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Politics

State Sen. Steve Cassano ends four-decade political career

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CTMIRROR FILE PHOTO / CTMIRROR.ORG
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Sen. Stephen T. Cassano, D-Manchester

State Sen. Stephen T. Cassano of Manchester announced this weekend he will wrap a four-decade career in politics when his term ends next January, opting not to force a Democratic primary in the 4th Senate District this summer.

But while the veteran Democrat’s exit from politics wasn’t how he envisioned, colleagues from both parties said his tenure followed a consistent approach: using government to make people’s lives better.

“He’s a common sense, easygoing person who makes sure he pays attention to others,” said Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague. “He’s someone who’s always been able to connect with all of the different components of our very diverse caucus.”

“It was about policy. It was never about politics,” former Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said of Cassano. “He’s old-school — let’s get together and talk things out. … I had a good time and I always respected him.”

Cassano, 80, who has represented the 4th District in the Senate since 2011, brought a wealth of knowledge of municipal and regional issues to the legislature, friends say.

Co-chairman of the Planning and Development Committee, Cassano worked closely with Fasano in 2012 to chart the state’s response to Hurricane Sandy, which severely damaged shoreline communities.

Though state government struggled to balance budgets throughout much of the 2010s, as the decade wound down and into the early 2020s lawmakers ramped up municipal aid both for school districts and for general government.

Osten, who co-chairs the budget-writing committee, said no lawmaker had a better understanding of municipal needs — or how how the state could be a more effective partner with towns — than Cassano, who served 26 years in municipal government, including as Manchester’s mayor from 1991 through 2005.

But Cassano, a former retired sociology professor from Manchester Community College, says his proudest accomplishment at the Capitol came in 2019. A multi-year effort culminated in the enactment of a law allowing people who are adopted to obtain their original birth records.

“It’s not fair that some individuals can access their birth records, while others cannot,” he said at the time. “Access to these birth records is a right and individuals should not be barred from knowing this vital information.”

Recalling the struggle recently, Cassano said it took countless conversations with legislators from both parties to maneuver around an extremely personal, sensitive issue.

But since its enactment, the feedback from constituents has been rewarding. “It’s made such a difference for people, medically and psychologically,” he said.

“Steve really brought a very warm-heated, genuine commitment, with the idea of going into government to help people, to be an advocate” said Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven. “I feel strongly that was what drove him.”

Prior to serving in the Senate, Cassano had been driven for more than three decades to make a difference in local government, first winning election to local office in 1977.

It was during much of this tenure that Manchester transformed from a former mill community into a retail hub centered on the Pavilions at Buckland Hills mall.

Manchester’s government would expand social services, recreational programs, housing and economic development and other initiatives. Cassano frequently would remind colleagues that Manchester — though legally incorporated as a town — was, in effect, a small city and needed a government to match the challenges that came with that.

“We wanted a full-sized community that was viable on its own,” he said. “You needed senior housing. You needed programs for children and … fill the entire spectrum in between.”

Manchester also would begin playing a larger role in regional development efforts, and Cassano would take turns helming the Capitol Region Council of Governments and the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

“He’s spent his entire adult life in public service,” said Manchester Democratic Town Chairman Michael Pohl. “It’s a credit to him and a benefit to us.”

Cassano said he was surprised last month, when Pohl and other Democratic delegates to the 4th Senate District convention didn’t support him for another term.

The May 10 convention, which included party members from Manchester, Glastonbury, Bolton and Andover, nominated Manchester businessman MD Masudur Rahman.

Cassano insists he never indicated he planned to step down.

He hadn’t raised money or even approached delegates until after the regular General Assembly session ended on May 4 — but said this is nothing new.

“I always thought the processes should be separate,” he said.

Pohl recalls it differently, saying Cassano had wavered about running, both this election cycle and in the previous two. Other Democrats had expressed interest in 2018 and 2020, only to step down when it became clear Cassano would be running, Pohl said, adding that he felt it was unfair for any to do so in 2022 as well.

Cassano, who has struggled with knee ailments that have forced him at times to use a walker in recent years, said age and injury have slowed him down, but never made him want to leave the job.

“Personally I was hurt by what happened,” he said. “I was asking myself, ‘Is this what it’s going to be?’ … I did a good job. I don’t think anybody doubts that.”

And while Cassano had considered petitioning to force a primary for the Democratic nomination, or possibly seeking the Working Families Party endorsement, he didn’t want to battle Democrats he’s worked so closely with for decades.

“It’s very positive, that people that have reached out to me,” he added.

Cassano and his wife, Holly, have five children and six grandchildren, and the retirement from politics will give him more time for family. But he also said the end of his political career doesn’t mean he’s done trying to help his community.

“I have no idea [but] I’m going to do something,” he said. “I’m not just going to go away and do nothing. That’s never been my life.”