Once upon a time, the most wonderful thing happened to me. Though I didn’t know it at the time, losing a primary in a Democratic congressional race proved to be a blessing.
It was back in 1964 when I had an idea for an international cargo airport to stimulate the economy of Eastern Connecticut. U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd’s father, former U.S. Sen. Thomas Dodd, heard of the idea and liked it. He invited me to his home in North Stonington and said if we, in the Northeast, could locate that airport between Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut for international cargo, it would be the biggest generator of jobs in New England.
Then he said, “I don’t know anything about airports, Bill,” and he invited me to Washington the next week where I met with all the transportation heads. Perhaps the greatest of them was Alan Boyd, who was the first secretary of transportation under President Lyndon Johnson.
We met him in his office at the Department of Transportation. He listened to the idea and said, “If we had never built an airport and were just now going to build our first airport, we would build it the way you are presenting this one.”
The airport was going to be environmentally sound with a sound buffer of two miles of forest land, which could be used for camping by the Boy Scouts or tree farms, but it would separate the airport from the people and the unpleasant sounds of jets overhead.
Boyd said, I don’t think, in this day and age you can build a new airport because of the NIMBYS.” (That is, the group that fights anything that might be in their back yards.)
Then we visited David Thomas, who was chairman of the Federal Aviation Administration. He thought it was a beautiful airport, desperately needed to relieve JFK in New York and Logan in Boston, and said it would be the finest airport in the world because it would be environmentally sound.
The final man to come aboard was a fellow named Jim Rouse. He worked for Connecticut General and was considered one of America’s finest planners. He is the man who invented the shopping mall. He became part of the international airport planning — a city for air cargo and international trade.
But Washington said the airport idea had to start in Hartford. The United States government could build it, but Connecticut would have to ask for it. Sen. Tom Dodd said, “Bill, you have got to get a state senator to support your airport.”
I tried but failed, and Dodd said, “Then you better run for the Senate yourself and be your own man.”
Fight the Machine
In those days, the state was run by one of the greatest political bosses in American history. His name was John Bailey, and the last thing he wanted in Hartford was a Democrat named Bill Stanley. He liked to control politicians, and I might prove a loose cannon. When I announced my candidacy to the state Senate, he brought the whole state Democratic Party down on me. Bailey sent his lieutenants in from Hartford who knew how to primary.
On my team was a Democratic chairman in Norwich, Philip Shannon, who I always thought was as smart as Bailey. Against all odds, we beat the machine. The people wanted a new kind of politics, and we won with 70 percent of the primary vote.
I spent two terms in the Connecticut Senate. I was chairman of the first Clean Water Act in America. Later, every state embraced it. I brought money to Norwich for sewer lines, and a half million dollars to cover a Norwich lawsuit. We cleaned up the rivers, but I always was pushing for the big airport.
It was then, as I was preparing for my third-term election, that Congressman William St. Onge had a heart attack and died unexpectedly. Vin Sullivan, state central committeeman from Windham County, Phil Shannon, Norwich town chairman, Doc Satti and Harvey Mallove, who ran the New London political machine, all wanted me to run for Congress against another Democrat, Jack Pickett from Middletown.
In truth, I didn’t want to go to Washington. But those political forces who had been so helpful in my senatorial fights insisted I run, so I couldn’t say no.
I remember meeting with Pickett, my opponent from Middletown, and telling him that I had been in three primaries, and he should take some advice. I told him, “Jack, I will not go into Middlesex County, because if I work with your enemies, your friends will kill me in the general election.” I told Jack he would be wise not to cultivate my enemies. I said, “Jack, if you win the primary, with all of my political enemies on your side, they will leave once I am defeated, and my people will take a walk. On Election Day, you will lose all of Eastern Connecticut.”
Pickett ignored my advice, and he cultivated all of my no-airport enemies. The Democratic Convention was held at Ocean Beach. I believe there were 450 delegates. I lost the convention by three votes.
This morning’s picture is perhaps the saddest photo in the Stanley family album. On the left is Democratic town chairman of Willimantic, Al Vertefuille. He’s telling me that I just lost the convention by three votes. In the center is a very sad and depressed young man, my son, Billy, who was brokenhearted.
If only I could have carried New London’s eight delegates, I would have won by five votes. But New London had made a deal with Middletown. Peg Curtain, from New London, was running for secretary of the state, and Ted Waston promised Middletown if they would vote for Curtain, New London would vote for Pickett. So I lost New London and the convention.
I cannot remember feeling more depressed in all my life. We had a primary, and I lost by one-half of one percent. Pickett ran for Congress, and I believe he lost every town in Eastern Connecticut except Putnam — the home of former Congressman St. Onge.
That night, after the convention, I was so depressed, but looking back, it was the most wonderful thing that ever could have happened to me. I served four years as senator for the 19th District. I didn’t really want to go to Congress. I loved Hartford, not Washington. Within a few years, I had my business going strong again, and the Stanley family grew up together.
What You Wish For
This morning’s story is a departure from my usual stories I guess, but I thought the lesson I learned is sometimes, in life, not getting what you think you want is a blessing. While the airport was never built, and those who opposed me promised they had a better plan, 39 years have passed, and we are still waiting for that better plan they promised the people they had.
The second lesson I learned was how fiercely people will fight any project they don’t wholeheartedly support — none more vigorously than airports. But I am sure if that big,
international airport were located where Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island came together, the economy of Eastern Connecticut would be thriving with Federal Express, United Parcel Service and international cargo carriers.
We will never know, but let us each night thank the Lord that Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods came to be in Eastern Connecticut, for without them, we would have higher unemployment than Michigan. We were saved by the tribes and the casinos. I am so happy I lost by those three votes so long ago at a Democratic Convention at Ocean Beach.
It was a wonderful chapter in my life, but, on reflection, losing my bid for Congress was a blessing after all.