POWELL: How insurgent Joe Duffey changed Connecticut politics

Published on Monday, 1 March 2021 19:08
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Nice guy that he was, Joseph D. Duffey, who died last week at age 88, was not a terribly adept politician. He was not outgoing or a glad-hander but a soft-spoken Protestant clergyman. But from 1967 to 1970 he was the most courageous participant in Connecticut politics, and more than anyone else he helped turn the state away from the political machines that long had dominated it. Because of Duffey, Connecticut became a lot more small-d democratic.

In 1967 the Vietnam War grew controversial, costing more lives and resources while lacking progress and a persuasive rationale. But no elected official in Connecticut, Democrat or Republican, would oppose it, just as no Democratic leader in the state would endorse Minnesota Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy's challenge to the Democratic Party's expected renomination of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Duffey stepped forward to lead the McCarthy campaign in the state, and while it gathered many volunteers, they quickly discovered that the process for selecting delegates to both the Democratic State Convention and the Democratic National Convention had been rigged before the presidential campaign began.

The party's town committees chose the state convention delegates, who would choose the national convention delegates. There would be no primary in which party members expressed their choice for president. To try to win national convention delegates, the insurgents first had to assemble challenge slates of local state convention delegates and petition to get them on the ballot in a municipal primary.

But the McCarthy people still gained a surprising number of state convention delegates, and so the state Democratic machine gave Duffey and a few other McCarthy supporters places on the delegation to what became the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Two years later Connecticut Democratic U.S. Sen. Thomas J. Dodd, a supporter of the war, was facing re-election. But he had been censured by the Senate for corruption and party leaders did not want to renominate him. The anti-war Democrats wanted an anti-war candidate and rallied behind Duffey - and again they had to struggle through the same unfair process for state convention delegates.

The objective was to get 20 percent of the votes at the convention, which would qualify a candidate for a statewide primary for the Senate nomination, something Connecticut had never experienced. The party machine worked brutally to prevent it. But remarkably Duffey got his 20 percent and prevailed in the primary, defeating two rivals, a millionaire political neophyte backed by the machine and the state Senate's majority leader.

Dodd withdrew his candidacy for renomination by the Democrats and ran as an independent, taking enough votes away from Duffey to throw the election to Republican Lowell P. Weicker Jr. But Connecticut's Republicans that year had their own first primaries for governor and senator. While the Republican insurgents lost, people saw that the 20 percent threshold could be reached and a party machine beaten. A new day had dawned in Connecticut politics and soon the state began liberalizing its nomination procedures.

Duffey's general election campaign for the Senate was difficult. Because of his opposition to the war, Republicans, including Vice President Spiro Agnew, called him a communist or a communist sympathizer. Though he is now sainted by the political left, Weicker played along with the red-baiting.

But as McCarthy had done two years before, Duffey had knocked the machine down and brought many new people into politics. His campaign also had some fun moments because he was often accompanied by his most famous supporter, the actor and national heartthrob Paul Newman.

One day Duffey, Newman, and their small entourage arrived in New Britain for a rally at the Burritt Hotel, where a huge crowd, mostly women, was gathering. But first they stopped at a nearby bar and grill for a quick lunch.

As they got up to leave for the hotel, Newman reminded Duffey that they should go into the bar and shake some hands. So in they went, whereupon none of the midday drinkers knew who they were, but at least the bartender recognized Duffey.

Maybe that was some consolation for him when he saw the crowd at the Burritt swooning for Newman.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

Posted in The Bristol Press, Column, Editorials on Monday, 1 March 2021 19:08. Updated: Monday, 1 March 2021 19:10.