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Ella Grasso: A Real-Life Leslie Knope

Before 1974, no woman had ever been elected to the position of US State Governor without having been the spouse or widow of a former governor. This changed when Ella Grasso was elected as the 83rd Governor of Connecticut.

Grasso first became involved in politics as a member of the League of Women Voters. “I realized early on that if I was concerned with problems, the best way of getting them solved was to be part of the decision-making process,” she famously said.

Grasso devoted her entire adult life to service in government, first serving as a State Legislator in 1952 and in 1954, immediately followed by her term as Connecticut’s Secretary of State in 1958 for three consecutive terms. She was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1970, and then again in 1972. Grasso won the governorship of Connecticut in 1974 by an almost 200,000-vote margin, and was reelected by a landslide in 1978. According to politicians, the state of Connecticut saw Grasso as an important figure for women voters and, as an Italian-American, a prominent member of an increasingly important ethnic minority in state politics. By her second term, Grasso had also acquired a national reputation. Every now and again, she was mentioned as a potential Vice Presidential candidate.

Though she did not attempt to drastically change the course of government or ask to be treated differently or judged by anything but her accomplishments, by giving the public access to officials and records – as well as in leading the state’s efforts to give aid the elderly and the disabled – she was considered an innovator in government at the time.

In her first inaugural address, she promised “a government that would be more responsive to the people, but would keep within the fiscal limits demanded by the times.” Looking for ways to economize, she began with returning to the state treasury with a $7,000 raise she could not legally refuse. Over time, Grasso’s leadership was put to the test in the face of fiscal and budget problems as well as state layoffs.

Grasso was once again tested on her ability to handle one particular snowstorm, infamously known as The Blizzard of ’78. Officially titled, “Winter Storm Larry,” this storm dropped around 30 inches of snow across the state, crippling highways and making all major roads and highways impassable. In a swift and decisive action, she “closed the state,” as she put it, and forbade all use of public roads and closed all businesses, effectively ordering all citizens to stay safely inside their homes. Rescue authorities were thereby able to spend more time cleaning up roads and performing emergency services, instead of digging out cars and helping with roadside assistance to those who were stuck. She received accolades from all state sectors for her leadership and strength in those trying times.

During her second term as governor, Grasso developed ovarian cancer. She effectively resigned on New Year’s Eve, 1980 due to her deteriorating health. After an unsuccessful surgery for the removal of her ovaries and the failure of radiation treatments to stop the spread of cancer, Grasso was pronounced dead at Hartford Hospital on February 5th, 1981. She was succeeded by Lieutenant Governor William A. O’Neill.

President Ronald Reagan posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the National Women’s Hall of Fame inducted her in 1993. She was a member of the inaugural class of the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994, where the Ella Tambussi Grasso Center for Women in Politics is located.

Ella Grasso is a role model for women politicians and led the way for female governors and state leadership. We applaud her bravery and strength for being a voice in politics when there were only very few women in the field.

Featured Image by Lisa Jacobs on Flickr

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