Mary Mushinsky: Citizen activist to Dean of the House

It was Jan. 7, 1981. Jimmy Carter was two weeks away from leaving the White House to make way for Ronald Reagan. William A. O’Neill had been governor for eight days, succeeding the dying Ella T. Grasso.

A 29-year-old organizer and public-interest lobbyist named Mary M. Mushinsky entered the state House of Representatives that day with a freshman class that included two future House speakers and a future governor, John G. Rowland.

Mushinsky opening day

Mary Mushinsky on her 30th opening day

Twenty-nine years later, 150 of the 151 House members have moved on. Only Mushinsky remains.

On Feb. 3, when the General Assembly convened for 2010, Mushinsky began her 30th legislative session, another milestone in a steady career that spans an era of cultural, political and institutional change at the State Capitol.

A child of the 60s who used to breast-feed her two babies at the Capitol, ruffling some male colleagues, Mushinsky is an unlikely “Dean of the House,” the honorific accorded the chamber’s longest-serving current member.

Mushinsky, now 58, a Democrat from Wallingford, said she ran on a whim in 1980 when a car accident curtailed the career of her predecessor, Democrat Michael S. Kraskowski.

“I was never going to be an elected official,” Mushinsky said. “It was one of those sudden flashes: ‘I could do that job.’ “

Her election put her in the vanguard of a progressive movement that eventually would reshape politics in Connecticut. But at the time, the activist left was uncomfortable with her candidacy.

In 1979, Mushinsky was an organizer and lobbyist for the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, one of the public-interest lobbies inspired by Ralph Nader. Her boss, Miles S. Rapoport, tried to dissuade her from running.

“I said, ‘You can’t.’ I said, ‘The job of an organizer is to go out and get ordinary people to speak on their own behalf,’ ” Rapoport said. ” ‘Organizers are not supposed to get their name in the paper or have a persona of their own. And the legislature is kind of a compromising environment. You shouldn’t do it.’

“Fortunately for Connecticut, she ignored my advice.”

Rapoport said he and other organizers reconsidered their role in elective politics in response to Ronald Reagan’s election, which energized the right and brought young conservatives into politics.

“It forced a major reassessment and re-evaluation in community organizations all around the country, including at CCAG,” Rapoport said. “In the end, we decided that not being involved in elective politics was fighting with one hand tied behind your back.”

In 1982, progressives responded with a coalition of called LEAP, the Legislative Electoral Action Program. An early victory was the election in Waterbury of a CCAG member, Doreen M. Del Bianco, to the House.

Two years later, LEAP backed other liberals who won primaries against conservative and moderate Democrats, then overcame a Reagan landslide that gave the GOP its only House majority in Mushinsky’s career.

The roster of winners included: Jonathan Pelto of Mansfield, the 23-year-old state coordinator of Gary Hart’s campaign; Lynn Taborsak of Danbury, a 41-year-old union plumber; and Rapoport, 35, of West Hartford, who managed to get over his previous doubts about mixing activism and organizational politics.

Without the elections of Mushinsky and the LEAP members who followed, passage of the income tax in 1991 may been impossible.

As one of the few Democratic success stories in 1984, when Walter Mondale lost 49 states on the way to the most lopsided electoral-college loss in history, the success of the Connecticut progressives became a template for other states.

In March 1985, New England Monthly pronounced the group “the recognized national leader in liberal grassroots campaigning” in a story titled, “Great LEAPing Democrats! Lessons in how to breathe life into the party’s warm corpse.”

Tom Swan, who temporarily stepped down as the executive director of CCAG in 2006 to run Ned Lamont’s campaign for U.S. Senate, said, “Mary was able to be elected and make a difference from the inside. It helped point the way for a lot of people afterward.”

One of the CCAG alumni in the legislature is House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden. He is the ninth person to hold that post since Mushinsky’s election in 1980.

Her classmates that year included Martin M. Looney of New Haven, who moved upstairs in 1993 to the Senate, where he is majority leader. She also started with two eventual speakers, Thomas D. Ritter of Hartford and Moira Lyons of Stamford, the first woman to oversee the House.

“The budget picture at the time was fairly grim,” Looney recalled.

But not as bad as this year.

And not like 1991.

Her memories are sharp from the summer of the income tax. Lots of late nights. Days of subsisting on trail mix that Lynn Taborsak kept in a bucket beneath her desk.

“Those of us that had no money, that’s what we ate,” she said.

Days blended into nights. Some days, she never made it home.

“My husband came up with the kids,” she said. “It was like a jail visit.”

The final vote on the income tax came on an August afternoon. Mushinsky was so exhausted from not sleeping or eating that she fainted at her desk. No one noticed.

“People just went home in a daze,” she said.

The changes at the General Assembly during her tenure are many.

Smoking was an accepted vice at the State Capitol in 1981.

The clatter of typewriters still could be heard in the overcrowded pressroom on the third-floor, where more than two dozen reporters worked year-round.

(One of them was Martin J. Waters, an Associated Press reporter who gave up his Capitol assignment after he started dating Mushinsky. They married in 1985 and have two young adult sons.)

No woman ever had been elected speaker.

Legislative pay was $9,500 for the first of a two-year term, $7,500 for the second. As a committee co-chair, Mushinsky now gets paid $32,241, plus a $4,500 stipend for expenses. She also works part-time as the executive director of the Quinnipiac River Watershed Association.

CT-N, the cable network that now provides gavel-to-gavel coverage of legislative sessions and many public hearings didn’t exist.

The Legislative Office Building, the glass-and-granite home of the modern legislature, wasn’t even a blueprint.

And the Capitol itself was seedy, its exterior sooty gray and its interior long overdue for the renovation that soon would restore its original High Victorian décor.

Rank-and-file lawmakers did not have offices, just cubicles. Many were assigned space in the attic in violation of fire codes.

There still is a Taborsak in the House. It’s Lynn’s son, Joseph, a lawyer from Danbury.

As the environment changed, Mushinsky has stayed true to the issues that have always interested her, primarily the environment and children. But she’s also branched out.

“Sometimes, people try to reinvent themselves depending on the fashion of the times,” said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, R-Norwalk. “She’s been the same person with the same ideals and the same passions. You have to give her a lot of respect.”

In 1991, that meant voting for an unpopular income tax. In 2000, that meant proposing legislation to force Wallingford to join the rest of Connecticut in observing Martin Luther King Day.

The mayor refused to observe the holiday, unless the municipal unions gave up another day off. The standoff eventually drew unwanted attention from the Ku Klux Klan.

“The town’s good name is caught in the middle,” Mushinsky said, testifying in support of her own bill. With revisions, it passed unanimously and was signed into law by Rowland.

The bill was an issue that fall, but Mushinsky was re-elected with 57 percent of the vote. Two years later, she had no opponent.

“There is no mystery with Mary Mushinsky, none at all. She is very direct. She says what’s important, and why it’s important,” said Rep. Robert Godfrey, D-Danbury. “Her constituents appreciate her candor.”

Mushinsky’s career has had its ups and downs, depending on her relationships with the various speakers. Seniority means little in Hartford.

“You get a better parking space,” said Rep. Arthur J. O’Neill, R-Southbury, who was elected in 1988 and is the senior Republican. “It’s certainly not like Congress, where that’s the core of your power.”

One change of administration ended her six-year run as co-chairwoman of the Environment Committee, where she pushed for recycling. An interest in adolescents at risk led her to the Select Committee on Children, where she was co-chair for 10 years.

When her old colleague from CCAG, Donovan, became speaker, he asked her become co-chairwoman of the Program Review and Investigations Committee, one of the legislature’s bipartisan committees. Her co-chair is Sen. John A. Kissel of Enfield, a Republican lawyer at Northeast Utilities.

“We are working well together,” Kissel said.

The committee has a professional staff of analysts. The panel’s ongoing studies include a review of waste-management policies in Connecticut and a look at how well the state’s colleges are attuned to the needs of the economy. It is a little wonkish, but Mushinsky finds it interesting.

In her 30th year in Hartford, Mushinsky says, there’s more to do.