March 4, 2010

No on 1 campaign manager embraces his father's legacy

— Saturday evening, just as the battle over same-sex marriage in Maine shifted into overdrive, Jesse Connolly quietly stepped out from his job as campaign manager of No on 1/Protect Maine Equality for a very important, very personal engagement. His 2-year-old son, Finn, was waiting at home dressed up like a polar bear.

click image to enlarge

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer: Jesse Connolly, campaign manager for the No on 1 campaign, talks with supporters at the Holiday Inn by the Bay on Tuesday night, Novermber 3, 2009.

Gregory Rec

''I'm taking my son trick-or-treating for the first time,'' Connolly, 31, said with a proud smile. ''Damn right I'm going to sneak away for that!''

He comes by his priorities naturally. And as he sat in a coffee shop on India Street Saturday afternoon -- a rare moment of reflection amid the chaos of a statewide campaign with national implications -- Connolly confirmed what many have suspected these past few months.

''I've been thinking a lot of my father,'' he said. ''I hope he would be proud of what I've chosen to do.''

No doubt.

Thirty-six years ago, at a time when gays and lesbians registered nary a blip on the political radar screen, two young upstart state representatives from Portland turned heads in Augusta by filing what would be the first of many unsuccessful bills outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation.

One was Gerald Talbot, the first black ever elected to the Maine Legislature. The other was Laurence D. Connolly Jr., who would go on to forge a political legacy by lending his voice to the poor, the imprisoned and others who might otherwise go unheard.

Then in 1987, it all came crashing down. Larry Connolly, at the peak of his political career, died of heart failure at 43. He left his wife, Nancy; daughters Maggie and Sarah; and young Jesse.

''I was 8,'' Connolly said. ''I was in second grade at Reiche School in the West End.''

Meaning he was just old enough to know, as he watched the dignitaries and common folk stream into the funeral Mass at St. Dominic Catholic Church, that his father was no ordinary man. And that there's no nobler calling than to dedicate one's life to helping others.

''My sisters and I were raised by the community,'' Connolly recalled. ''My mother went back to school immediately after he passed away to get her degree at the Muskie School. And she did it at night because we didn't have any savings or a life insurance policy. So we had a different baby-sitter in our house every night.''

''We called it the child-care consortium,'' Nancy Connolly recalled with a hearty laugh Tuesday.

''And to see Jesse now giving back to the community that was there to support him -- I'm just so proud of him.''

A star soccer goalkeeper at Portland High School, Connolly went on to study politics at Bates College -- his thesis, buttressed by his reading of every floor speech his father delivered over eight terms in the Legislature, centered on the still-evolving effort to pass equal rights legislation for Maine's gay and lesbian community.

No surprise then that, upon his graduation from Bates, politics beckoned.

In 2004, Connolly managed the Maine presidential campaign for Democrat John Kerry. George W. Bush won re-election, but Kerry took Maine.

In 2005, after Maine finally passed a law placing sexual orientation under the protective umbrella of the Maine Human Rights Act, Connolly became campaign manager for Maine Won't Discriminate -- the coalition formed to beat back a people's veto of the measure. The law survived the challenge.

In 2006, Gov. John Baldacci tapped Connolly to manage his re-election campaign. Another win.

''I'm very, very proud of him,'' said Baldacci, who served with Larry Connolly in the Legislature and still recalls the scholarship fund lawmakers formed for Jesse and his sisters after their father died.

''To see him develop into this kind of campaign manager, a politico extraordinaire, is so satisfying,'' Baldacci said. ''We're all really proud of him, as a parent would be of a son or a daughter. You know that Larry's smiling -- and realizing the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.''

Since taking the reins of No on 1/Protect Maine Equality last June -- he's on an unpaid leave of absence as House Speaker Hannah Pingree's chief of staff -- Connolly has shed his behind-the-scenes role of past campaigns and emerged as the public face of what he calls ''this $4.5 million, 53-employee business.''

''He's like this little celebrity,'' said Nicole Clegg, Connolly's wife of three years. ''Everybody comes up to him, they want to have their picture taken with him.''

Added Clegg, the communications director at Portland City Hall, ''I'm so happy he got to do this. This is the issue he really connects with that was, and is, his father's.''

That said, it's a far cry from the days in the early 1970s when freshman state Rep. Larry Connolly earned the title ''resident radical'' from the State House press corps.

Where once there were mass mailings and leaflet drops, there's now Facebook and Twitter.

Where once homophobic slurs uttered on the House floor prompted an angry House Speaker John Martin to gavel down the offenders and demand a civil debate, there's now strong support for same-sex marriage in both houses of the Legislature.

And where once there was the long-haired, bushy-bearded father who went to work at the State House in faded trousers, a flannel shirt and an old-fashioned bow tie, there's now the clean-cut son in oxford shirts and neatly pressed khaki slacks.

''Oh my God,'' Connolly said, staring at a yellowed newspaper photo from 1978.

It shows then-U.S. Sen. William Hathaway, during a visit to People's Building on Brackett Street, holding a 13-day-old Jesse while a proud Larry Connolly looks on.

''Thirteen days old. That is crazy,'' said Jesse, holding the clip with both hands. Pointing to his beaming father, he added wryly, ''He couldn't have got a haircut, though? My goodness!''

Yet for all the outward differences, those who remember Larry Connolly now look at his son and see history repeating itself.

Nancy Connolly turned on the evening news Monday and there on the screen was ''my precious firstborn,'' skillfully exhorting the crowd at an get-out-the-vote rally held earlier in the day in Monument Square. The movement of his arms, the tenor of his voice, the twinkle in his eye, ''I just got the chills watching it,'' she said.

''I remember how worried I was, when Larry died, for all of my kids, but for Jesse in particular -- to not have that male role model,'' Nancy said. On Monday, ''Larry was with him. He did have that role model, he did have that support.''

Talbot, Larry Connolly's old partner in legislative rabble rousing, saw the same thing.

''Larry would be very proud,'' Talbot said Tuesday. ''Jesse has done a marvelous job -- and he's a very, very nice, personable young man.''

Kind of like Larry was?

''Exactly like Larry was,'' Talbot replied.

Sitting over his coffee last weekend, Connolly was a bundle of nerves. Internal polls showed No on 1/Protect Maine Equality's lead slipping -- enough that Connolly admitted, ''I'm nervous.''

''I feel a lot of pressure,'' he said. ''I feel I've got history, I've got my father looking down on me. I feel that there's a lot of people who have worked really hard for this day -- and I'm going to come out either as a big champion or a big goat.''

Tuesday evening, before a packed ballroom at the Holiday Inn by the Bay, Connolly was a hero -- even as an early edge evaporated and the ''Yes on 1'' side took a narrow lead.

Concealing his nerves behind an ever-present smile, he ricocheted from TV camera to TV camera, predicting a late night, exuding optimism. Then he took the stage and introduced Baldacci, ''the first governor in the nation to sign a marriage equality bill!''

''What can I say?'' Connolly hollered over the roar of the crowd as Baldacci took the stage. ''He's a rock star!''

A smiling Baldacci stepped up to the microphone and immediately returned the favor.

''Your father would be very proud,'' he told Connolly to more cheers. ''I'm sure he's looking down on all of us.''

Indeed.

Not once since the day Larry Connolly was buried 22 years and seven months ago has Jesse visited the grave site at Calvary Cemetery in South Portland -- just a mile or two from where he, his wife and little boy now live.

Why stay away for so long?

''I'm not ready yet,'' Connolly replied. ''I think people grieve in different ways and that's still something I'm not...''

The thought went unfinished. Staring at his near-empty coffee cup for a few moments, the weight of so many worlds on his young shoulders, Connolly finally looked up and tried again.

''I want to bring my son there,'' he said. ''I want to talk to my son about who my father was.''

And what will he say?

''I'll tell him that he was a wonderful man who cared so much about people who were less fortunate than us,'' Connolly said. ''And that the work is never done.''

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

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