Rep. Betty Boukus, D-Plainville, an irreverent and irrepressible presence at the State Capitol for 22 years, who defied a cancer diagnosis to keep working in Hartford and wage a final, if losing campaign for re-election to the General Assembly, died Friday. She was 73.
Boukus sought a 12th two-year term representing the 22nd House District in the belief or hope her condition was stable. But advancing cancer and a bout with pneumonia limited a campaign that ended in a 2,452-to-2,135 loss to Dr. William A. Petit, a Republican whom Boukus dramatically defended two weeks before the election against an attack ad placed by an independent-expenditure group affiliated with a union.
“We do not function like this in the town of Plainville,” she said.
As the co-chair of the Bonding Subcommittee, Boukus had a say in what local projects were worthy of inclusion in the annual package of borrowing, a role that put her in a position to say no more than yes.
But Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, her co-chair, drew laughs during a tribute at her last Bond Commission meeting last month, saying that she had “the uncanny ability to make a ‘no’ seem like a ‘yes.’ ”
In a business grown increasingly partisan and parochial, Boukus’s friendships knew no bounds at the Capitol. To legislative staff, she was the wisecracking mother figure. To Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who presides over Bond Commission meetings, she was the legislator who always had something to say, even if it meant interrupting him.
“Lucky enough for him, he’s learned, like my husband, just let her go,” Boukus said at last month’s commission meeting.
After the commission meeting, Boukus accepted a proclamation from Malloy and waved off expressions of regret about her electoral loss or unspoken concern about her health.
“The future is still bright,” she said. “I’m still here.”
Boukus told the governor she would visit him as a “regular citizen.”
Malloy told her, “There is nothing regular about you.”
It was Boukus who helped school Malloy on the politics of bonding and the small gestures that accompany an administration’s decision to fund a local project: Press releases from the Democratic administration about bonding should include a quote from the local representative, regardless of party affiliation; and a photograph with the governor whenever a project gets a green light is appreciated.
Malloy ordered state flags lowered to half-staff in honor of Boukus.
The governor said Boukus “brought the ray of sunshine into the room, even on the gloomiest of days.” Ben Barnes, who oversees the state budget, called Boukus a skilled and effective legislator on behalf of her district and the state.
“But more than that, Betty was a kind and affable soul that put everyone at ease,” Barnes said. “Her constituents, her colleagues, and anyone who knew her were changed for the better by the experience.”
Boukus, who grew up, married and raised two children in Plainville, a suburb wedged between the fading industrial cities of Bristol and New Britain, was one half of an odd couple with Rep. Livvy Floren of Greenwich, the ranking Republican on the Bonding Subcommittee.
“As everybody knows, Betty Boukus is a force of nature,” Floren said.
She recalled their road trips to see sites of projects that were must-haves to their legislative sponsors, though not always to Boukus.
“I felt as if we were Thelma and Louise tooling around the state in her smoking red hot convertible,” Floren said.
Boukus is survived by her husband, Gary, their two children and four grandchildren.
Her cancer — she never disclosed the precise form of the illness to colleagues or leaders — had been in remission, but it recurred this year, her friends said. She and her husband traveled to New Hampshire over the Thanksgiving holiday, and Boukus called colleagues Monday to talk about legislative business.
House Democratic leaders, who learned Thursday that Boukus’s condition had deteriorated suddenly, praised their colleague.
“She was a giant for her hometown of Plainville, the kind of leader who cannot be replaced. Even as she faced health issues more recently, Betty campaigned the way she legislated – fighting selflessly for the best interests of her constituents,” said House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden.
“Anyone who had the pleasure of knowing Betty knew that her personality could fill an entire room,” said Rep. Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, the Democrats’ choice to succeed Sharkey as speaker. “She brought an unrivaled level of passion to the issues that she and her constituents cared about, and worked hard to fight for what her district needed. She did all of this with a smile on her face and a clever comment up her sleeve. There will never be another Betty Boukus.”
“Betty was a mentor,” said Rep. Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, the majority leader-elect. “She was always willing to offer young legislators advice – both solicited and unsolicited. She had the heart and soul of a teacher. Betty wanted all of us to be better legislators for our constituents and the entire state.”
Boukus was a teacher by training, graduating with a degree in education from Central Connecticut State University and a master’s in education from the University of Hartford. She is credited with the commissioning of the first new statue inside the State Capitol in a century, a life-size piece honoring an educator, Prudence Crandall.
Crandall was named the state heroine in 1995, honored for risking violence and criminal prosecution for opening a school for young black women in 1883 in defiance of state law. Years later, students from Bristol, a part of Boukus’s district before redistricting, asked why there was a statue at the State Capitol of the state hero, Nathan Hale, but not of Crandall.
Boukus worked with the students to win approval for the bronze statue of Crandall with a student that now stands on the first floor of the Capitol.
At the Capitol, Boukus was a stand-in for Santa Claus every December as the organizer of a Secret Santa program that collects gifts for residents of the Veterans Home and Hospital in Rocky Hill.
A cordial re-election campaign drew unwanted headlines when a union political action committee ran digital ads supporting Boukus and several Democrats. The piece tied Petit and other GOP candidates to Trump, suggesting they tolerated Trump’s insensitivity to women.
“Stop Donald Trump and Republican William Petit’s attack on women and families,” read the version of the ad used against Petit, a home-invasion survivor who raises money for women’s groups in the memory of his murdered wife and daughters.
Petit conducted a press conference outside his house and called the ad a libel that should be retracted. Boukus, his neighbor, stepped forward as the news conference concluded, hugged her opponent and seconded his call for its retraction.
“I have known the Petit family forever,” Boukus said. “It’s a clean race. I run for the position. I do not run against anyone.”