Ella Grasso famously never lost an election and Nov. 5, 1974 was no exception.
A true political pioneer, Connecticut’s first woman governor was also the state’s first governor of Italian descent, as well as the first woman elected to lead any U.S. state in her own right (not as successor to her husband).
Amid the post-Watergate Democratic sweep, Grasso easily defeated Republican U.S. Rep. Robert Steele, who attributed his loss to a “National tide,” according to an Associated Press article in the next day’s Morning Record.
She appeared on the cover of Time magazine later that month with Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis and Jerry Brown, among a handful of other Democratic victors.
Grasso had already held elective office for 20 years at that point, four years in the state General Assembly, 12 years as secretary of the state and in Congress from 1971 to 1975.
An advocate of government transparency, Grasso’s experience in the U.S. House of Representatives during the Watergate years strengthened her resolve to seek reforms such as the state Freedom of Information Act, a key plank in her 1974 campaign platform.
Soaring electric rates were another key issue for both candidates, according to the article in the Morning Record. “Mrs. Grasso claimed that power companies overcharged $19 million in fuel adjustment costs and she filed a suit challenging a utility rate increase. Steele sued to force the federal government to equalize petroleum prices nationally,” the article states.
Grasso took office at a time of great financial difficulty for the state as the country experienced a recession.
“She fought to hold down spending while resisting the imposition of a state income tax. To buttress her policy, she rejected a $7,000-a-year increase in her own pay. Advised that this was not legal under state law, she accepted the pay increase, then returned the amount of the raise to the state treasury,” according to her obituary in The Washington Post.
Grasso’s popularity suffered during her first term after she was forced to cut programs and lay off state workers. She regained the support of many Connecticut residents for her hands-on leadership during the Blizzard of 1978, beginning with a mile walk through deep snow on Farmington Avenue to reach the State Armory command center.
“She arrived at the armory looking like a snowman and stayed until the emergency was over… It was a reminder to the people of Connecticut – not really needed by those who worked around her – that the woman had a will that could not be daunted,” wrote Lawrence Fellows in The New York Times.
Grasso won re-election in 1978 by a 2-to-1 margin, running on a record of improving the state economy and treasury, which had rebounded from a $70 million deficit to a $95 million surplus. She served through 1980 when ovarian cancer forced her to step down.
Grasso died on Feb. 5, 1981 in Hartford at the age of 61.
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