By Cindy Mindell ~
After 30 years in public service, 86-year-old Edith Prague is retiring. For the last 18 years, the Columbia resident has represented the 19th Senatorial District (Norwich and environs), a nine-term tenure that succeeded eight years as state representative and commissioner of the now-defunct Connecticut Department on Aging.
Prague is Senate chair of the Labor and Public Employees Committee, and the Committee on Aging. She is vice-chair of the Appropriations Committee and serves on the Public Health Committee.
Prague grew up in Methuen, Mass., the granddaughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants. She came to Connecticut in the early ’40s to pursue an undergraduate degree in education at Eastern Connecticut State University and later earned a Master of Social Work from the University of Connecticut. After marrying a “Willimantic boy” in 1945, she settled in Norwich.
She spoke with the Ledger about how her Jewish background influenced her passionate pursuit of social justice.
Q: What was your Jewish upbringing like?
A: My parents were Jewish. My bubbe and a zaide came from Russia and lived near us. I went to their house every weekend and spent summers at the beach with my bubbe. My zaide would take me to the synagogue in nearby Lawrence, Mass. on the High Holidays.
My father was killed in a car accident when I was 7 and my mother was busy trying to raise three children, so there wasn’t a lot of time for Jewish education. But I always knew I was Jewish and occasionally my mother would cook traditional dishes.
My zaide was part of the Workman’s Circle, a Communist group that tried to help workers. I get my zest for unions from my zaide. I go to Temple B’nai Israel in Willimantic and I am very proud to be a Jew.
Q: What inspired you to pursue a life of public service?
A: I first ran for office in the State House of Representatives after I lost a 21-year-old niece in 1979 to a drunk driver who got no punishment. There was nothing on the books then. I ran on the promise that I would tighten the drunk driving laws. [Prague was first elected to the House in 1982.] We put in legislation to establish a blood-alcohol level to determine drunkenness. We started with 1.0, and over the years it has been reduced to 0.8; for teens, it’s 0.4 or 0.2. At the time, other states were way ahead of us. In Connecticut, there was nothing to determine if the driver was drunk or not. You got yourself a good lawyer and got off.
It was very difficult to pass legislation because the chair of the judicial committee was a defense lawyer and was extremely opposed, but public opinion really helped us.
Q: In addition to your zaide, who has inspired you along the way?
A: I am a very strong advocate for the elderly. My mother would take me as a little kid to the Poor Farm in Lawrence, Mass. every Sunday. It was a place where old people who had no place else to go would live, and they would wait for her and her cookies at the entrance.
I admire Joe Courtney and Chris Murphy, both of whom I served with in the Connecticut Legislature.
Q: What are you most proud of from your career as a public servant?
A: There’s so much power in the position. A social worker with power is every social worker’s dream and there is enormous power that goes with sitting in the state senate.
Fifteen years ago, I started assisted living in Connecticut with the help of then-Gov. John Rowland’s budget director, Marc Ryan. At that same time, I was instrumental in getting a homecare program for seniors to age in place. When I was state Commissioner on Aging, I started an insurance counseling service for the elderly. Before that, I had been a medical social worker for the public health nursing agency before I became involved in politics and had a lot of elderly clients. I became very concerned about the lack of advocacy for what they needed.
Together with my Labor and Public Employees Committee [of which Prague is chair], we passed legislation ensuring better wages and benefits for workers. I’m very proud of that legislation, of how thousands of people who otherwise don’t have a voice will have a better life. We also got paid sick days for workers.
On the very last day of this session, I got MADD legislation passed, which makes it mandatory for ignition interlocks to be installed in the cars of convicted drunk drivers for the rest of their lives.
I hope I’ve made a difference. I’ve loved my 18 years in the Senate.
Q: Why are you leaving the Senate now?
A: I had a mini stroke on Christmas morning and my doctor advised that I not run again.
I can handle the job, but a campaign is very stressful. Even though I recovered completely, I decided to take his advice. But I will help other candidates and I’m not going away. I will still be active and my constituents will still be able to call me and will always get help.
Q: What work is yet undone?
A: We didn’t pass the minimum wage this year, which is a big loss. It may come up again at the June 26 special session.
Q: Where do you see the state heading?
A: The state is headed in the right direction. We have a very good governor who is working on creating jobs and improving the economy.
Q: How have you been able to remain so active for so long?
A: I used to get up every morning and run three miles. I stopped that a few years ago, but now I walk every morning with my dog. And you have to have a job you love.
Q: With the negative and divisive aura around American politics today, what do you tell young people about entering public service?
A: I encourage young people to consider running, if you want to work hard and serve the people. Absolutely, you can make a difference.