Friends of former Gov. Thomas Meskill, who died Monday, remember him as a thoughtful, articulate man whose rise to power included a stint as Bristol’s congressman and a statewide primary win against a prominent Bristol businessman.
Meskill “was one of the nicest men in politics that I’ve ever known. He was just down to earth and honest,” said Ellie Klapatch, the city’s long-time Republican registrar.
“When Tom told you something, you knew it was the truth,” Klapatch said.
Shortly after flying his plane home from a weekend in Washington, D.C., former state Sen. Wallace Barnes said that Meskill was a friend before they faced off in the first-ever statewide primary in 1970 and remained close afterwards.
“He was a very effective politician in a sort of an understated way,” Barnes said. “He was thoughtful and articulate, but not bombastic in any way.”
Meskill, a Republican who served as mayor of New Britain, first sought to enter a larger stage in 1964 when he took aim at the congressional seat held by attorney Bernard Grabowski of Bristol, a Democrat.
Grabowski won a statewide congressional seat in 1962 which was abolished soon after. Two years later, he won the newly created 6th District seat in a showdown with Meskill.
In 1966, however, Meskill took the seat and held it until his 1970 run for governor.
Klapatch said that she sided with Meskill at the congressional convention because she thought he was the better candidate, even though the rest of Bristol’s delegation thought otherwise. Meskill took a shine to her after that.
In 1970, Klapatch said she remembered the Republican convention at The Bushnell theater in Hartford. Meskill had a big majority of the delegates on his side but Barnes sought to force a primary by securing at least 20 percent of the convention vote, a margin he eventually got.
“We were there until five in morning at the convention while Meskill and Barnes were talking to other at a hotel,” Klapatch said.
She said she hoped that Barnes would settle for the lieutenant governor’s slot on the ticket, but that’s not how it worked out.
“They would have made a great team,” Klapatch said.
In the end, the two men squared off in a primary that Meskill won, but without the rancor or divisiveness that’s so common today.
“Those were the days in politics. We had fun in politics. We respected each other,” she said.
Barnes said that during the primary race, he called for the state to adopt an income tax that would ensure a steady revenue stream. While it might have been a good idea, he said it “was not helpful” in winning over the GOP voters in the primary.
“I guess that was perhaps the major issue in the campaign,” Barnes said.
Barnes said that Connecticut is better off for Meskill’s public service as a congressman, governor and federal judge.
Klapatch said that Meskill was a particularly loyal politician.
“He appreciated anything you ever did,” she said, and remembered those who had assisted him along the way.
“I’m going to miss him,” Klapatch said.
Copyright 2007. All rights reserved.
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