Politics & Power


By Elizabeth J. Normen

(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Aug/Sep/Oct 2004

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As election season heats up, the HRJ team could not resist an issue on the theme of politics and power. After all, Hartford is the capital city, a designation it held from English settlement until 1701 and later wrested back after sharing it with New Haven. For 172 years, Hartford alternated hosting legislative sessions with our fair sister-city to the south. In 1873, the space crunch in the Old State House and presumably in New Haven meant a new facility was needed. Hartford’s citizens bid successfully for the singular honor by offering $500,000 towards the erection of a new capitol next to Bushnell Park, where Trinity College then stood. Hartford’s Old State House became City Hall. Read more about the Old State House’s ups and downs in “Destination” on page 40.

Politics and power, however, is about people, and the Hartford region has had its share of colorful political characters. So many, in fact, that we’ve only been able to focus on a few individuals—but those whose stories we’ve chosen to tell remind us of  the central role the region has played in national as well as statewide contests. Our photo essay shows campaign stops by nationally known figures such as John F. Kennedy and Theodore Roosevelt. Both Roosevelt and Kennedy are shown riding in open cars, images, especially regarding the latter, that are now rather haunting. Jon Purmont’s article about Governor Ella Grasso and Joe Duffy’s profile of abolitionist Anna Dickinson illustrate the power of two individuals of humble beginnings to affect political change in two different centuries. Donald Fenton’s article on what preceded Hartford’s recent transition to a “strong mayor” form of government explains a lot—and it’s not quite the story I, for one, expected!

We’ve also touched on the struggles of our region’s citizens who have been disenfranchised in the past. The Hartford Studies Project of Trinity College, one of HRJ’s organizational partners, is spearheading a fascinating effort lead by Professor Susan Pennybacker to reconstruct and augment a recently discovered incomplete film documentary of Hartford dating from 1969. This extremely rare and revealing footage was shot by filmmakers from the Film Board of Canada and UCLA, working with the city’s political and business leaders, local Black Panthers, community organizers, and residents. Filming of the documentary began just as Hartford was wracked by rioting for a third consecutive summer. The original footage explored Hartford as a “model city” during that era’s “War on Poverty.” The Hartford Studies Project tracked down some of the original participants and filmed their candid comments on life in Hartford then and now. A completed 90-minute documentary is in the works. Screenings of portions of the more than 80-hours of original footage are offered periodically in community meetings as the project progresses. Read Jacobs’s interview with Butch Lewis, a founding member of the local Black Panther party, on page 42 for Lewis’s recollections of working with the film crew (Lewis kept the film canisters safe and sound for 30 years) and Panther activities in the late 1960s. You can find out more about the riots HERE and the activities of the Black Panthers in New Haven HERE.

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