In this week of thanks and giving if you want to discuss city pols who are decent and honorable, Fleeta Hudson’s at the top of the list. CT Post reporter Keila Torres Ocasio wrote a deserving tribute to her in the Sunday edition. Fleeta has a way of sharing her point of view without declaring all-out war. That requires the right temperament and a survivor’s skill in a cut-throat industry. And in Bridgeport, politics is an industry.
Fleeta has chosen service over ambition. No doubt, had she wanted it, she has the skills for higher office. She was elected city clerk in 1991 on the Joe Ganim mayoral ticket and won reelection through the John Fabrizi and now Bill Finch years. She says she’ll retire when her four years as city clerk, the keeper of the city’s legislative records, ends in 2015. As Keila points out that places Fleeta in Jasper McLevy territory for consecutive service. McLevy was the city’s Socialist mayor from 1933 to 1957. Fleeta and another African American woman Margaret Morton transcended gender and race when white males dominated city politics. Grab a cup of joe and check out Keila’s piece:
Fleeta Hudson, Bridgeport’s ‘public treasure’ never afraid to speak up
In 1970, Richard Nixon was president, Hugh C. Curran was mayor of Connecticut’s largest city and Fleeta Hudson was a mother of three who had no interest in running for office.
That is, until the Bridgeport resident won a spot in a federal program that provided training to aspiring teachers in inner cities. During an internship in a Bridgeport school, Hudson met a teacher who didn’t teach her students to read.
“What do I do? If these were my kids, I’m having a fit,” said the petite, soft-spoken Hudson, Bridgeport’s longtime city clerk, remembering her despair. “My friends got sick and tired of me crying about it and said go to the neighborhood council.”
Hudson did exactly that. She told her story to the council, unaware that a local reporter was writing down every word.
“It was in Sunday morning’s paper,” she said, smiling sheepishly, during an interview in her office.
It was Hudson’s inability to remain silent about injustices in her community that began her 40-year career in public service, which was split evenly between the city’s elected Board of Education and her current position as city clerk, the city’s second-highest elected office.
“I’ve always considered Fleeta Bridgeport’s public treasure,” said James Connolly, superintendent of schools in Bridgeport when Hudson served on the school board. “When she left the board, I thought it was a plus for the city but a great loss for the Board of Ed. She always put children first.”
“The thing about Fleeta is she has a great care for the city of Bridgeport,” said City Council President Thomas McCarthy. “The city clerk is the record keeper for the city and she takes her job very seriously.”
AN EDUCATION ADVOCATE IS BORN
Hudson was born in North Carolina in the 1930s, the ninth of 10 children–the exact year isn’t important, she adds with a laugh. She first came to Connecticut in her 20s, but only to visit an older brother who had moved to Hartford.
Upon graduating from Knoxville College in Tennessee, though, she made the move to New England permanent. Her high school boyfriend had moved to New York, and since she was in Hartford, they decided to settle in Bridgeport when they got married.
The couple moved to Central Avenue. Her husband worked full-time at the General Electric Co. plant on Boston Avenue and Hudson worked part-time at Read’s Department Store. The extra income was useful, but more useful for the young family was the 20 percent discount.
Although the couple only had three children, there were usually many more around the dinner table.
“She always treated me as her son,” said Ernest Newton III, a former state senator from the East End, who attended McKinley School with Hudson’s son, Jeffrey. “I ate at her kitchen table. I was like part of her family. I don’t think I would have made it without her.”
Tanya Dicks-Raheem, a Stratford resident, said she always considered Hudson’s children not only classmates but also siblings. Hudson took her in often as a child and even helped raise her daughter, Avery Eady, now 22.
In Hudson’s home, children learned that education was important.
“I couldn’t come home with a bad grade,” said Eady, who lived with Hudson for several years in elementary school and was often introduced to mayors and other officials after school in Hudson’s office. “I don’t know the consequences. I didn’t get them.”
Eady is now pursuing her master’s degree in psychology from Southern Connecticut State University.
“I take all the credit,” said Hudson, with a laugh, of her “honorary grandbaby’s” interest in education.
FIGHTING FOR HARDING
It was her belief in the importance of education that led Hudson to speak out at the fateful council meeting in 1970. But it was by no means the only time she spoke up.
“I would go to a school my kids were in and if I saw something wrong, I did not hesitate. I said something,” Hudson said. “And people started talking to me. And they were impressed and they ended up twisting my arm to get on the Board of Ed.”
In 1971, Hudson acquiesced, ran for a Board of Education seat and won.
Immediately upon her election, several board members individually approached her and offered to take her out to lunch to explain her duties–without knowing the other board members had done the same.
“It made me feel good,” Hudson said. “I was just a mother. What would I know about school systems?”
Now, though, Hudson said the board appears to be a political board more often than a school board. “I don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat, you gotta think about the kids in the schools. But they didn’t,” she said.
It was Hudson’s ability to reach across party lines when she served that made people pay attention.
“She was not afraid to reach across the table,” said Connolly, who is now interim superintendent in Oxford. “I never considered Fleeta to be outspoken. She wasn’t a yeller or a bomb tosser. But when Fleeta spoke, you listened. Some of the things that have happened at Harding High School would have never happened if Fleeta had been on the board.”
The school was placed in the hands of an educational management firm last year, in part because less than 5 percent of students met the goals in math, reading, writing and science in 2010.
One of Hudson’s key accomplishments was her adoption of the school.
“It was just an old school and they dumped staff in there that shouldn’t have been in there,” Hudson said. “And when I got on the board, the principal was so impressed that he called me over and the superintendent didn’t appreciate that. I had to go tell the superintendent off. I said, ‘No, they have a right to call me. That’s why we’re elected.’ And that made me the star of Harding.”
BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS
By the end of her 20-year tenure, Hudson had gained the community’s respect through her work on the school board, for which she served as vice president. She had also joined the political scene.
Hudson was the first black woman on the city’s Democratic Town Committee and the first from Bridgeport to serve on the state committee. She later became president of the Bridgeport Federation of Democratic Women and the state federation of Black Democratic Clubs.
In 1974, she gave the seconding speech for Ella Grasso’s nomination for governor. Two years later, she served as delegate to the Democratic National Convention.
Newton said Hudson was one of a group of strong, black women who inspired the city’s youth to participate in their communities, get involved and make a difference. “They were hell-raisers in our community,” he said. “They were strong leaders and Fleeta, being one of those, was a trailblazer for us.”
Laurayne Farrar-James, a community activist and sister of longtime Bridgeport school principal Geraldine Johnson, said Hudson made public service a noble cause. “She’s made it possible for other young women to see that they can do the same thing and even more,” she said.
Hudson was so well-respected that when former City Clerk John Brannelly was looking for someone to take his place, he immediately thought of her. One day, while Hudson was campaigning with Brannelly and former Mayor John Mandanici, the city clerk told her he was going to nominate her as his replacement when he retired.
Hudson laughed it off, but years later, Brannelly passed away–and Mandanici remembered his plan.
In 1991, Hudson was elected.
TAKING ON CITY HALL
In her first year in the part-time position, Hudson said she was only expected to come into the office about half a day every week, so she retained her job as investment officer in the Office of the State Treasurer. At the end of her first two-year term, though, Hudson reached her 20-year anniversary at her state job and, tired of driving to Hartford every day, decided to retire.
Retirement was not a good idea.
“I was bored to death so I decided to drive them crazy in here,” she said, with a laugh. “I would stop in and the hours seemed to be getting longer and longer. It would keep me from shopping and going to the casino.”
Like the Board of Education, the job has changed quite a bit, as well.
While in the past, city clerks were often utilized as a resource and aide to the mayor, Hudson said she barely knows any of Mayor Bill Finch’s staff. Also, the City Hall Committee, which the city clerk leads, is not called upon as often as before. The committee, by charter, is supposed to vote on the fate of all city properties. That’s often not the case.
For instance, Hudson learned Finch wanted to put City Hall up for sale in the newspaper, like everyone else.
Employees say Hudson really supports her staff.
“She’s a great boss,” said Assistant City Clerk Frances Wilson. “She cares a lot about the office and she fights for her staff.”
Her ability to fight for others, though, without making enemies is one of the reasons Hudson has remained in office so long.
Her love-hate relationship with Mandanici, for example, is well-known.
“We used to fight a lot about some school board issues and some other stuff,” she said, smiling at the memory. “But it was interesting because it was give and take. I learned from him and he learned from me. And he could take what you could give him and I could take what he could give me. We ended up being the best of friends.”
So much so that Mandanici’s family asked Hudson to ride in the car behind theirs during his funeral procession.
Despite her bickering with Finch–usually about her duties, budget and staff–the mayor said he respects her and considers her a role model.
“I’ve known Fleeta for more than a quarter century,” Finch said. “She should stand as a role model to all young girls who want to improve their community through public service.”
Mario Testa, chairman of the Democratic Town Committee, said Hudson is easy to get along with and DTC members have always respected her. And since her election to the position of city clerk in 1991, not one of the three mayors in office has requested that she be replaced on their ticket.
If a mayoral candidate had asked, “It wasn’t going to happen anyway,” Testa added.
THE NEXT CHAPTER
So, why did Hudson decide this would be her last term?
“The age,” she said. Although she had considered retiring often, Hudson said there is no doubt the four-year term she was elected to this month must be her last. “My memory is really bad and I know it,” she said, softly.
Hudson said she’s not sure what she will do with all the extra time on her hands once she does retire. She’s already traveled enough, she said.
“I keep threatening my kids that I’m going to buy a condo down near the Mohegan Sun,” she added, laughing. “They already told me they are not driving me to the casino.”
Will she miss being an elected official? Is she amazed that once her new term ends in four years she will be tied with Jasper McLevy, who served 24 years as mayor, for most time served in one Bridgeport office?
Hudson stares at the dozens of photographs lining her walls. Photos of her former school board colleagues. Photos of herself with fellow elected officials–former Mayor Joseph P. Ganim, former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz.
And one of her favorite photos: one of herself with actor Robert Redford, when he came to Connecticut to campaign for former governor William O’Neill. “Who would have ever thought this years ago,” she said.
“I loved being a maverick.”