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Edith Prague, lawmaker and commissioner, dies at 96

Former state lawmaker and Commissioner of Aging Edith Prague.
Former state lawmaker and Commissioner of Aging Edith Prague.

Edith G. Prague of Columbia, a flinty and fierce defender of older Americans and low-wage workers for more than 30 years as a member of the Connecticut House and Senate and twice as the state’s commissioner of aging, died Thursday. She was 96.

Her death was announced by the Senate Democratic majority office.

Prague did not go gentle, anywhere. She lived Dylan Thomas’s poetry, his belief that “old age should burn and rave at close of day.” She fought governors, fellow lawmakers and, most consistently, the notion of retirement, a status finally imposed on her by a confluence of strokes and concerns of family and physician.

“My only choice is to retire or drop dead. I have to retire. Believe me, I don’t like it. That’s my baby – that department,” Prague told The Day of New London when she left state employment as the 88-year-old commissioner of aging in 2014. “Lots of people look forward to retirement, but I’m not one of them.”

Prague was 86 and the oldest member of the General Assembly when she announced she would not seek reelection to the Senate in 2012, a year in which she played a visible role in the abolition of the death penalty and took the lead on a bill that gave collective bargaining rights to certain home care workers and day care providers.

“I emotionally left here that night,” Prague said, referring to the collective bargaining bill. “All those workers were celebrating, cheering in the halls. It doesn’t get better than that.”

As the co-chairwoman of the Labor and Public Employees Committee, she led the six-hour debate. She stood exhausted that night, waiting for her ride by the main door to the Capitol, saying it was one of her proudest moments in the General Assembly.

The previous Christmas, she had the first of her minor strokes. Her only visible concession was that she stopped driving to the Capitol from her home in eastern Connecticut, and she missed some late-night votes.

Her opinions came unvarnished. She once suggested an accused killer and rapist in the Cheshire home invasion of the wife and two daughters of Dr. William Petit be hanged from a tree by a certain part his anatomy. Her comments prompted a call for a mistrial, which was denied.

She was one of two senators who reversed their position and backed away from voting to repeal the death penalty after emotional meetings with Petit. She said she could not cast the vote while the Cheshire case was ongoing.

“I actually believe in repealing the death penalty,” Prague said then. “For Dr. Petit, for me to do one more thing to cause him some kind of angst, I can’t do it.”

But, ultimately, she would cast a vote on a bill that abolished the death penalty for future crimes. The state Supreme Court later struck down the portion of the law that had left 11 men on death row, including the two men convicted in the Petit case.

Gov. Ned Lamont, Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz and Senate leaders offered praise for Prague on Thursday, and words of condolence.

“To say that Edith Prague was energetic, determined, principled and loyal would be a grave understatement,” Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney and Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff said in a joint statement.

“Edith Prague was a state treasure, she was a faithful crusader for working people and the elderly, and the positive impact of the public policies that Edith championed and passed into law will be felt in Connecticut for decades to come,” said Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who succeeded her.

Justice Andrew McDonald of the state Supreme Court, who served with her in the Senate, said his friend “was tender and kind. But when it hit one of her passionate subjects, she became a pit bull.”

Prague was a member of the House of Representatives for eight years when Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. hired her in 1991 to be the commissioner of aging. He fired her in 1992 when she refused to cut its budget and fold the agency into a larger department during a fiscal crisis.

She was elected to the Senate from the 19th District in 1994, first unseating an incumbent in a Democratic primary. In 2008 and 2010, she was cross-endorsed by the Working Families Party. She did not leave the Senate until the department of aging was reestablished during the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

Prague applied for the job and served until her health deteriorated.

McDonald said Prague’s passion never abated, nor did her disdain for retirement. In June, he took her on a visit to the rose garden at Elizabeth Park. She was in a wheelchair, but her conversation was sharp, her interest in public affairs keen.

But he recalled her scowling when asked about enjoying retirement.

“Andrew, I hate retirement,” she said. “I wish I had never retired.”

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