Former state Senate Republican Leader Lewis B. Rome, who maintained a rich presence in public life as a lawyer, lobbyist and UConn trustee long after his political career ended with a loss in the 1982 race for governor, died Wednesday after a series of health problems. He was 81.
A lobbying partner, Peter Smith, said Rome’s family announced the death Thursday.
“Lew Rome dedicated his career to public service,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said. “Whether as a leader of the state Senate or as chairman of the UConn Board of Trustees, he advocated for issues he cared about deeply. He will be missed by many throughout the state, and our condolences go out to his family and friends.”
“Lew lived many lives – as a public servant, a husband and father, and an attorney. He was a true gentleman, and he will be missed,” Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman said.
Rome’s political career began in 1961 with his election as a 27-year-old lawyer to the Town Council in his hometown of Bloomfield. He was elected to the state Senate in 1970 and became majority leader two years later, after President Nixon’s landslide victory.
But his fortunes also fell with Nixon’s. The post-Watergate election of 1974 swept Democrats back into power, and Rome would spend the remaining four years of his Senate career as the GOP minority leader.
In 1978, Rome set aside his own gubernatorial ambitions to accept the number two spot on what the GOP quickly dubbed the “dream ticket,” led by Congressman Ronald A. Sarasin. They lost to the Democratic ticket of Ella T. Grasso and William A. O’Neill.
Four years later, Rome won the nomination for governor at a raucous state convention, where he outflanked Richard Bozzuto by recruiting the third candidate in the race, Gerald Labriola, to become his running mate.
Rome lost to O’Neill, who had become governor when cancer forced Grasso’s resignation. O’Neill won, 578,264 to 497,773. It was a healthy margin, but Rome outperformed the polling that he blamed for drying up his fundraising.
O’Neill ran a Rose Garden strategy, making carefully controlled public appearances, often to announce the awarding of state bond funds for some local project. Rome campaigned outside the bubble that surrounded O’Neill then and many modern candidates now.
It was a time before Twitter and YouTube, when politicians relied more on the press to reach voters.
Rome extended an open invitation to reporters to accompany him during nearly every waking hour of the campaign day, which began at sunrise in the kitchen of the rambling white Colonial home he had bought near the Simsbury-Bloomfield line. If space was available, the press could ride with him in his Oldsmobile.
Those were days of unguarded moments, such as the time Rome’s campaign driver was pulled over for speeding, of small talk about spouses and children, gossip about rivals, on and off the record. All of it informed coverage, giving depth, texture and context.
“I think a lot has been lost,” Rome told The Mirror in 2012, bemoaning the state of modern campaigns. “Basically the campaigns used to want the public to know exactly what they were doing. They were pleased with what they were doing themselves. If I didn’t like openness, I wouldn’t have invited everyone in.”
One young reporter, who met Rome at dawn, fell asleep in the back seat on a ride from campaign stops in Fairfield County to an evening fundraiser at the old Parkview Hilton in Hartford. He awoke to the sound of Rome shaving with an electric razor.
Rome was bitter for a time after the 1982 race, thinking O’Neill was not up to the job and that only a lack of finances cost Rome the race. He later revised his opinion, apologizing for underestimating the Democrat who became Connecticut’s longest-serving governor of modern times.
“Lew Rome was a giant,” said Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven. “During his tenure in the legislature, Lew Rome always made clear what he and his fellow Republicans believed in, but he never crossed the line and made political fights personal. We could all learn a lot from the example Lew Rome set in his daily life — public and private.”
Rome remained in public life, serving on myriad boards, including Hartford Hospital, John Dempsey Hospital, Riverfront Recapture and the Connecticut Convention Center Authority.
In 1990, he was a semifinalist for his dream job: president of UConn, which he attended an an undergraduate and law student. His consolation prize was becoming a trustee the next year year and then chairman in 1992 with the backing of his old political ally, Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr.
As chairman, Rome was a force behind pushing UConn into big-time football. His own post-politics job description was “catalyst” and “matchmaker.” He put a concert promoter, a who was a client, together with Weicker, an introduction that led to the construction of an amphitheater in Hartford.
“I play matchmaker in a lot of ways,” he said in 1993. Sometimes the matchmaking was a vocation, other times it was an avocation.
It was Rome that year who introduced Francis Murray, a bidder for the New England Patriots, to Weicker. If Murray succeeded, Rome pitched a stadium in Hartford that also would be home to UConn football.
In semi-retirement, he remained a name partner in Rome McGuigan, the Hartford law firm, and the lobbying firm, Rome, Smith & Lutz.