Julia Tashjian dies; won on O’Neill ticket

Julia H. Tashjian of Windsor, a Democratic insider who was Connecticut’s secretary of the state for two terms in the 1980s, twice winning on tickets led by Gov. William A. O’Neill, died Thursday. She was 74.

The Democratic State Convention that propelled her to statewide office in 1982 was the last of its kind, run on unwritten rules from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, when tickets were carefully balanced and personal connections often trumped policy.

Tashjian was preceded and followed as secretary by politicians eager for higher office, but she had been a party functionary and legislative staffer who spent a career electing other Democrats, then traded on that work to win statewide office.

Her election as secretary of the state, an office that had been held by Gov. Ella T. Grasso on her path toward becoming a national figure, was all Tashjian wanted in politics.

“She had her eye on just doing the job she had and helping other people along the way,” said John F. Droney Jr., who became Democratic state chairman in 1986. “You would have trouble finding someone saying a bad word about her.”

“Julia always had a smile and a laugh for everyone,” said Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, who was a legislative staffer and lawmaker during Tashjian’s tenure. “But behind that easygoing personality she was a very hardworking public servant who was dedicated to her state, her family and her beloved Armenian community.” 

Tashjian was a Young Democrat, a member of the Windsor Democratic Town Committee and, finally, a member of the Democratic State Central Committee, whose members could build coalitions at conventions.

As a state central committee member, Tashjian was friends with O’Neill, the moderate Democrat who was state chairman before becoming governor. But she also worked for House Speaker Irving J. Stolberg, a liberal from New Haven.

In 1980, she was one of the few party regulars who chose Ted Kennedy over President Carter in the presidential race, giving her credibility among progressives that would pay dividends two years later.

“Ella had basically whipped everybody in line for Carter,” said Martin Dunleavy, a longtime liberal activist who managed Tashjian’s campaign. “So Julie had upped her bona fides with the liberal community.”

The secretary of the state’s office was an open seat in 1982. Barbara B. Kennelly resigned the post in 1981 after winning a special election to succeed the late William Cotter as a member of Congress. A deputy served out her term.

Tashjian, who had never held public office, competed for the nomination with former state Rep. Patricia T. Hendel, a New London Democrat who had been co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee.

The convention was raucous, one of the last gasps for a political system perfected by Kennelly’s father and party boss, John Bailey. Nominating reforms that were transforming presidential politics largely had passed by Connecticut.

Delegates still were attentive to fading notions of ethnic, racial and geographic ticket balancing in nominating candidates for the six statewide constitutional officers: governor, lieutenant governor, secretary, treasurer, comptroller and attorney general.

O’Neill was the uncertain new governor, a lieutenant who had succeeded the dying Grasso. Seeking his first nomination as governor, he was opposed by a young liberal House speaker, Ernest Abate of Stamford.

Competition for the underticket also was fierce.

Joseph I. Lieberman, a young state legislator who had lost a congressional election in 1980, was making a comeback, seeking the nomination for the open seat for attorney general, an office he would win and use as a stepping-stone to a long career in the U.S. Senate.

Hendel and Lieberman were both Jewish, and some delegates used to carefully balanced tickets fretted that the party could not possibly nominate Jews for two of the six statewide offices.

So the Hendel camp allied itself with Joseph Ruggiero, an Italian American competing with Lieberman for attorney general. Tashjian was matched with Lieberman.

(By the mid-1990s, three of the six offices would be held by Jews without notice.)

She won the convention and the subsequent primary, relying on activists around the state, her newfound liberal friends, ethnic pride among Armenians and a low-cost ad campaign on small radio stations.

“Armenians were a factor. The small ethnic groups are much tighter with each other than larger ones,” Dunleavy said.

Liberals eventually cooled on Tashjian, whose support for Kennedy did not translate into passion for progressive reforms on election laws, such as lowering the threshold for candidates to qualify for primaries.

She was re-elected in 1986, but the political landscape had changed in 1990, when she sought a third term.

O’Neill was retired, leaving the party regulars of Tashjian’s generation feeling disaffected. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. won the governor’s race as an independent, upending old voting patterns.

Tashjian lost to a Republican, Pauline R. Kezer. She talked about a comeback in 1994, but progressives rallied around Miles S. Rapoport, a supporter of election reforms.