Roz Berman, Avatar Of Bygone GOP Era, Dies

Her dad was a labor organizer. She made a career getting union votes and championing the First Amendment and women’s causes—as a Republican.

Yes, people like Rosalind Berman—a state representative and lifelong civic leader and volunteer—once existed in our town.

Berman died “peacefully” Wednesday, on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, in the company of her three sons and her daughter-in-law. She was 87. Her funeral will take place Friday at 2 p.m. at the Congregation Mishkan Israel synagogue, 785 Ridge Rd., Hamden.

Berman was a fixture in Westville for decades, a leading figure in what people now call the “old” New England Republican Party (aka “Weicker Likers” and “RINOs” or Republicans in Name Only, to Texas GOPers), which mixed a commitment to civil liberties and social justice with fiscal watchdogging.

She served on New Haven’s Board of Aldermen for 15 years back when liberal and moderate good-government Republicans had a hold on the lower Westville flats (now Ward 25) seat. (They recruited her to switch her party registration from Democrat to seek the seat.) They used the position to keep a check on the misdeeds of New Haven’s entrenched Democratic-run governments. Even as the district turned more Democratic and liberal, it remained one of the last two of New Haven’s 30 wards to have a Republican alderman.

Then Berman represented Westville in Hartford from 1977 through 1984 as the 92nd District state representative. She regularly received support from labor unions and social-service advocates. The groups gave her near-perfect scores on voting report cards—groups that a generation later seem to have concluded that only Democrats can earn their support because of the Republicans’ rightward drift.

Today husbands in Connecticut can be arrested for raping their wives, thanks to Berman.

In 1981 she sponsored and got a bill passed into law recognizing marital rape and making it a crime. At the time, domestic violence advocates called the passage of such a law necessary to encourage victims of spousal rape to come forward.

“I got a lot of negative mail when I introduced the bill the first time,” Berman told me in an interview at the time of the bill’s passage. “Many were from women. One said, ‘Please keep government out of my bedroom.’ People don’t realize this is a crime, motivated by violence. It dehumanizes the victim. Rape is rape, inside or out of marriage; it has nothing to do with the normal sexual relationship.”

That same year Berman also successfully sponsored a bill to allow rape victims to not state their names before the court and to forbid releasing rape victims’ names to newspapers.

“At least women who have been so abused won’t have to feel it’s their fault,” Berman said. “We’re not looking just to punish, although it’s a hideous crime. The law must protect the victim.”

“Roz Berman was a great elected official,” Mayor John DeStefano, a Democrat, recalled Thursday. “She wasn’t a professional pol; she came to office as a fierce proponent of her neighborhood and her district who took responsibility for making things better.  She was always civil, charming and reasonable. In a time of negative advertising and partisanship, Roz was just the kind of person who tried to do right as she saw it, no more and no less.”

“She set the standard for a now-defunct politics, which is to be a liberal Republican, to be accepted for asking questions, and for being a loyal voice of opposition. It’s a group that included Roz, myself, Lowell Weicker, which the Republican Party obviously would no longer accept,” said Jonathan Einhorn, who succeeded her as alderman and served 14 years. Einhorn’s father, then a Republican mayoral candidate, recruited Berman to run on his ticket as the aldermanic candidate in 1975.

“Roz was the conscience of the board. If there wasn’t a Roz Berman in New Haven at that time, we would have had to have invented one,” Einhorn remarked.

After her career in elected office, Berman continued advocating for her issues. as a member of the state Ethics and Freedom of Information commissions and the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government; as executive director of the Connecticut Association of Nonprofit Nursing Homes; and active member of groups like ... ready? ... Common Cause.

Berman’s father, Bernard Schub, was “one of the early organizers of the ILGWU [International Ladies Garment Workers Union] in the New York City,” reported Roz Berman’s son, Barry Berman, founder of CRN International. “When the unions organized in New York, the manufacturing ‘escaped’ to Connecticut. David Dubinsky asked my grandfather to move up north to organize New England, which he did. That’s what brought my mother’s family to New Haven.” Click here to read an Associated Press story about a 1933 strike Schub led—and won—to more than double the wages of women working in a local sweatshop.

“The sweatshop seemed headed for oblivion tonight ...” the story began.

Roz Berman was 8 years old at the time.

Fifty-one years later she ran her last campaign for public office. At one debate she reminisced about the time she joined her father on a picket line when she was 8 years old.

She lost that campaign to a Democrat (Pat Dillon, who still holds the office) who had the same issues credentials but a “D” next to her name on the ballot. Despite the lingering loyalty unions and liberal interest groups felt toward Berman, New Haven Republicans were fast on their way to extinction; and the 92nd District was expanding beyond Westville. Meanwhile the national Republicans were beginning their headlong rush to the right; Berman joined her compatriot Republican, U.S. Sen. Lowell Weicker (who would later leave the party to win election in 1990 as Connecticut’s governor as an independent) in battling conservative shifts at the GOP presidential convention that year. Back home it would no longer be possible for a feminist, pro-civil liberties friend of labor to put an “R” next to her name and win election to state office from Westville. This year the Republicans didn’t even bother putting the name of a sacrificial candidate on the ballot in the 92nd District—or anywhere else in New Haven.


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posted by: Mike Slattery on September 27, 2012  9:15am

This is indeed a great loss.  I know I grew a bit as a person by her example.  When Jessica and I bought the house next door to Roz, she welcomed us to the neighborhood with a housewarming party that she hosted.    We traded dishes and flowers regularly.  I throughly enjoyed her stories which weren’t limited to politics, the arts and children were regular topics.  She spoke with a quiet conviction about the right way to treat individuals and right attitude toward society.  It was hard to believe that someone who fought so bravely could be so gentle.

posted by: Patricia Dillon on September 27, 2012  10:21am

A great loss. Roz Berman’s leadership on sexual assault was ahead of her time. In later years, as a member of the Freedom of Information Commission and Common Cause, Roz alerted me to upcoming state issues she cared about, especially on ‘good government’ issues involving access to public information and civil liberties. She was dedicated to Westville and also to ethics and openness in government.

posted by: Walt on September 27, 2012  12:51pm

Nice lady.

posted by: AndyHoulding on September 27, 2012  5:53pm

Takes me back to the days of the New Haven Journal-Courier, where I covered the Board of Aldermen back in the 70’s.  Roz was effective despite being overwhelmingly outnumbered on that board.  A sweet and decent person who accomplished a lot.  Thanks for the story.

posted by: ramonesfan on September 30, 2012  12:05am

She came of age long before the Reagan/Gingrich/Rove/Murdoch era, when reasonable Republicans actually existed.  She sounds like a Jewish version of Millicent Fenwick.