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Mayor Nick Panuzio: The Street Kid Who Loved Politics

Mayor Nick Panuzio: The Street Kid  Who Loved Politics
Bridgeport, Connecticut (Markscheck/Wikipedia)

By Thursday, 09 May 2019 06:28 AM Current | Bio | Archive

In the 1970’s, Nick Panuzio, mayor of Connecticut’s largest city of Bridgeport, was frequently cited by national Republicans as a walking case study of how their party could win among blue collar voters and minorities in historically Democrat cities.

When Panuzio died May 5 at age 83, he was remembered widely in and out of Bridgeport for his success in reviving the Republican Party and then taking and holding City Hall from 1971-74. 

With an avuncular style that invited comparisons to New York’s storied Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Pope John XXIII, the Punchinello-faced mayor with a wide smile was the perpetual “street kid”—one who made friends in neighborhood games of bocce ball and ringolevio and kept them.

“Nick would have open office hours every Saturday, where anyone could come into his office and tell the mayor their problems,” former Democratic State Rep. Vincent Roberti told Newsmax, “He was a Republican and we didn’t know each other well.  But, in 1973, I was trying to secure a grant for the Diocese of Bridgeport to provide a program for children.  Nick said he would see what he could do.”

The mayor made two phone calls to state offices (then in Republican hands) and, in Roberti’s words, “he made it happen.”

A graduate of public schools and the University of Bridgeport, the young Panuzio went to work for his alma mater in various administrative jobs.

But politics beckoned the gregarious Panuzio and in 1969, he took on the unenviable task of carrying the Republican banner for mayor of heavily Democratic Bridgeport.  He lost to Democratic Mayor Hugh Curran by about 10,000 votes.

Panuzio and his friend, attorney Jim Stapleton, concluded that a big reason for the moribund state of Republicanism in Bridgeport was that the party organization was barely functional.  GOP Registrar of Voters A. Edward Sandula had been the party’s town chairman for forty years—as long as Bridgeport had gone without a Republican mayor.

Stapleton and Panuzio organized the Republican Action League (RAL), and began recruiting young people and minorities to their new organization.  In 1970, they ousted Sandula and replaced him as town chairman with Stapleton.  That fall, they elected five Republican state representatives—among them Panuzio.

In 1971, Mayor Curran had grown unpopular over a tax increase and had to overcome a crowded and rancorous primary contest.  Panuzio, 36, unseated him in November—by nine votes, up from three before the recount.

As mayor, Panuzio focused on economic development and reduced regulation to attract new business to Bridgeport.  He also placed a strong emphasis on civic engagement and worked closely with civic organizations and clubs on local problems.

Re-elected comfortably in 1973, Panuzio would soon get his chance at the job friends said he savored—the governorship.  Republican Gov. Thomas Meskill stunned the state by announcing he was retiring after one term.  Rep. Bob Steele, who was no friend of Meskill or State GOP Chairman Brian Gaffney, was campaigning hard for the nomination.  Meskill, Gaffney and the party organization weighed in strongly for Panuzio.

But it was too late.  Steele won handily at the state convention.  He then offered the lieutenant governor nomination to erstwhile rival Panuzio, who declined.

“I could see what was coming,” he told Newsmax in 2015, making an obvious reference to the so-called “Watergate Year” that was the Democratic tsunami of 1974. (Steele lost the governorship big to Democrat Ella Grasso and her ticket swept all six statewide races).

Panuzio resigned as mayor later than year and became deputy administrator of the General Services Administration under President Gerald Ford.

When the Ford Administration ended in 1977, Panuzio entered the world of lobbying and public relations.  For many years, he was a top executive of the firm Black, Manafort, and Stone—now known primarily because of the legal turbulence surrounding two of its former founders, Paul Manafort, Jr. and Roger Stone.

Panuzio eventually launched his own firm and clients included Connecticut cities such as his beloved Bridgeport.  But the passion for politics in his heart never ebbed.  As a resident of Fairfax County, Virginia, he served as GOP County Chairman.  At the time of his death, Panuzio was living in Easton, Maryland—and was Republican chairman of Talbot County.

“No political chore was too small for Nick,” his son-in-law Joe Underwood told Newsmax, “When I ran for Fairfax County chairman myself about twenty years ago, [wife] Susan and I asked Nick to babysit our two small children while we worked the convention.  He said ‘whatever you need to win, consider it done’—and he did.”

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.

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In the 1970's, Nick Panuzio, mayor of Connecticut's largest city of Bridgeport, was frequently cited by national Republicans as a walking case study of how their party could win among blue collar voters and minorities in historically Democrat cities.When Panuzio died May...
panuzio, mayor, bridgeport, manafort, stone
Thursday, 09 May 2019 06:28 AM
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