Controversy abounded about the statue relocation of engineering pioneer Lewis Latimer that seems to be resolved by Mayor Joe Ganim declaring Thursday it will continue to front the Margaret Morton Government Center. It’s a mighty fine statue that should remain displayed prominently, but how many visitors who approach the Downtown concourse know anything about the woman whose name graces the building?
We’re approaching the five-year anniversary of the death of Margaret Morton, the first African American woman elected to the Connecticut State Senate; a transformational figure in city politics. Shortly after her death then-Mayor Bill Finch, who also commissioned the Latimer statue, renamed the City Hall Annex in honor of Morton that was seen by cynics as an olive branch to strengthen his imploding relationship with black voters. It was a nice gesture for sure, but for those who knew Morton it was also understandable she’d have some advice for the mayor: beware of false prophets. Finch, in the end, failed to put words into action with the black community. It cost him the 2015 primary to Joe Ganim.
Morton put words into action.
She has a political legacy in the city like no other. It’s a story that requires reminding.
It was 1980, and genial State Senator Salvatore DePiano was appointed tax attorney by Democratic Mayor John Mandanici, a sweet and sour political hurricane. Margaret, a state representative, believed she had a deal with Mandy to replace Sal when he received the tax attorney appointment. Somewhere along the way the deal went out the window, and Margaret saw it as a double dip, two jobs at once. Margaret was among the most decent in city politics. She was honest, strong and her word was good. The fight was on.
In Margaret’s words to me 30 years ago, “I felt I was a loyal Democrat. They had reneged on their promise that there would be no double-dipping. I wanted to make peace but they wanted to make war.”
And it was a war that changed the face of city politics. Margaret, in her mid-fifties when she took on this battle, stitched together a coalition–black, white and brown–that said screw the party establishment, a woman’s place is in the senate, not the house. Margaret, a funeral home director, defeated DePiano by a handful of votes in a primary.
Margaret’s primary win did more than elevate her as a black woman in the Connecticut State Senate. Like them or not, she opened the door for several minority candidates including Charlie Tisdale, a gifted political organizer who became the first black in the city’s history to win a major party mayoral nomination in 1983. In 1981, a young music teacher from East Side Middle School, Ernie Newton, became City Council President. When Margaret left the State Senate she was replaced by Alvin Penn who was replaced by Newton who was replaced by Ed Gomes, then Andres Ayala and then regained by Ed Gomes.
So let’s embrace Lewis Latimer and while we’re at it, Margaret Morton too.