Jo McKenzie, the cape-wearing grande dame of the state Republican Party for more than 30 years, died Friday at the age of 80 after several years in declining health.
Known as “Mama Jo,” McKenzie was the most colorful character in state GOP circles and reached the peak of her power as a confidante of both Republican Gov. John G. Rowland and his wife, Patty. McKenzie spent nights at the governor’s mansion when Rowland was still a popular governor, and she then bought a large home just down the street on Prospect Avenue in Hartford’s West End.
McKenzie’s death was confirmed by her former assistant, Daniel R. Moreland, who is a spokesman for the family. She died peacefully at her condominium in Madison with her three daughters by her side.
In declining health at the age of 75 in 2007, McKenzie stepped down after more than 16 years on the Republican National Committee and after more than 30 years as a fixture in state GOP politics.
McKenzie personified the Rowland administration as the $84,000-a-year chief of protocol, overseer of the governor’s mansion, and aide to Patty Rowland. She was seen often at both the Capitol and the mansion with her close friend, co-chief of staff Peter Ellef, who served a federal prison term on corruption charges as part of the scandal that sent Rowland to prison.
A former restaurant owner with a refined taste for fine wine and spirits, McKenzie made sure every detail was covered during parties at the governor’s mansion. Need an accomplished piano player? Ask Mama Jo. Need the finest caterer? She would know.
A demanding restaurateur in her heyday, McKenzie owned the four-star Copper Beech Inn in Ivortyton and then Robert Henry’s on Chapel Street near the New Haven Green. The restaurant, now known as the Union League Cafe, is owned by McKenzie’s oldest daughter, Robin, and her husband, a chef.
At Robert Henry’s in the mid-1980s, McKenzie enforced the dress code that she was trying to maintain at the upscale restaurant near the New Haven Green.
“She told Frank Sinatra he had to leave unless he put on a tie,” said Moreland, a close family friend who worked with McKenzie at the Capitol. “He left.”
Known for her large, costume jewelry and sense of style, McKenzie owned 30 pairs of eyeglasses. She remained stylish, even while maintaining a busy schedule of day-time meetings and late-night parties.
“She only required a couple of hours of sleep,” Moreland said Friday. “She’d wake up like she’d slept 16 hours.”
True to her form, McKenzie planned every detail – even for her post-funeral luncheon. The family learned that McKenzie had left written instructions for the luncheon that should include “only the finest food and the flashiest of desserts,” Moreland said. There must be stemware and silver, but no daisies or carnations, according to the instructions.
Enjoying virtually unlimited access to the first family in her heyday, McKenzie described Rowland as “the son I never had” and referred to Patty as her fourth daughter.
But McKenzie was well-known among political insiders long before her association with the Rowlands – becoming the first woman ever elected as chairwoman of the Connecticut GOP in 1979.
“She was a powerful woman in the 1970s when politics was a male-dominated world,” George Gallo, the state GOP chairman, said when McKenzie stepped down from the RNC in 2007. “She blazed new trails.”
She was close to former U.S. Rep. Stewart McKinney of Fairfield and once said they were “like brother and sister.” She was also close to Fred Biebel, a high-level Connecticut Republican who was riding in the car with then-President Gerald Ford on October 14, 1975 when the limousine was hit by a motorist in downtown Hartford. Through her ties to Biebel, McKenzie was involved in helping plan the 1980 inauguration of incoming President Ronald Reagan.
McKinney’s son, John, stood on the Senate floor Friday to laud McKenzie.
“I first met Mama Jo in the early 1970s as a young boy,’’ said McKinney, who is now the Senate Republican leader. “She was a wonderful woman, always with a laugh. She had an incredible sense of style. I do recall one trip to the Republican National Convention down in Houston, Texas. I was very young at the time, and I just remember stories of the liquor carts on the airplanes running out of booze with Mama Jo leading the charge. … It’s a little sad for me. She was very close to my father. Mama Jo was one of those people I enjoyed seeing around my house as a young boy. Although she was a Republican through and through, I think we all mourn the passing of a good person.’’
Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman said she met McKenzie at the Max Downtown restaurant in Hartford and Jo was wearing a boa. When McKenzie bent down to greet Hartford Mayor Mike Peters, the boa caught fire. But it was quickly put out and no one was injured.
“I, too, feel the loss,’’ said Wyman, a longtime Democrat. “She might have been from the other side of the aisle, but Mama Jo came over to the other side a lot. … She brought a lot of class to this building.’’
For decades, McKenzie relished her role in high-level Republican politics — having access to national figures on a frequent basis. She served on the special committee that decided to hold the Republican National Convention in New York City in 2004.
In her former picture-filled office at the state Capitol, McKenzie kept a photo of herself standing between New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. She also kept a picture of herself with her longtime political buddy, P.J. Delahunty, sitting together on a golf cart. Delahunty, a former state employee, paid workers from a company owned by his family to install the new ceiling in 1997 at Rowland’s lakefront cottage.
Longtime party insider Patricia Longo of Wilton eventually moved into McKenzie’s RNC seat, which must be filled by a woman under the national committee rules calling for one man and one woman from each state.
McKenzie sold her longtime home in Madison and moved to 1210 Prospect Ave. in Hartford in order to be just down the block from where the Rowlands lived in the governor’s mansion.
While she was personally close to the Rowlands, several of Rowland’s close aides believed McKenzie was responsible for helping set the tone for an upscale lifestyle that Rowland could not afford. She was personally involved in overseeing some of the renovations at Rowland’s Bantam Lake cottage, which became the centerpiece of a federal investigation that eventually sent Rowland to prison.
They also note that McKenzie was friends with some of the administration officials and appointments who later got into trouble.
One of those was Trumbull lawyer Daniel E. Brennan, Jr., who was eventually under investigation by the FBI concerning alleged obstruction of justice. Brennan had an unusual background that initially raised some red flags for staff members during the early days of the Rowland administration, but Rowland said at the time that he didn’t know much about Brennan when he nominated him to be a Superior Court judge.
Brennan was a convicted felon at 18 after pleading guilty to taking two checks, signing them over to himself, and cashing them at a supermarket. He received a pardon from the Tennessee governor 33 years later.
He also represented then-Consumer Counsel John Merchant, an appointee of Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. who was later ousted by Rowland after being fined by the State Ethics Commission for golfing on state time. Those concerns delayed Brennan’s nomination at several points, including pushing it off until after the 1998 gubernatorial and legislative elections, officials said.
And he was friends with Mama Jo McKenzie.
Rowland defended Brennan’s nomination at the time, saying that he was approved virtually unanimously four years earlier by the state House of Representatives and the Senate.
“Everybody in the Senate and the House knew what had happened when he was 18 years old,” Rowland said at the time. “For any judicial appointment, you’ve gone through the background checks. Only about 40 percent of the people make it through the Judicial Selection [Commission]. I have to appoint only from whoever has gone through judicial selection, so I just don’t look in the phone book” for judicial candidates.
Blindsided at the time by the FBI investigation, Rowland said he had no inkling that Brennan might run into problems after ascending to the bench.
“You never know these days,” Rowland said in March 2003. ”I found that. You never know who’s going to bury gold in the backyard.”
Rowland was referring to Lawrence Alibozek, his former deputy chief of staff, who pleaded guilty to accepting cash and gold in exchange for steering state contracts to the New Britain-based Tomasso construction company. Alibozek told federal investigators that he had buried gold in his New Hartford backyard in 1999, and the investigators then dug up about $12,000 worth.
Rowland said at the time that he was unaware of any internal struggle within his administration over Brennan’s nomination, but several people said Brennan had been red-flagged and initially blocked because of his past problems. After turnover in the governor’s legal office and chief of staff’s office, Brennan finally got nominated in early 1999.
Less than three months before Rowland resigned in 2004, McKenzie became enmeshed in an intra-party fight when attorney Ann M. Moore challenged her for the national committee seat. M. Jodi Rell, who was lieutenant governor at the time, sat out the contest, comparing the situation to a Republican primary and saying she would avoid picking one candidate over another. McKenzie survived the challenge, but insiders said the presumptive move against a close Rowland ally would have been unthinkable if Rowland had not been facing impeachment at the time.
The flamboyant McKenzie suggested improvements at the Rowlands’ cottage on Bantam Lake, which became the centerpiece of an FBI investigation that eventually sent Rowland to federal prison for accepting gifts from state contractors and failing to pay taxes on them. McKenzie appeared in front of a federal grand jury and endured a lengthy, videotaped deposition that was shown publicly during Rowland’s impeachment hearings.
McKenzie is survived by her three daughters, Robin Vuillermet; Cheri McKenzie, and Tracey McKenzie. She was predeceased by her husband of 41 years, Robert Henry McKenzie, who died in 1995. The New Haven restaurant was named after her husband.
Funeral services will be on Saturday, May 5 at 10:30 a.m. at Trinity Episcopal Church in Wethersfield. She will be buried next to her husband in Wethersfield.
Former House Speaker James Amann of Milford said in 2007 that McKenzie was involved in various controversies but would always be known as one of the memorable characters at the Capitol. He placed her in the same category with retired state senators Biagio “Billy” Ciotto of Wethersfield and George “Doc” Gunther of Stratford.
“The place won’t be the same,” Amann said at the time, “without people like that.”