced by a succession of surpluses hoarded by grasping legislators. The budget doubled within the administrations of two post-income tax Republican governors. And the niggling taxes are all back.

The more things change, the French say, the more they remain the same.

O’Neill must have been amused watching all this folderol from his easy chair. God bless him; he is gone, and we will not see his like in the Democrat Party again.

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