Politically, Connecticut in 1930 was a strongly conservative, laissez-faire state, a working partnership of business and government. Small towns, through provisions in the Constitution of 1818, were heavily over-represented in the House of the General Assembly where Republicans had maintained a majority since 1878. Each town which had been organized before 1818 had two seats in the House, and those towns admitted after 1818 had one seat until they reached a population of 5,000 or more. Thus in 1930, the towns of Sherman, Union, and Warren Hartford, and New Haven also had six seats in the House, but a total population of 473,443. Of the 169 towns in Connecticut, 32 had populations greater than 10,000. There were 86 towns of less than 2500 residents.
Almost all the small towns were staunchly Republican, and with such overwhelming numbers, the many small towns could block any legislation they wished. State aid formulas for education and roads were heavily weighted to favor rural areas.
Party politics in 1930 Connecticut were dominated by a highly organized Republican machine. State Chairman of the Republican State Committee since 1912—and until his death in 1937—was J. Henry Roraback of North Canaan. Roraback and the men around him firmly believed that the ideal government was that which did as little as possible at the lowest available cost. Balanced budgets, comfortable surpluses, low taxes, scarce state services, and a strict pay-as-you-go policy were cherished and realized goals of Roraback and his Republican friends.
The State Treasurer’s Office reported that the net bonded indebtedness of Connecticut in 1931 was $1,311,100.
Democrats had not won a governorship since 1912. Between that date and 1930, Democrats held few state offices, and only a small minority of those elected to the United States Congress were Democrats. The party was controlled by a group nicknamed “The Old Guard”, a group of city leaders who seemed content to take crumbs from the political table. Republicans held practically all political offices in the state, save those few granted by Roraback to the Democrats.
For most of the years when J. Henry Roraback was Republican political leader of Connecticut, he was also President of the Connecticut Light and Power Company, the largest utility in the state. Such dual office holding would be highly suspect today, but there were few complaints about it at the time. Roraback was never accused of money corruption, even by his worst enemies, yet he saw nothing wrong with using his position to win legislation favorable to the companies he controlled. Most citizens of Connecticut in 1930, along with Roraback and his allies, felt that the interests of the people, the government, and business were essentially the same, and could best be served jointly.
Government in Connecticut in 1930 was run largely by various committees and commissions composed of leading citizens, almost all of whom were Republicans. The governorship was a part time job with little real power—even lacking an official residence until 1945—and the General Assembly met only every two years. Rural roads were generally poor, tending to keep travel irregular and difficult, and to keep most small towns isolated, enhancing a sense of independence. Population was concentrated in larger cities around manufacturing centers. Shopping was done downtown. Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport among them contained one third of the state’s population.
There was a state Agricultural College in Storrs, and there were four normal schools for teacher training. The New Haven Railroad was the state’s chief transportation link and had much influence in business and government. Trolley car lines linked the cities and some of the small towns immediately around them, and there were a few busses. Along the shoreline and up the Connecticut River to Hartford towns were served by regularly scheduled steamship lines. A trip from Glastonbury, Farmington, or Granby into Hartford was regarded as a rare treat by most young people in 1930. Governor John Trumbull was very much interested in aviation, and was nicknamed “The Flying Governor,” but airports were few and small.
A few women in the General Assembly, only token Italians and Poles, and no Negroes held state offices. While most towns had received electrical power, complete electrification of the state was not achieved until 1946.
Connecticut had been generally prosperous during the 1920s, but the textile industry, a major factor in the economic life of eastern Connecticut, was leaving the state, with a third of the textile factories having gone elsewhere between 1920 and 1930. Much of the economy of the state was based on manufacturing. The insurance industry was concentrated in Hartford, brass in the Naugatuck Valley, small arms in New Haven and Hartford. Fairfield County was increasingly a suburban commuter area for New York City. Few towns outside Fairfield County could be considered as suburban in 1930.
Joblessness grew in Connecticut during much of 1929—the city of Hartford had to make an additional appropriation of $75,000 late in the year for relief costs—and unemployment grew rapidly in 1930. Citizens were increasingly concerned about the health of business after the 1929 stock market crash. There were no voices in Connecticut crying ‘depression,.
Democrats in 1930 nominated Dr. Wilbur Cross, retiring Dean of the Yale Graduate School, for Governor. Cross was a newcomer to state level politics, and was very much interested in opening up government in Connecticut, with special attention to better health and social services. Cross threw himself into the race for the nomination and defeated the entrenched “Old Guard” leaders of the party, who were at least as solidly conservative as the Republicans. Cross saw himself as an alternative to the passive, losing policies of the Old Guard, yet during his four terms as Governor, he was never able to win complete control over them.
Born in Gurleyville (part of Mansfield), Cross had won recognition as a scholar, author of several books, Professor of English at Yale, editor of the
and as a strong administrator. He was essentially a state’s rights conservative, but wanted to open state government to better serve the people and to break the power of the boss-dominated Republican machine.
Knowing that he faced strong odds against winning the election, Cross chose to wage a fighting campaign all over the state, poor roads and all. Using a shrewd combination of country wit, dialect stories about farmers, great personal charm, a splendid sense of humor, and solid, common sense programs, the sixty-eight year old Cross came away with a narrow victory in 1930, the only Democrat to win state office, a temporary accident, a Governor surrounded by a surprised but still efficient Republican machine.
During all of 1930, unemployment was a major concern in Connecticut, and this doubtless played an important part in the Democrats electing Cross, but there was no conception that a major economic crisis was looming. In conjunction with the outgoing Governor Trumbull, Wilbur Cross established a program of public works designed to get unemployed young men to work in clearing woodlands and other conservation projects, very similar to later federal programs. Trumbull and Cross also cooperated in forming the Connecticut Unemployment Commission to try to ease problems of joblessness, and to encourage employers to do what they could to keep their men working. This commission underwent a change of names, but remained as the basic state liaison with federal relief projects after 1933 and the coming of New Deal relief programs.
As unemployment increased, relief problems were most severe in larger manufacturing cities. Bridgeport was very hard hit and took stringent measures to remain solvent. Aliens were dropped from some relief roles. In most cities and towns, the number of public employees was reduced, teacher’s salaries cut back, town services severely curtailed. As unemployment continued to increase, by 1932, several banks in Connecticut encountered serious difficulties, real estate values plummeted, and towns had difficulty collecting property taxes. Smaller towns tended to be less affected by bad times, but there was a general shrinkage of cash. Manufacturing employment, which stood at an index number of 100 in the middle of 1929, had fallen to 65.5 in New Haven in January 1932, 77.2 in Bridgeport, 74.1 in Hartford County. Town resources for relief were being pushed beyond bearable limits.
In Connecticut, as in the United States, unemployment continued to rise, reaching its greatest extent in April of 1933, when the employment index reached 49.6 in New Haven, 57.6 in Bridgeport, and 60.8 in Hartford County.
Wilbur Cross, despite severe political problems caused him by Republicans, won reelection for a second two year term in 1932, and Democrats won a majority in the State Senate. Although there was an initial resistance from Cross and other Connecticut leaders about accepting federal assistance through relief or federally sponsored public works, New Deal programs began to bring money to the state in various forms. A few voices continued to insist that the state go it alone, but however much their consciences might bother them, state political leaders realized that federal help was necessary. Hunger marchers and the unemployed demonstrated at the state capitol in 1933, seeking help from the state government in finding food and jobs.
The Civilian Conservation Corps was one of the first New Deal programs to have a direct impact on the state, employing several thousand young Connecticut men on various reforestation, park building, and conservation programs in parts of the state by mid-1933. Other federal programs, notably the Work Projects Administration, did much work in Connecticut from 1935 to 1944. WPA records are not systematic, but they list nearly a thousand different labor intensive projects in the state ranging from building airports to painting park outbuildings. In March of 1936, WPA employed 28,671 persons in the state.
When Governor Cross won a third two year term in 1934, federal and state relief and job programs were an important element of life in the state. By 1935, the depression and unemployment had driven state government to play a much larger role in the lives of the people than it had in 1930, using state laws on relief, labor practices, and regulations to eliminate ‘sweatshops’ from Connecticut. Construction of the Merritt Parkway from the New York state line in Greenwich, eventually reaching Stratford, was a source for many jobs, as well as being the primary link in a limited access highway system for Connecticut. The Metropolitan District Commission, formed in 1929 to supply water to the Hartford area, was much involved in construction of a series of water reservoirs in West Hartford, Avon, Hartland, and Barkhamsted, opening the huge Saville Dam in 1936.
Great floods along the Connecticut River Valley in March of 1936 caused immense devastation and led directly to much state and federal government activity to prevent a recurrence and to supply immediate relief. As warm rains combined with an early snow meltoff in the Connecticut River watershed, water levels rose rapidly in river valleys. The Greenwoods Dam in New Hartford burst. The Connecticut River swelled to record flood stages at Hartford, then climbed to unprecedented levels, inundating much of East Hartford, Windsor, and other towns along the Connecticut River. State and federal governments responded rapidly as men from the CCC and more than a thousand from the WPA were employed in immediate flood rescue and relief. The federal government promptly appropriated $3 million for Connecticut flood relief. As a direct result of the great 1936 flood, the Park River, flowing across part of downtown Hartford, was placed in a large underground tunnel, and a dike system was designed and built to prevent flooding along parts of the Connecticut River.
One effort to expand the role of the federal government in New England was made unsuccessfully in 1935 when United States Representative William Citron of Middletovn proposed creation of a Connecticut Valley Authority covering four New England states, patterned after the Tennessee Valley Authority. Citron’s plan provided an extensive program of dam building and flood control, and the generation of electricity, as well as other conservation projects. Citron’s plan brought immediate howls of rage from independent-minded governors and editorial shrieks of indignation in Connecticut. It was not seriously considered for implementation by the federal government. It did lead, however, to efforts among the four states for a flood control compact for the Connecticut River Valley.
A great hurricane swept unexpectedly into southern New England in September 1938. The storm was preceded by several days of rain which caused concern about river flooding in Connecticut. The hurricane was of great severity, killing hundreds of people and doing immense damage along the shoreline in Connecticut and Rhode Island. Uncounted millions of trees were knocked down by high winds all across Connecticut. Huge tides and extremely powerful winds, in addition to some inland flooding, caused unprecedented damage. Governor Cross, who had won reelection in the Roosevelt landslide of 1936, responded quickly, directing a variety of state and federal relief efforts, but problems caused by the hurricane were massive, and recovery slow. Roads were made impassable by fallen trees, power was out for many days, and sections of the shoreline were washed away, including whole rows of summer cottages. The hurricane played an important part in the political campaigns of October and November, 1938.
Wilbur Cross ran for a fifth term as Governor in 1938, still struggling against Old Guard Democrats. He was opposed by Republican Raymond Baldwin of Stratford, a former majority leader of the House. J. Henry Roraback had died in 1937. Lacking a strong successor to him as party leader, a number of young, much more liberal Republicans had organized “Beefsteak Clubs” to talk politics and work out leadership roles for the party. Baldwin was recognized as their natural leader.
Socialist Jasper McLevy, Mayor of Bridgeport, also entered the race for Governor in 1938, ready to lash out at both sides, playing the role of spoiler. McLevy was Mayor of Bridgeport from 1933 until 1957, building his own political machine centered in that city. He was a Socialist in name, but in practice, his political philosophy amounted to extreme thrift in city government and the procurement of as much state aid for Bridgeport as he could. He was boss of Connecticut’s Socialists, running for Governor several times. McLevy’s strength was generally in the larger cities, and he was a political force to be reckoned with during the 1930s and after.
In 1938, McLevy’s slogan was “Don’t let the raiders raid you.”
The gubernatorial campaign in Connecticut in 1938 was a bitterly controversial one. Wilbur Cross was a popular, effective Governor, well liked even by his political enemies. He had made the governorship a full time job, the first to do so. He won some useful reforms during the 1937 General Assembly session, strengthening the power of the Governor and increasing efficiency of government workings. Yet Cross was hectored by forces of the Old Guard in his own party and could not achieve clear control. Republicans maintained control of the House and were able to block much of his reform effort. But he had won advances in education and human services by state government and was a highly respected, if sometimes disregarded Governor.
Unfortunately for Cross, 1938 was also a year of major political corruption scandals in Connecticut, which hurt both major parties. Republicans were deeply involved in a land grab for profit in building the Merritt Parkway. Democrats were heavily involved in a long term embezzlement in Waterbury, including Mayor T. Frank Hayes, an Old Guard Democrat who was also Lieutenant-Governor of the state. After the election, convictions, appeals, and imprisonment followed for many of the men involved, but that came later, and the reality of the scandals was used by Jasper McLevy as a clear example of how far both major parties had slipped down the road to moral ruin and abuse of the people. He attacked Cross’s term as Governor as one of decadence and power seeking, a failure for the people.
Republican Baldwin chose to address issues facing the state, and allowed others to attack the Cross record in office. None of the candidates hinted that the state might return to the way things had been in 1930.
Only a few scattered voices, mostly in small towns, cried out for a return to the good old days.
A week before election day, a group of very conservative Republicans, led by Albert Levitt of Redding, demanded a place on the ballot for the Union Party. The Union Party had run candidates in the 1936 election with the backing of Father Charles Coughlin of Royal Oak, Michigan, a Catholic ‘radio priest’ of considerable national influence. The 1938 Union Party in Connecticut had no connection with Coughlin but was chosen as a device to make mischief in the campaign. The Levitt group won a writ of mandamus from a superior court judge to force the Secretary of the State to provide the Union Party with a line on the ballot. They entered Baldwin as their candidate for Governor, and an assortment of Democrats and Republicans for other offices. McLevy’s candidacy and the confusion caused by the last-ditch inclusion of the Union Party tipped the balance in the election. The final count was:
Wilbur Cross, Democrat
Jasper McLevy, Socialist
Raymond Baldwin, Republican
Raymond Baldwin, Union
Thus Baldwin had 230,237 votes, a plurality over Cross of 2,688, the vote for the Union Party swinging the results. McLevy’s 26 percent share of the vote made it plain that a large part of the electorate was unhappy enough with Connecticut’s political situation that they voted for a Socialist as Governor. Wilbur Cross, in spite of the questionable tactics by the Levitt group, decided not to contest the election, since he felt that the voters who chose Baldwin under the Union Party label had done so in good faith and that it would be wrong to deny them their honest choice.
Raymond Baldwin proved to be the best Republican vote-getter in modern Connecticut. His programs were considered liberal, and he repeatedly stressed a progressive and “friendly” government. He led Connecticut Republicans in strong support of Wendell Wilkie in the 1940 presidential campaign, where he was often mentioned as a vice-presidential possibility. In 1940, Baldwin was so busy helping Wilkie and the national ticket that he neglected his own campaign for reelection as Governor, and lost to Democrat Robert Hurley.
Baldwin returned to win the office of Governor in 1942 and 1944, and won a United States Senate seat in 1946. He resigned as senator in 1950 and was appointed to the State Supreme Court of Errors by Democratic Governor Chester Bowles, an action by Baldwin which deeply distressed many Connecticut Republicans.
Wilbur Cross left the governorship in January 1939 a widely admired man. The 1937 General Assembly voted to name a planned state parkway in his honor, the road to run from the end of the Merritt Parkway in Stratford to the Massachusetts line in Union. A large new bridge at Hartford, the Charter Oak, was completed as part of the plan. A new high bridge over the Thames River between New London and Groton was completed in 1943, both bridges integral parts of an evolving system of highways for Connecticut. Part of the Wilbur Cross Parkway was later incorporated into the interstate highway system as I-86, and the bridge in New London-Groton as part of I-95.