Thomas J. D’Amore Jr., a puckish political presence in Connecticut for more than 40 years, most notably as a key strategist for Lowell P. Weicker’s successful runs for U.S. Senate and governor, and later for Ned Lamont’s challenge of U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, died Tuesday after an apparent heart attack. He was 72.
“He was the closest friend I had in politics,” Weicker said. “I mean, he managed all of my campaigns, except the one I lost. He was the best in terms of what he did for me, but he also was a close friend.”
Friends said D’Amore died at Charlotte Hungerford Hospital, where he was taken by ambulance after showing symptoms of a heart attack at his home in New Hartford.
D’Amore was the Republican state chairman during the 1980s, but he left the GOP to run Weicker’s improbable comeback as an independent candidate for governor in 1990, two years after Weicker lost his Senate seat to Lieberman, then a Democrat.
He was a chief of staff for Weicker as governor, then left government to become a political consultant to a diverse range of politicians, including independent Tom Golisano in New York and Lamont, the antiwar candidate who beat Lieberman in a Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in 2006, only to see Lieberman win as an independent.
Through it all, D’Amore was a wise and wise-cracking presence, unafraid to give blunt counsel to some of the strongest personalities in politics, including his friend Weicker, who was planning on a dinner with D’Amore in coming weeks.
“I’m just devastated. I really am,” Weicker said. “We just loved each other.”
Roy Occhiogrosso, an adviser to Democrat Bill Curry in the 1994 race for governor, when D’Amore was advising Weicker’s lieutenant governor, Eunice S. Groark, called D’Amore an enjoyable adversary.
“He was one of the first people who taught me it was OK to be friends with people on the other side,” Occhiogrosso said. “At the end of the day, they were doing the same thing, only for different people. You can be opponents without it being personal. When you’re a kid, that’s an important lesson.”
One night shortly before the election that year, Occhiogrosso encountered D’Amore and Peter Gold, another Weicker hand who was helping Groark, outside the Hartford Courant. They all came get an early edition to see the paper’s last poll.
Occhiogrosso said he and Gold scuffled to get the first copy of the paper, as though being first would make a difference. D’Amore watched, undoubtedly chewing gum, his constant habit after quitting smoking. An amused D’Amore finally ended the scrum, saying, “Peter, give the kid a newspaper.”
D’Amore was a state GOP chairman when Julie Belaga, then a state representative from Westport, volunteered to run for governor against Democrat William A. O’Neill in 1986, who was then just past the midpoint as the state’s longest serving modern governor.
“I was in my ninth year in the legislature, and he called a group of people to his office and he said, ‘Who wants to run?’ And nobody raised their hand, but me. It was all men, but me,” Belaga said.
Belaga had to win a three-way primary for the nomination, beating RIchard C. Bozzuto and Gerald Labriola, the father of the current GOP state chairman, Jerry Labriola Jr. D’Amore advised her unsuccessful campaign against the formidable O’Neill, who would serve 10 years and 10 days as governor.
“Tom was an integral part of that entire campaign,” Belaga said. “His instincts were so sharp. He became one of my favorite people.”
Belaga said D’Amore made the journey, while ultimately disappointing, a memorable and enjoyable trip.
“Friends asked, ‘Julie, how could you stand it? The pressure must be terrible.’ We had a ball. He always had a tremendous perspective about everything,” Belaga said.
Jerry Labriola issued a statement: “Tom D’Amore was a true gentleman who led a remarkable life of service. To me, he was not only a mentor, but a great friend. He will be sorely missed.”
Lamont, who was introduced to D’Amore by Weicker after his decision to take on Lieberman, said D’Amore was hardly afraid of conflict.
“First, I thought he was the guy who cleaned up the broken china after Lowell. But he could break his own china, usually with that great wink and a smile,” Lamont said.
D’Amore was born Jan. 26, 1941. He began in politics in the late 1960s as a young supporter of Thomas Meskill, the congressman from New Britain who was elected governor in 1970. It was Meskill who introduced him to Weicker, who won his first Senate race the same year.
D’Amore then joined the Meskill administration as one of a platoon of young GOP activists who became known as the “Kiddie Korps.”
But it was Weicker who became his greatest friend in politics. He ran three of Weicker’s four Senate campaigns and took the GOP chairmanship at Weicker’s behest. He was the state party chairman from 1983 to 1987, also serving as a member of the Republican National Committee.
After a mild heart attack in the 1980s, it was Weicker who called with a brainstorm: opening the GOP primaries to unaffiliated voters, a ploy to remain relevant in a state that had a growing Democratic registration, even as Republicans continued to carry the state in presidential years.
D’Amore told Weicker he was giving him another heart attack, Weicker said.
But D’Amore carried out the plan, which sparked litigation the party ultimately won. But the GOP closed its primary once again after Weicker and D’Amore left the party after the bitter 1988 Senate race.
Weicker, who remained an independent, said he urged D’Amore in recent years to get back involved with the GOP, saying Connectiicut needed a viable two-party system.
D’Amore laughed, telling Weicker he was done with the GOP. In truth, the GOP most likely was done with D’Amore, who had become anathema to the party for helping his boss defeat Republican John G. Rowland in the 1990 campaign for governor.
In recent years, he had a consulting business with John Doyle, another former Weicker aide, and Richard J. Balducci, who, as speaker of the Connecticut House, helped Weicker pass the state’s first broad-based tax on wages in 1991.
A funeral will be held Monday at 11 a.m. at St. Joseph Church in Winsted.