Danny Cosgrove is nearing 90 but he doesn’t miss a beat. His mind is sharp, his business acumen still lively, his political views astute and his observations marvelously politically incorrect. He was for years the undisputed Boss of Branford. He has many friends and many enemies. You crossed him at your peril.
A former welterweight boxer, he won 31 of his 34 fights between 1934 and 1937. After he hung up his gloves, he bought a used bulldozer and launched his construction company. He became a master builder whose ingenuity led to the creation of the Long Wharf complex in New Haven and whose vast accumulation of land in Branford led to its industrial parks and malls. He was a consummate politician whose business enterprise dove-tailed nicely with his ability to control governmental activity as the head of the 12th District Democratic State Central Committee for more than 20 years.
He learned early on that power came from controlling those who held public office. He ruled Branford, but not through elected office. In the decades of the 1960’s and 1970’s, the era of the Democratic bosses, he oversaw the condo-boom in Branford as well as the transformation of parts of Stony Creek into a truck stop ( he sold land to the Union 76 Company back in 1970 for its development and the Planning and Zoning Commission approved a needed variance. No surprise there.) A group of Stony Creek residents sued him and when they lost, he turned around and sued them because they had held up his business deal. He also had his attorneys attach each plaintiff’s property, tying them up in court for nine years. He knew he was being vindictive. He also knew the judges, of course.
He did much of this from his office at Cosgrove Construction, or the garage as folks called it. There, at 164 North Main Street, is where he held court, mapped strategy for the town’s major boards and commissions, ran the Sewer Authority and kept his keen Irish eye on the town’s pulse. He was usually seen with one of his many dogs. They spent the day with him at the garage, or with him in a pick-up truck or at his home on Todds Hill Road, not far from where he grew up. The new animal shelter, named in his honor, is one of many facilities, including Hospice, where his generosity has been felt.
“I knew how to get things done,” he said. He thinks quickly and on his feet, and he likes to talk from the floor. When his nemesis Judy Gott, the Republican who knocked the Democrats out of power in Branford in 1983, decided to act on a New Haven Register investigation into Cosgrove’s favorable tax assessment for hundreds of acres of farm land, she made the headlines, but he controlled what was then called the Board of Tax Review. The Board granted him reductions of $1.2 million. He argued successfully that several of his parcels were assessed at higher rates than similar parcels owned by other residents.
He knew how the system worked and how to work it and his deftness with numbers worked in his favor. His was a world of patronage, favoritism, working behind the scenes, arranging for state and federal jobs. Boards voted the way he wanted them to. He yearns for the days of the boss. Things got resolved in those smoke-filled rooms. “It’s either that or you lose.”
In his view, the statewide Democratic Party is now a disgrace. “You couldn’t print the words,” he says. In his day, there never would have been a primary between Mayors John DeStefano and Dan Malloy. One would have run for governor; the other for lieutenant governor, thereby avoiding an expensive and divisive primary. “Politicians used to be practical; they would make deals. Today they refuse to compromise.”
Back when he was boss, he controlled the party, and the party controlled the town. The 14 or 15 “bosses” of Connecticut â€” including for example, Arthur Barbieri of New Haven, would meet two weeks before the Democratic convention, he said, either in the Governor’s office or in the office of John Bailey, for years the head of the Connecticut Democratic Party, and the party’s kingmaker. “We would fight over who would be the Governor and who would be the lieutenant governor.
“The only reason you were invited to this meeting was that 1. You could control the delegates, 2. You could raise money and 3. They valued your advice. Once they decided who it would be, then you went home and you did your work and you raised the money and you got people lined up.
“â€¦ It wouldn’t always be a peaceful meeting, but once the majority decided that was it, then that was it. None of us always had our own way, including Bailey. One of the most powerful, people in the party was a lady named Katherine Quinn. Bailey also was National Democratic Chairman at the same time and he would be away a lot. You did a lot more with her than with Bailey. I can remember guys like Tom Dodd, and Abe Ribicoff sitting outside waiting for him. And he would be inside, telling jokes with me. I’d let them wait. They were like crows sitting on a power line. Sitting and waiting to get to see him. He recognized that his position depended more on guys like me and Barbieri than it did these candidates.”
That’s where Cosgrove came from. And what does he think of politics in Branford these days? Well, the man who became a committed Democrat in 1939 and stayed one until 1989, when he formed the Taxpayer’s Party, said “it got to the point where you just couldn’t deal with them anymore. They would do the most stupid things.’‘
He thinks the current First Selectwoman, Cheryl Morris, is “a very intelligent woman, a very nice lady. I have known her grandmother and grandfather and mother and uncles all my life.” In the past, he said, she had a “good job, a responsible job, but she never had anything to do with politics. I think she is in over her head. By the same token there is no leadership left in town.”
As for Ed Marcus, who is an old friend, Cosgrove said he was a man of great intelligence and authority.
Cosgrove described Marcus, who is now the Branford Town Counsel and is nearing 80, as having been “very powerful on the State Democratic Committee. He was also “the most competent majority leader in his lifetime.” That was some 35 years ago.
“The only thing wrong with Marcus,” he went on, “is that he has a brazen manner. That reminds me of the story of the scorpion who asked the frog if he could ride across the rivulet on his back because he couldn’t swim. The frog said ‘Sure, I’ll take you across.’ When they got to the other side, the scorpion stung him. As the frog lay dying, he said ‘what did you do that for? ‘It’s in my nature.’ “That’s the way Marcus is.”
“But he is a generous man. He and I donated a piece of property in Cheshire to Albertus Magnus College in New Haven. It was worth $2.6 million and they sold it for $ 6.5 million and with the funds they built a gym for the college and named it after us.”
Cosgrove gave up politics 11 years ago, but he showed up for the fourth Granite-gate hearing because his close friend, Frank Kinney, a former Third Selectman, wanted to check it out.
“It was the first time since I left politics in 1995 that I had been to a meeting,” he said of the event. They came too late to hear the issues under discussion— Marcus’s threat to sue citizens for purported acts of slander. “And now he (Marcus) has everyone scared to death and he is the one who caused the trouble,” he said in measured tones.
Cosgrove was familiar with the controversy that erupted after Marcus requested the police to investigate the granite at former First Selectman Unk Da Ros’s masonry business. “I think Marcus decided to get a little rough on DaRos because I think Unk now wants to come back. Unk is a very nice man. There is no meanness in him. What is happening at the quarry? There is a big misunderstanding but I am sure all of this trouble is caused by Marcus,” he said.
Dan Cosgrove spent 16 years as the man behind First Selectman John Sliney, whose eight terms in office spanned the sixties and seventies. “Sliney was the nicest man you ever met. Very honest, very presentable, very personable. You could elect him. I helped him.”
During this period, Cosgrove was the Chairman of the Sewer Authority while also building most of the sewers in the town. He also served as a police commissioner and held a sheriff’s post.
“And zoning and planning? Did you do any of that?”
“No, I appointed all of them.”
“It’s just as good, isn’t it?” the Eagle asked.
“It’s better. I didn’t have to take the heat.”