Politics 2003Week of January 6

SALMONA SALUTED “My folks, my brother and sister and I would turn on TV when Jesse came on and just brace ourselves. We couldn’t wait to see which of the liberals he was going to upset!” That was Jim McIntyre, veteran North Carolina conservative activist and later a Reagan Administration official, recalling his youth in the Tarheel State in the 1960s as he watched and listened to the nightly commentaries of conservative Jesse Helms on the Tobacco Network. The future senator’s words, McIntyre said, were “unquestionably a major influence on me and my decision to become politically active.” Growing up at about the same period in far-away Los Angeles, Gary Maloney—later a first-rate researcher for Republican candidates and press secretary to three GOP House members—also cites as a strong influence the “conservative commentators I watched on television, notably [future Republican U.S. Senate nominee] Bruce Herschensohn and Bob Dornan [future Republican U.S. representative, for whom Maloney would work]. They were first-class.” As television became an invaluable medium in politics in the ’60s, it was inevitable that broadcasters developed political influence on their own and only a matter of time before they became strong contenders for office. Before Helms, Dornan, and Herschensohn, one of the first “great right hopes” of the small screen who attempted the leap to office was Stelio Salmona, top-rated New Haven TV anchorman and Republican nominee for Congress in Connecticut’s 3rd District in 1966 and ’68. (Salmona was not the first TV anchorman to run for Congress, however. That honor goes to John Kyl, father of present Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, who went from TV anchor in Iowa to Republican U.S. representative in 1959.) “Among my first political memories are of watching Stelio deliver the news on Channel 8 and closing with a commentary,” recalled Tom Scott, who went on to become a New Haven-area conservative state senator and radio talk show host. “It’s a shame anchors aren’t giving news commentary anymore.” Similarly, G. Joseph Rees, U.S. ambassador to East Timor, wrote me shortly before his swearing-in ceremony that his years of involvement in conservative politics began as a young volunteer in Salmona’s initial House race. Salmona never won any office. He faded from Republican politics soon after his defeats for Congress and died tragically at 45. Incredibly, three decades later he is vividly remembered as a premier motivator of young conservatives in an area not known for being friendly turf for the right. HOUSE RACE OF A GENERATION Stelio (pronounced “Stay-Lee-Oh”) Salmona had an intriguing youth. His father was a top executive with Carnival Cruise Lines and, as a result, Stelio as a child saw much of the country and the world. His mother was an Auntie Mame-like figure who entertained frequently in Manhattan and, as one acquaintance reminisced, “knew everybody.” But Salmona did not have a pampered adulthood. After briefly attending Duke University, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps and saw action in Korea, winning the Silver Star. Later, he trained at a radio and television announcers school and bounced from station to station before finally being hired as a reporter and anchorman for WNHC-TV in New Haven, Conn., in 1963. He became a local institution. “Stelio and I were both at the station together for years—he did the news on TV and I was then doing sports on the radio affiliate,” said Dick Galiette, a fellow Marine-veteran-turned-broadcaster and now famed as the voice of Yale football. He remembered Salmona as a contrast to the blow-dried, “rip and read” anchors of today. “He’d go after a story and put it together himself before airtime. And when Stelio told you something, you believed it.” Ed Marcus, then a state senator and later Democratic state chairman, agreed. “Stelio was never out to get you, completely different from the modern journalist,” he said. ” If you didn’t like what you had said on camera, he’d say ‘Let’s do it again.’ He was one of those people who made an impact on you, and you didn’t forget.” Salmona’s good nature, believability, and signature sign-off (a quote from a famous philosopher or author to summarize the day’s events) made him a popular speaker at civic events. Among New Haven’s large Italo-American community, the anchorman was thought of a hybrid of Dean Martin, Rocky Marciano, and Fiorello LaGuardia. It was only a matter of time before area Republican leaders, aware of Salmona’s conservatism, convinced him to take on the unenviable task of opposing four-term Democratic Rep. Bob Giaimo. Giaimo’s personal popularity aside, the 3rd District was hardly Republican territory. In New Haven, the political machine of Democratic Town Chairman Arthur Barbieri was well oiled with state and local patronage, and City Hall was ruled by longtime Mayor (1953-69) Richard Lee. Yale University and powerful labor leaders such as Elwood (Sonny) Metz of the Hamden-based International Operating Engineers Union further enhanced the Democratic muscle of the district, which had sent Democrats to Congress for all but ten of the previous 34 years. The broadcaster-candidate campaigned as an unabashed conservative: against LBJ’s big-spending Great Society, for victory in Vietnam, and against the United Nations. He drew large crowds at private homes and quickly attracted platoons of young volunteers. James Altham, who would later become a leader in the conservative Young Americans for Freedom and a lawyer for pro-life activists, remembered “licking envelopes, looking up phone numbers—all that stuff at the [storefront] headquarters on Chapel Street [in New Haven]. I had just broken up with my first girlfriend and threw myself into Stelio’s campaign.” Liberal Republicans, interestingly, were enthusiastic about their nominee against Giaimo. Larry DeNardis, then starting in GOP politics and a “Gypsy Moth” Republican who would later win the House seat for one term (1980-82) after upsetting a Democrat named Joe Lieberman, told me, “Stelio was certainly more conservative than I was, but I felt he could energize our base. You have to remember that the culture was different, that Republicans in the New Haven area were a band of brothers and it was more important to beat the Democrats than win arguments among ourselves. So I was proud to place his name in nomination at the district convention and work hard and happily for him walking precincts and writing press releases.” Vincent Richo, a self-styled moderate-to-liberal and an admirer of New York’s liberal GOP Mayor John Lindsay, met Salmona “when he covered the opening of the St. Raphael Hospital and liked him instantly. I became his campaign manager, which was part-time until August, when my political work became a burden on the chemical manufacturing company I ran with my brothers. So I went full-time with the campaign. Everyone else was a volunteer and there were really no big donors. We spent maybe $30,000.” Richo recalled how candidate Salmona denounced the fact that U.S. ships were transporting goods to Czechoslovakia and other Communist countries that were used to manufacture weapons the North Vietnamese used against U.S. troops. Said Richo, “Boy, did people in the business community, here and in Washington, get down on us for that! For all the talk about fighting communism, a lot of Americans got rich doing business behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. I really learned who the traitors were then.” Salmona lost in the city, but swept much of the suburban area around New Haven and held Giaimo to an unimpressive 53%. After two years of commuting to Boston for TV work, Salmona made another challenge to Giaimo in 1968, but, with Democrats led by Hubert Humphrey sweeping the state, Giaimo pulled 54%. Nonetheless, the fresh blood Salmona’s races injected into the party was obvious. In 1969, Republican Paul Capra nearly captured City Hall after Mayor Lee retired—”in part, as the legacy of Stelio’s campaign,” DeNardis maintains. A year later, DeNardis himself won a state senate seat. Bob Norman, who succeeded Salmona as the TV-8 anchorman, went on to become mayor of East Haven. Salmona faded from both broadcasting and politics and went to work for the Winchester Rifle Co. In 1973, he died of a heart attack following a tennis match. He was 45. Why write about a politician who never won any office? Because Stelio Salmona showed that a candidate can do well without trimming his ideology if he can motivate people and articulate issues—even in a state where Republican Party leaders have stressed “moderating” the party message for at least two generations. Vin Richo still carries the Omega gold watch Salmona gave him in appreciation for managing his campaign. While reminding me that “Stelio was a lot more conservative than I was,” he also reminded me that “I loved him dearly.” Dick Galiette remembers how Channel 8 did a filmed tribute to Salmona after his death and how he was asked to go on the air to talk about his old comrade. But Galiette, known as a “tough guy” sports announcer who once told Mohammad Ali to his face that the boxing champion made a mistake by avoiding military service, declined. “I would have cried,” he said.