Saluting 'Madam Mayor': Former Hartford Hizzoner Ann Uccello

How different the course of Republican politics in Connecticut — and of women in office — would have been had a few things happened otherwise 35 years ago.

Had Ann Uccello, GOP mayor of the capital city of Hartford, and known throughout the state, opted for one of the two more winnable statewide races in 1970, the national media and magazine covers would have been profiling a unique brand of woman in high office for that time: unmarried, strongly pro-life, anti-tax hikes, and someone who had faced down black militant John Barber during Hartford’s “long hot summer” as well as Democratic big-city mayors on “Meet the Press,” and had branded anti-Vietnam War demonstrators “the Benedict Arnolds of our time.”

The first major trailblazer for women in office would have been from Connecticut, but not Ella Grasso (the liberal Democrat who in 1974 became the first woman to win a governorship without succeeding her husband) but another daughter of Italian immigrants — and a conservative Republican.

While Uccello wanted to run for governor or U.S. senator in 1970, she finally bowed to telephoned pleas from President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew and instead entered the hardest race of all: the contest for the U.S. House from the 13-town 1st District, by far the most heavily Democratic of Connecticut’s six congressional districts and one that had only once sent a Republican to Congress since World War II. She lost by just over 1,000 votes and never held office again.

Now 83 and retired in West Harford, the first woman to be mayor of the capital city was recently honored as a member of the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame and profiled in Connecticut Life Magazine. Recalling her lightning political career, Uccello told me: “I really don’t dwell on ‘I could have’ or ‘I should have,’ but what I did. And I’m proud of it.”

‘Dear, You’re Going to Be Mayor of the City’

One of five children of Italian immigrants, Antonina P. Uccello inherited her interest in politics and love of reading from her mother. A St. Joseph College graduate, Uccello was also strongly influenced by longtime boss Beatrice Fox Auerbach, owner of the G. Fox department store in Hartford (where the young Uccello rose to become an executive).

“I’m not sure Mrs. A. knew my name — she always called me ‘Dear,’” recalled Uccello, “And while she taught me a lot about business, she also supported me in politics.”

In the early 1960s, Uccello and other young Republicans were working to revitalize the moribund GOP in heavily Democratic Hartford. Urged by the group to run for the Board of Education in 1963, Uccello told me that Auerbach and her adjutant, Samuel Einstein, gave her permission to seek office, but insisted: “for the Board of Education, no; for [city] council, yes.” That year, Uccello placed seventh in races for the nine councilmanic seats, and in 1965, she was re-elected in a fourth-place performance. Mentor Auerbach also encouraged her and, according to Uccello, once said: “Dear, you’re going to be mayor of the city one day.”

That prophecy came true in 1967, when Uccello was the top vote-getter in the council races and thus became mayor — the first woman to be a big-city mayor in Connecticut and the first Republican chief executive of the Insurance City since World War II. The election law was soon changed to provide for separate election of the mayor on a partisan ticket — a rules change, Republicans charged, designed to finish off one of their brightest prospects. But in 1969, Uccello again triumphed, defeating Democrat Joe Adinolfi when two other Democrats ran on independent lines and thus negated the party’s big registration edge.

Uccello won high marks for her performance as mayor, notably when Hartford’s predominantly black “North End” grew incendiary in the summer of 1968. The mayor met with black demonstrators and had a notable summit with militant John Barber at police headquarters. “Here he was — a Yale graduate and dressed in a dashiki!”she said of Barber, noting that he later dropped by her house to deliver a present at Christmas. “He was stunned when my mother said I was in doing the dishes.”

Year of Destiny

In 1970, polls in both the Hartford Courant and the Hartford Times showed the woman known universally as “Mayor Ann” not only the most popular elected official among Republicans, but just about the most popular politician in the state. In one such survey, only Democratic Sen. (1962-80) Abraham Ribicoff was better liked among voters statewide than Uccello.

Friends encouraged her to seek the seat of embattled Democratic Sen. Thomas Dodd — being spurned by fellow Democrats because of his 1967 censure for misuse of campaign funds — but Uccello decided to pass on the Senate race following a meeting with then-Rep. Lowell P. Weicker (R.-Conn.) at the Shoreham Hotel in Hartford. (Dodd ended up running for — and losing — re-election as an independent.) As Uccello described the conversation: “Lowell told me he was committed to the Senate race and would force a primary against any candidate except me if he did not get the endorsement of the state convention.” 

Looking out at the state Capitol from the Shoreham, Uccello said she also felt that “I could do a better job as governor because I understood the city and state issues most.” But she grew further discouraged about a bid for governor following a lunch with then-State Republican Chairman Howard Hausman. In her words, “He was all for [Rep. and fellow New Britain resident] Tom Meskill for governor and we had a convention system then — you could take a campaign to a primary only if you got 20% of the delegates. [The law has since been changed to allow a direct primary if one gets a certain number of signatures on petitions.] I wasn’t sure I had the resources to go all the way. Howard asked me if I would like to be community affairs commissioner under a Republican governor. I said, ‘Howard, if I were a man, you wouldn’t dare insult me that way.’”

As it turned out, those telephone calls from Nixon and Agnew helped convince the mayor to take on the difficult 1st District race. Nearly a dozen Democrats competed for their party’s nomination, which ended up going to State Insurance Commissioner Bill Cotter, brother-in-law of Uccello’s old foe Adinolfi and protégé of powerful Connecticut Democratic Chairman John Bailey. Uccello swept 10 of the 13 towns in the district, but was edged out by the heavy Democratic vote for Cotter in Hartford. Of her loss by about 1% of the vote, she said: “[Nixon White House aides] Chuck Colson and Murray Chotiner didn’t come through with big money that was promised. And I suspect that ITT [whose merger with the Hartford Insurance Group Cotter had first stopped and then approved while insurance commissioner] spread a lot of money around for the Democrats.”

No Regrets

Ann Uccello went on to serve in Washington as a top official in the Transportation Department under Presidents Nixon and Ford. In 1979, she returned to her home state and the private sector.

Today, Connecticut has a Republican governor who is a woman. But liberal GOPer Jodi Rell is no Ann Uccello. As the former mayor told me: “It would be almost impossible for a conservative — let alone someone who is pro-life — to win statewide office here today. Political trends in Connecticut are like fashions today — horrible. There has been something lost in the popular culture.”

Still widely recognized wherever she goes in greater Hartford, Uccello has no regrets about what she should or should not have done. Proud that more young women are seeking office as conservative Republicans and, citing one of her favorite mottoes, she told me: “I always live in hope. After the clouds, there’s always light.”