Edith Prague never gives up.
At 87, she came full circle Thursday in a remarkably improbable journey that saw her hired, fired, and then re-hired to the same position 20 years later.
An outspoken liberal Democrat, Prague was named by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy as the commissioner of the newly reformed state Department on Aging. It was a complete 360-degree return for Prague, who had been fired as commissioner of the same department two decades earlier by then-Gov. Lowell P. Weicker, Jr. because she refused to cut her agency’s budget and merge it into another department.
Prague stepped down last year as a state senator at the age of 86 after her doctors warned her that campaigning could affect her fragile health. She had suffered a mild stroke around Christmas 2011, and then a stress test showed that she had an irregular heartbeat. But she says she is now feeling well enough at 87 to take the fulltime, $120,000-per-year job.
“You’re right. My doctor did say, ‘Don’t get yourself into a stressful situation’ when I said I was going to run for my seat,” Prague said at the Capitol. “Both my doctor and my daughter didn’t want me campaigning, running door to door. That was then, and this is now. I’m healthier. I’m drinking [high-calorie] Boost every day, so I’ll stay healthy. And I’m looking forward to the job.”
Concerning her highly public dispute with Weicker, Prague said, “We did not agree, and we fought bitterly.”
When asked for his views about Prague’s spat with a previous governor, Malloy responded, “Yeah, I don’t fight with her.”
A few minutes earlier, Malloy said, “I have always admired Edith’s tenacity and leadership, and I’m excited to begin working with her to tackle one of the most pressing issues facing our state. I am quite certain she will tell me what to do.”
Concerning Prague’s health, Malloy said that she is no longer serving in the state Senate and will not be casting votes with her colleagues at 2:30 a.m. after marathon, all-day debates.
The story begins in the 1980s when Prague made a name for herself as an advocate for the elderly. Known for her fierce independent streak, Prague caught the attention of Weicker, a fellow maverick who also was not known for holding his tongue.
After Prague endorsed Weicker for governor in 1990, he invited her to his famed Applejack Farm in Greenwich and interviewed her to be his runningmate as the candidate for lieutenant governor.
“Luckily, he chose Eunice Groark, because we would have killed each other,” Prague once told The Courant.
Soon after Weicker was elected, he named Prague as the commissioner of aging. But in the days when the state was facing huge budget deficits and instituting the state income tax, Weicker called for Prague to consolidate her agency and cut its budget. Prague refused. When Weicker requested her resignation, she refused that, too. So he fired her.
Refusing to be knocked out of state government, Prague responded to the December 1992 firing by running for the Senate against an incumbent in a Democratic primary in September 1994. She won. She then went on to win in November in a three-way race.
Fast forward more than a decade, and Prague had become an increasingly influential senator who – with the help of Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams – got money placed into the budget to create a new Department of Aging. The department had disappeared as an independent agency under Weicker, as it was folded into the much-larger Department of Social Services.
Now independent once again as a standalone agency, the department now has Prague as its commissioner.
Born in Massachusetts in 1925 when Calvin Coolidge was president, Prague still has the energy that has helped her to outlast many of her political rivals. She served for years in the state Senate as part of an elderly troika that included Sen. George “Doc” Gunther, who died last year at the age of 92, and Sen. Biagio “Billy” Ciotto, who is now 83 and still working for U.S. Rep. John Barry Larson.
Prague’s late husband, Franklin, operated an independent chain of more than 20 profitable shoe stores.
She says that refusing to give up is a part of her horoscope as a Sagittarius.
“I don’t give up,” she once said. “When you believe strongly, you can’t give up.”