Bysiewicz, Susan. Ella: A Biography of Governor Ella Grasso. Hartford, CT: Connecticut Consortium for Law and Citizenship Education, Inc., 1984.
Connecticut Representative Ella Grasso’s brief House career bridged two decades of service in state government and two trailblazing terms as the state’s governor. In Congress she concerned herself primarily with combating rampant unemployment in her district while preparing for her triumphant return to Connecticut politics. Throughout her long career in state and national politics, on issues ranging from civil rights to campaign finance reform, Grasso sensed the public mood and positioned herself at the forefront of the legislative response.1
Ella Rose Giovanna Oliva Tambussi was born on May 10, 1919, in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, the only child of Italian immigrants Giacomo and Maria Oliva Tambussi. Ella Tambussi, who spoke fluent Italian, attended St. Mary’s School in Windsor Locks, and the Chaffee School in Windsor. She received a BA in 1940 from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Two years later, she received a master’s degree in both economics and sociology from Mount Holyoke. After graduating in 1942, Ella Tambussi married Thomas Grasso, a schoolteacher and principal. The couple raised two children: Susane and James. Ella Grasso served as a researcher and, then, assistant director of research for the war manpower commission of Connecticut from 1943 to 1946.
Grasso first became involved in politics as a member of the League of Women Voters. She later credited that experience with helping her develop “a real understanding of issues.” She recalled, “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.”2 The veteran of local campaign organizations and a protégé of Connecticut’s legendary Democratic leader John Bailey (a close ally of John F. Kennedy and future chairman of the Democratic National Committee), Grasso entered electoral politics in 1952 when she won a seat in the state house of representatives. According to politicians familiar with both Grasso and Bailey, the Connecticut political boss saw Grasso as an important draw for women voters and, as an Italian American, a prominent member of an increasingly important ethnic minority in state politics long dominated by Irish Americans.3
According to her biographer, Grasso took to heart Bailey’s central political philosophy: “The mark of a successful politician is one that finds out where the parade is going, takes one step out in front of the band and declares himself the leader.” During her service in the state legislature, Grasso fought for equal rights and a law forbidding housing discrimination. In her second term she rose to assistant Democratic leader of the state legislature, and in 1955 she became the first woman elected floor leader. In 1958 Grasso was elected secretary of state of Connecticut; she won her two subsequent bids in 1962 and 1966. The office provided a level of visibility and constituent contact that helped Grasso, like Chase Going Woodhouse before her, to create a strong political network.4 During her time as secretary of state, Grasso remained active in the Democratic Party, serving as a member of the Democratic Platform Committee in 1960 and as co-chair of the resolutions committee for the 1964 and 1968 conventions.
As early as 1966, when the incumbent Democrat in Ella Grasso’s home congressional district lost to Republican opponent Thomas Joseph Meskill, party insiders began speculating that she could be a contender for the House seat. Citing family considerations (her husband had recently suffered two major heart attacks), she declined to seek the nomination. In 1970, however, Meskill vacated the seat to make a run for the Connecticut governorship. With the backing of John Bailey, Grasso entered the race and handily beat two rivals, Arthur Powers of Berlin and Andrew Denuzee of New Britain, for the Democratic nomination.5 The district, located in northwest Connecticut, was created after the 1960 Census, when the resulting reapportionment eliminated the state’s At-Large seat. It also straddled two very different groups of constituents, working-class voters in several industrial towns in Hartford County and an affluent, intellectual class that resided in rural Litchfield County. Grasso’s Republican opponent in the general election, Richard Kilborne, labeled her “Spender-Ella” and attacked her liberal record as dedicated to government spending to “help the un-helpable.”6 But Grasso’s two decisive advantages, wide name recognition and the blessing of Bailey, helped her defeat Kilborne with 51 percent of the vote.7 Grasso’s victory was noteworthy in the sense that Meskill won the governor’s race, overwhelming his Democratic opponent by nearly 35,000 votes in Grasso’s district.8
After entering the House in January 1971, Representative Grasso appealed to Speaker Carl Albert of Oklahoma for seats on the Committee on Education and Labor and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. She had served with Albert as co-chair of the resolutions committee at the 1964 Democratic Convention, and impressed by Grasso’s political skills, he had promised that if she ever won election to the House of Representatives, she would receive the committee assignments she desired. He was as good as his word, granting both requests.
With her district reeling from unemployment, Grasso sponsored a variety of legislation designed to increase employment, boost the minimum wage, hike Social Security payments, and protect workers. In 1971 she authored amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act, which raised the minimum wage and brought an additional six million workers under benefit coverage. As a conferee of that year’s Emergency Employment Act, she managed to secure 600 new jobs within her district. On the Veterans’ Affairs Committee she worked to pass a $272-per-month education benefit to veterans returning from Vietnam; while the measure failed, it helped raise the sights of a subsequent bill that passed the House and boosted the benefits to more than $200 per month.9 Arguably the most important accomplishment of her two terms came with her part in drafting the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, which again provided relief to hundreds of workers in her economically distressed district.
In 1972 Grasso was re-elected with a margin of 60 percent of the vote over her opponent Republican John Walsh. The results were made even more impressive by the fact that Republicans surged in the state delegation—taking control of half the House seats in the wake of incumbent President Richard M. Nixon’s strong electoral showing. In her Connecticut district, where Nixon ran ahead of the Democratic candidate, South Dakota Senator George Stanley McGovern, by nearly 50,000 votes, Grasso topped Walsh by a plurality of about 40,000.10
While she earned a reputation as a “moderate-liberal,” the diversity of Grasso’s district often kept her on the middle of the road on key issues. For instance, though she opposed the Vietnam War, she did so while treading lightly. Arguing that a cut-off date was needed for bringing the troops home, she nevertheless made no floor speeches on the subject and, twice in 1971, skipped two votes on measures to end the war. Part of this stance acknowledged the importance of defense sector jobs located in her district, as well as blue-collar support for the war effort.11
The press portrayed Grasso as one of the group of new-style feminist women who entered the House in 1971. At a Washington Press Club address along with Bella Savitzky Abzug of New York and Louise Day Hicks of Massachusetts, Grasso stressed their commonalities with a self-deprecating joke: “We’re all fat, we’re all middle-aged and we spend most of our time together talking about our children.”12 On women’s rights issues, however, she remained largely ambivalent and distanced herself from feminists like Abzug on such issues as abortion and childcare. Her biographer notes that Grasso’s tack toward the feminist agenda demonstrated “how she skillfully manipulated her position so she could simultaneously identify and disassociate herself with a popular cause.” Significantly, her experience was not typical of those of most women then entering Congress. “For most of them … it was their baptism into politics,” one Grasso aide observed, “but for her it was merely a continuation of something that had been going on for 20 years.… She was very much the old-school politician.”13 Grasso worked quietly on the Education and Labor Committee to ensure women’s parity in schools and the workplace, allaying some of the criticisms that she did not do enough to advance the feminist cause. In 1971 Grasso supported passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, noting that “Congress must provide the constitutional framework upon which to build a body of law to achieve the goal of equal rights.”14 In the final analysis, however, she correctly calculated that personal political success made her an appealing figure for feminists eager to draw women into politics and that, at the end of the day, women’s groups would support her even if she was not the loudest voice in the feminist chorus.15
Grasso was never as captivated by the work of Capitol Hill as she had been by Connecticut politics. Privately she complained to colleagues that the legislative process in the House frustrated her.16 In the Connecticut legislature she had been a senior lawmaker and part of the party leadership, but in the House, she could not work her way out of the rank and file. Eventually, she turned her attention back to the Connecticut statehouse. “I can be a gadfly here,” she complained. “But you can’t make a long-term career out of Congress at age fifty.”17
By early in her second term, Grasso largely viewed her House service as a way to raise her political profile in Connecticut. She ran her office much like she had during her time as Connecticut secretary of state, opening a toll-free phone service to her New Britain office (the “Ellaphone”) for constituents to speak more readily with her aides. She also held “office hours” by regularly traveling to towns in her district and meeting with a variety of citizens.18 By early 1973, the press and state political insiders regularly mentioned her name as a likely candidate for Connecticut governor.19
In January 1974, Grasso announced her gubernatorial candidacy, which ensured that by the following January she would retire from the House.20 With the support of Bailey’s statewide Democratic organization, Grasso won the gubernatorial race against a GOP House colleague, Representative Robert Hampton Steele, and became the first woman to be elected a U.S. governor without succeeding a husband. Grasso’s four-year term commenced in January 1975. The fiscal problems of Connecticut forced Grasso to follow a far more conservative policy as governor than she had as a Member of Congress. Despite budget cuts, Grasso maintained her popularity and won re-election in 1978 against another House GOP veteran, Ronald Arthur Sarasin. Grasso was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in early 1980, and her condition deteriorated as doctors were unable to stem the spread of the disease. On December 4, 1980, she announced her resignation, effective December 31, after which she returned to her hometown of Windsor Locks. Grasso died in Hartford on February 5, 1981.21
1Susan Bysiewicz, Ella: A Biography of Governor Ella Grasso (Hartford: Connecticut Consortium for Law and Citizenship Education, Inc., 1984): especially, 133–139.
2Jo Ann Levine, “Ella Grasso on Move: A Governor's Chair May Be in Her Future,” 26 July 1974, Christian Science Monitor: 10; Shirley Washington, Outstanding Women Members of Congress (Washington, DC: U.S. Capitol Historical Society, 1995): 35.
3Matthew L. Wald, “Ex–Gov. Grasso of Connecticut Dead of Cancer,” 6 February 1981, New York Times: A1; Joseph I. Lieberman, The Power Broker: A Biography of John M. Bailey Modern Political Boss: 230, 257–259.
4Emily S. Rosenberg, “Grasso, Ella Tambussi,” American National Biography 9 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 427–428.
5Bysiewicz, Ella: 53.
6Washington, Outstanding Women Members of Congress: 36.
7Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”
8Bysiewicz, Ella: 53–54.
9Bysiewicz, Ella: 58–60; Congressional Record, House, 93rd Cong., 2nd sess. (10 October 1974): 35154; Congressional Record, House, 93rd Cong., 2nd sess. (19 February 1974): 3264.
10“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”
11See, for instance, Bysiewicz, Ella: 52–55.
12Sally Quinn, “Ella, Bella and Louise,” 10 February 1971, Washington Post: B2.
13Bysiewicz, Ella: 60; Wald, “Ex-Gov. Grasso of Connecticut Dead of Cancer.” This is not to say that Grasso did not experience discrimination; even in the state legislature, where she was on the “inside track” with her connections to Bailey, she encountered obstacles. She recalled, “There was a committee I very much wanted to be on and I was clearly the best qualified. But the men caucused in the men’s room! What was I to do?” See Anita Shreve and John Clemens, “The New Wave of Women Politicians,” 19 October 1980, New York Times: SM30.
14Congressional Record, House, 92nd Cong., 1st sess. (12 October 1971): 35799.
15Bysiewicz, Ella: 60.
16Wald, “Ex–Gov. Grasso of Connecticut Dead of Cancer.”
17Bysiewicz, Ella: 57.
19Levine, “Ella Grasso on Move: A Governor’s Chair May Be in Her Future.”
20Lawrence Fellows, “Rep. Ella Grasso Plans to Enter Connecticut Governorship Race,” 9 January 1974, New York Times: 32; Lawrence Fellows, “Mrs. Grasso Opens Race for Governor,” 20 January 1974, New York Times: 22.
Bysiewicz, Susan. Ella: A Biography of Governor Ella Grasso. Hartford, CT: Connecticut Consortium for Law and Citizenship Education, Inc., 1984.
"Ella Tambussi Grasso" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.
Leeper, Mark Stephen. "Springboard or Vacuum? Women, State Legislatures, and Political Ambition." Ph.D. diss., The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1995.
Purmont, Jon E. "Ella Grasso: As She Saw Herself." Connecticut Review 17 (Spring 1995): 23-29.
Ralph Nader Congress Project. Citizens Look at Congress: Ella T. Grasso, Democratic Representative from Connecticut. Washington, D. C.: Grossman Publishers, 1972.