On the last day of the session, when time is the legislature’s most precious commodity, the Connecticut Senate lavished a long farewell Wednesday on Sen. Edith G. Prague, an indomitable political voice in Hartford for 30 years.
Prague, 86, a Democrat of Columbia, is retiring as the oldest member of the General Assembly, a woman who has impressed, influenced and infuriated colleagues with a dogged advocacy on behalf of the elderly, children and organized labor.
One after another, senators stood to praise and gently tweak a woman known for her impatience, someone who once shook off a request for a one-year delay on an issue by warning, “I don’t buy green bananas, so I want it passed now.”
Every time a senator sat down, Prague looked to Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, an old friend who presides over the Senate, signaling she thought it was enough, it was time for Prague get up offer her thanks.
Wyman smiled and shook her head. Everyone had their story, everyone wanted their say. Even the Republicans.
Sen. Andrew Roraback, R-Goshen, and Sen. Tony Guglielmo, R-Stafford, noted that Prague seemed to be the only senator with a statewide constituency: No matter where they were from, elderly residents with an issue found Prague.
“Andrew, I got a call from one of your constituents,” Roraback recalled Prague telling him, a remark that put him on notice that the two of them would be working to resolve the problem.
Sen. Rob Kane, R-Watertown, told Prague he didn’t think he agreed with her on anything, not her advocacy for minimum-wage increases or the nation’s first state law requiring some businesses to offer paid sick days.
Yet he told her how much he enjoyed sharing a stage with her when a group honored them both for their work on behalf of Alzheimer’s patients. Prague smiled broadly.
“Unlike Rob Kane, I don’t think I ever disagreed with you,” said Sen. Ed Gomes, D-Bridgeport, a lifelong union man.
Gomes said he never tired of watching Prague, who is a widow left in comfortable circumstances by her businessman husband, advocate for the working poor. When the Democrats are in caucus, Prague is a force to behold, Gomes said.
Whenever she pushed back at colleagues on a labor issue, Gomes said he’d sit back and say, “Get ’em, Edith. Get ’em.”
Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, said he and Prague were classmates returning to school 30 years ago to seek graduate degrees in social work. Alone among their classmates, Prague found a way to translate compassion for individuals into advocacy of broader public policies, he said.
Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Hartford, who is tall and African-American, deadpanned that Prague, described by one colleague as a member of the “short caucus,” really was his mother, or at least she seemed to fill that role in his political life. He served with her in both the House and Senate.
Sen. Gary LeBeau, D-East Hartford, said the media would miss Prague as much as the senators. “Some of the quotes Edith had over the years, I’m not going to repeat,” LeBeau said.
In 1992, an exasperated Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. fired Prague as his commissioner on aging over her resistance to his ideas for consolidating the agency. Prague left the administration claiming Weicker saw the elderly as “greedy geezers.”
She still refers to Weicker as “that man.”
Prague was elected to the House in 1982, served two years in the Weicker administration, and then was elected to the Senate in 1994.
On and on went the stories. Finally, Wyman signaled it was time for Prague to have her say.
“I feel so overwhelmed and so proud. My colleagues today made me feel like I accomplished my life’s work,” Prague said.
As with all subjects, she was blunt about the reason for her departure. After a minor stroke on Christmas, her doctor warned that the pace she maintained as a senator was dangerous.
She might not be so lucky a second time.
So, Prague stood at her place in the Senate and bid goodbye. She shook a finger at Coleman, smiled and told him she’d be watching.
Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-New London, who sits next to Prague in the Senate, dabbed at her eyes with a tissue, but not Prague.
“I’m not going to cry because it will cost me five bucks,” she said.
Derek Slap, the chief of staff for the Senate Democrats, bet her a five-spot that she couldn’t stay dry-eyed.
As she finished talking, the senators, staff and audience also rose, offering a sustained applause. Slap walked over, hugged her and pressed something in her hand. It was five ones.
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