Julie Belaga, shown in a screenshot from a C-Span interview, was a Westport state legislator who made history as the first woman nominated by state Republicans to run for governor.

By Mark Pazniokas / CTMirror.org

Julie D. Belaga, a political moderate who held local and state legislative offices in Westport before winning a three-way primary in 1986 that made her the first woman nominated for governor by the Connecticut Republican Party, died Friday night at an assisted-living facility in Westport. She was 91.

Her death was confirmed by her son, David D. Belaga.

“She was a terrific lady and a real asset to politics in Connecticut,” said former Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., one of the political contemporaries who encouraged Belaga to run 35 years ago.

Westport P&Z led to “insatiable fascination with the environment”

In Westport, Belaga served on the Planning and Zoning Commission in the early 1970s, where, “Little did I know at the time that it would trigger an insatiable fascination with the environment. Every land-use decision that was made impacted every other resident in our town. Clean air, clean water and clean land … those were the commission’s goals,” she told the website suzannesheridan.com.

Legislative career representing Westport

Belaga was elected to the state’s General Assembly in 1976, representing Westport in the 136th House District. She was 46, one of a generation of women who came to Hartford in the 1970s, when the GOP elected more women than did the Democratic Party. 

The decade began with fewer than 20 women in what was then a 177-seat House of Representatives. In 1976, Belaga was one of 31 women, 18 of them Republicans, elected to a House downsized to its present 151 seats.

She was in the political minority for all but her last term, but she contributed to the crafting and passage of coastal management and waste-disposal bills. Buoyed by the landslide victory of Ronald Reagan, the GOP won an 86-66 majority in 1984, its first since 1972.

Historic run for governor in 1986

Her run for governor came 12 years after Democrat Ella T. Grasso became the first woman elected governor in the state in 1974 and 20 years before M. Jodi Rell became the first Republican woman to win a gubernatorial election in 2006.

With the GOP in control, Belaga made a bid to become speaker of the House, losing to R.E. Van Norstrand of Darien, said Rell, who was a recently elected freshman. Belaga would have been the first woman elected speaker, but settled for deputy majority leader.

She downplayed gender as an issue in the 1986 gubernatorial race.

“The fact that I happen to be a woman is really kind of old news in our state, where Ella Grasso was a governor that was very successful,’’ Belaga told reporters after her primary win. “I don’t think that my gender is as much of a phenomenon here as it might be in other states. On the other hand, it certainly is not a liability.”

At the time, Weicker was a U.S. senator with a tenuous place in a Republican Party that was shifting to the right under Reagan. The GOP’s state chairman was his close ally and friend, Thomas J. D’Amore Jr.

John McKinney, the former state Senate GOP leader, said his late father, U.S. Rep. Stewart B. McKinney, and Weicker encouraged Belaga to run for governor, thinking she could be competitive in a primary as a candidate from Fairfield Country.

“The numbers were very good for Fairfield County back in the day, for Republicans,” John McKinney said. “So we thought she had a shot.”

D’Amore invited Belaga to a meeting about the party’s best approach to challenging Gov. William A. O’Neill, a Democrat, and capitalizing on the successes of 1984.

“I was in my ninth year in the legislature, and he called a group of people to his office and he said, ‘Who wants to run?’ And nobody raised their hand but me. It was all men but me,” Belaga recalled in an interview after D’Amore’s death in 2014.

Actually, two men were very much interested: Richard C. Bozzuto and Gerald Labriola, who had sought the nomination in 1982, when the GOP unified behind Lewis B. Rome, eschewing a primary.

“I can’t wait!” — A memorable speech delivers primary victory

Bozzuto was endorsed at the state convention in 1986, where Belaga placed her own name in nomination, a ploy that allowed her to deliver a nominating speech. Stewart McKinney seconded the nomination.

“She gave a great speech,” John McKinney said.

Belaga had energetically positioned herself as best ready to take on the Democrats, saying, “I can’t wait!” It was an applause line that became her campaign slogan.

Primaries were rare in the 1980s, particularly among Republicans who tended to abide by the judgment of convention delegates. Also, the threshold for qualifying was earning 20 percent of the convention vote, not the present 15 percent. But D’Amore urged a primary and told convention delegates it would be good for the party — especially after O’Neill succeeded in denying Toby Moffett the necessary delegate support for a Democratic challenge.

”We are not afraid to go to the people and have them join us in making our choices,’’ D’Amore said. ”What were the Democrats afraid of?’’

Belaga went on to win the primary with 41 percent of the vote on Sept. 9. An early poll showed a competitive race, with 35 percent for O’Neill, 30 percent for Belaga and 35 percent undecided. But when pushed, respondents gave O’Neill a 10-point lead that foreshadowed the ultimate result.

McKinney said Belaga came out of the late-season primary with a bump in the polls but little money for the general election.  “She never got a chance really to get in the race, because she just didn’t have the finances,” he said. Connecticut has since moved its primaries to August.

O’Neill won easily, 575,638 to 408,489, and Democrats won back the General Assembly with majorities of 25-11 in the Senate and 92-59 in the House.

“You fought the fight well,” O’Neill later recalled that he told Belaga.

Belaga offered a wry, if rueful, election-night appraisal: “I guess Connecticut can wait.”

Weicker, who lost his Senate seat in 1988, would win the open seat for governor after O’Neill declined to seek re-election in 1990. Weicker’s comeback came after leaving the GOP and running as an independent. Rell, who was elected lieutenant governor as John G. Rowland’s running mate in 1994, became governor in 2004 after Rowland’s resignation. Rell won a full term at the polls in 2006, the GOP’s last statewide win in Connecticut.

One of her congratulatory messages came from Belaga, the Republican woman who had tried to get there first.

“I thought that was pretty nice,” Rell said.

Remembered as effective, cross-party legislator

William J. Cibes, a Democratic state lawmaker who worked on the O’Neill campaign against Belaga, said she was an effective lawmaker who worked easily with Democrats, himself included.

“She was always someone who listened to reason. She didn’t always agree with me, and I didn’t always agree with her. But she was rational and analytical and was willing to let the facts go where they would lead,” Cibes said. “I really admired her as a legislator.”

In retirement, Belaga and Cibes worked together as members of the board of the non-profit Connecticut News Project, which launched the CT Mirror in January 2010.

Later chapters: Kennedy School fellow, New England EPA director

After the 1986 campaign, Belaga spent a semester as a fellow in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, where she pondered a second act in public life. 

Belaga was named as the New England regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency 1989 by President George H.W. Bush and then to the board of Export-Import Bank of the U.S. by President Bill Clinton.

She remained active in environmental causes and encouraged women to get involved in politics. In 1994, she helped launch The Women’s  Campaign School at Yale.

Massachusetts origins, Westport roots

Julie Belaga was from Brookline, Mass., and never shook her Boston accent. She was a graduate of Syracuse University who taught school in Massachusetts for a time before marriage to an oil company executive, Myron “Mike” Belaga.

His postings took the couple overseas and to several states. They settled in Westport in 1965 after stops in Ohio, New Jersey and England. 

Mike Belaga, a former Republican Town Committee chairman in Westport, died in November 2018.

Most recently, she served as a member of the Westport Library Board of Trustees.

Last year, Belaga sold her home and moved into an assisted-living facility, The Residence at Westport.

Survivors include her son, David Belaga and his wife, Alison, of East Northport, N.Y.; two daughters, Debra Belaga, and her husband, Steve Stublarec of Tiburon, Calif., and Heather McLean, and her husband, Rob, of Owings Mill, Md., and three granddaughters, Kristen Stublarec, Tracy Spencer and Lindsey Belaga.

Funeral plans were incomplete. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the family might postpone a celebration of her life until the spring. In lieu of flowers, the family asked that donations be sent to a favorite environmental group, the Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound.

With additional reporting by the Westport Journal.