He first attended the dinner as a child, tagging along with his father to see the likes of Jack Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey.

On Monday night, U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd stood before a Jefferson-Jackson-Bailey Dinner for the last time as an elected official.

“This evening obviously is bittersweet,” Dodd told a crowd of more than 1,000 at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford.

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Sen. Chris Dodd speaks at the Democrats’ Jefferson-Jackson-Bailey dinner for the last time as an elected official (Mark Pazniokas)

He arrived late from Washington, where a vote detained him and the keynote speaker, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, who grew up in Vernon.

“No surprises,” he told Ryan Drajewicz, the aide who greeted him downstairs by the car.

No surprises, he was assured.

But Drajewicz was unaware that the widow of Dodd’s friend Ted Kennedy was waiting upstairs in the ballroom to greet the boss.

“Connecticut, how lucky you are,” Vicki Kennedy said from the stage.

It was a surprise arranged by Democratic State Chairwoman Nancy DiNardo. She called Ted Kennedy Jr, who lives in Connecticut. Vicki Kennedy called the next day.

“She said she’d love to do it,” DiNardo said.

Dodd considered Kennedy his closest friend in the Senate. He was seen aboard Kennedy’s sailboat during the senator’s last summer in Hyannis. He spoke at his memorial.

When his turn came to speak Monday, Dodd reminisced a bit about past dinners, some held at hotels long gone from the Hartford skyline.

“I remember Teddy coming,” Dodd said.

He smiled.

Dodd gave a pep talk about the fall. His audience included many who hope, who believe their best days are ahead.

He gestured to former U.S. Rep. Barbara B. Kennelly, whose father was the legendary Democratic boss, John Bailey.

In other states, the big annual Democratic fundraiser is called the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner. In Connecticut, it also carries the name Bailey.

Dodd joked that he and Kennelly each should get a lifetime pass.

His father was Thomas Dodd, a senator who ran one time too many. Chris Dodd decided on his own in January it was time to call it quits.

So, for the first time in 36 years, Congress will convene next January without Dodd in either the House or Senate.

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Sen. Chris Dodd listens to Vicki Kennedy, widow of his longtime friend Sen. Ted Kennedy (Mark Pazniokas)

“What a great privilege and honor it’s been,” Dodd said.

He thanked his staff, a few by name, including Rosa DeLauro, a former chief of staff and now a member of Congress. There was Stanley Israelite, who knew everyone Dodd knew in the old days, and more than a few he didn’t.

And there were others, Dodd said, “Names you don’t know, faces you’ve never seen.”

A few stood in the back, holding drinks.

Dodd gave a shout out to one of them, Ed Mann, whom Israelite hired for Dodd’s staff on Jan. 22, 1975, shortly after he entered the U.S. House.

Mann raised a glass.

To his embarrassment, it was red wine.

“Change it to Guinness,” he said, when he realized a reporter noted the gesture. “I’m only drinking it because they don’t have Guinness.”

Dodd gave a rousing introduction to Warner.

But some of the crowd melted away as soon as Dodd left the stage.

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Mark PazniokasCapitol Bureau Chief

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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