Nelson Brown, a speaker of the Connecticut House in the late 1950s and the trusted tie-breaker on legislative redistricting plans in 1991 and 2001, died early Thursday at Lawrence and Memorial Hospital. He was 89.

As a genial and popular figure at the state Capitol, where he lobbied on freedom of information issues, it was hard to imagine him at the center of a political maelstrom in 1957, his only term as speaker.

The issue was a bill sought by the Catholic Church allowing municipalities to pay for school buses for private school students.

In 1957, the controversy exposed political and geographic fault lines. The Democratic Party was preodminantly urban and Catholic. The GOP was largely Protestant, suburban and rural.

Brown favored the measured, but a majority of his Republican caucus did not. Not only did they vote against the bill, they overruled his decision to keep references to religion out of the heated debate.

The controversy hastened the end of his legislative career. It was ironic that decades later Brown, repudiated by his own caucus, became the go-to neutral vote on redistricting.

In Connecticut, legislative districts are redrawn every decade by a bipartisan committee of four Democrats and four Republicans. If unable to agree on new districts, the eight appoint a ninth member.

Twice, Brown was that man.

His passing comes as the legislature once again is approaching a deadline on redistricting. It is unclear if they will be looking for a new honest broker.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete.

Brown’s survivors include his son, Eric Brown, a lobbyist at the Capitol for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association.

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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