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John B. O'Connell Was Hartford's Mr. Republican

Conservative leader persevered in a Democratic city

Hartford Courant Editorial

September 22, 2011

He was an anomaly, a conservative Republican of Irish descent in a city that was heavily Democratic and dominated by other ethnic groups. Nonetheless, John B. O'Connell had a major impact on Hartford government, and will be dearly missed.

Mr. O'Connell, who died Wednesday at 65 after a long battle with diabetes, served on the city council for a dozen years in parts of four decades, 1979 to 1983 and 1993 to 2001, and served as GOP town chairman. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the city budget, which he used whenever possible to further his philosophy of reducing the size and scope of government. He advised numerous candidates on budgetary matters over the years, up to this summer when mayoral challenger Edwin Vargas sought his counsel.

O'Connell, a stout man who made his presence known, could be cantankerous or charming, witty or volatile. He was never shy about expressing his opinion. In 2001, when the council approved a number of projects including enclosed swimming pools dubbed "Marotta domes" in honor of sponsoring council member Alphonse Marotta, Mr. O'Connell thundered, "The Marotta domes are crazy, the bonding was crazy and the council has spent money like water.''

But Mr. O'Connell understood the limitations inherent in being a Republican in a heavily Democratic city, and made deals where he could. One of the most successful was in 1992, when Democrat mayoral challenger Mike Peters lost to incumbent Carrie Saxon Perry by about 1,800 votes in a primary. Mr. O'Connell was one of the architects of the "Republicrat'' coalition of Mr. Peters along with two Democratic and three Republican council candidates that won in the general election and governed well for the next several years.

Mr. O'Connell would have been amused to learn that the Republicans have a similar strategy this year, quarterbacked by Mr. O'Connell's former council colleague Michael McGarry. With efforts to cut spending and spur economic development, "the Democrats today sound like John O'Connell in the '80s," Mr. McGarry said.

Corporation counsel Saundra Kee Borges summed up Mr. O'Connell this way: "You could take exception to his position on something, but you could not question his commitment to Hartford. He knew what he was talking about and was always motivated by what he thought was best for the city." And so he should be remembered.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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