PM-02: Assemblywomen Elizabeth A. Connelly Papers, 1974-2002
Assemblywoman Elizabeth A. Connelly was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1973 as the first woman from Staten Island elected to public office. Connelly was appointed Chairwoman of the Committee on Mental Health, Mental Retardation/Developmental Disabilities and Alcoholism and Substance Abuse in 1977, becoming the first woman Democrat ever to chair a standing Assembly Committee. Connelly was also interested in environmental issues and her activities in closing the Fresh Kills Landfill and in protecting the Staten Island environment. Connelly was appointed to chair the Committee on Standing Committees in 1993 and was appointed Speaker Pro Tempore in 1995, the highest leadership position ever held by a woman in the New York State Assembly. Connelly retired in 2000 as the longest serving woman in the history of the New York State Legislature. The collection contains correspondence, newsletters, reports, press releases, news clippings, public hearing testimony, photographs and awards.
Biographical / Historical
Elizabeth A. Connelly was born Elizabeth Keresey on June 19, 1928 to John Walter and Alice Marie (Mallon) Keresey in Brooklyn, NY. Her parents' marriage dissolved early, and she and her mother moved in with Connelly's maternal grandparents. Connelly was raised in the Bronx and educated in the public school system. After finishing high school Connelly began work at Pan American World Airways in 1946, ultimately working for the company for eight years. While there, she met Robert V. Connelly in 1948. They were married on September 6, 1952 and moved to Staten Island to raise a family in 1954. By 1966, the couple had four children: Alice, Robert Jr., Margaret and Therese. Connelly was active in local schools and community activities, including volunteer work at the Staten Island Hospital and local Democratic politics and campaign work. She also continued to raise her family, and in 1973 her children were 8, 15, 17 and 19. She joined the North Shore Democratic Club in 1966 and was also elected to the Democratic County Committee, where she also served as a zone leader from 1972-1974. In 1973, she made her first run for public office for the Assembly seat being vacated by Edward J. Amann, who had been appointed to the Court of Claims. Connelly was nominated by both the Democratic County Committee and the Conservative Party. During her campaign, she spoke out against Republican leadership and spending and stated that her primary concerns were LNG tanks, the hospital bed shortage, sewers and the Willowbrook State School. Upon winning the election, Connelly became Staten Island's first female elected official. Connelly's first committee assignments were Health, Education and Transportation. In 1975, she was assigned to the Committee on Mental Health, Mental Retardation, Developmental Disabilities, Alcoholism and Substance Abuse. When she was named chair in 1977 she became the first woman Democrat to chair an Assembly standing committee. She remained chair from 1977-1992, although Alcohol and Substance Abuse became its own standing committee in 1986. Other committees on which she served include: Education (1974-1976), Transportation (1974-1993), Environmental Conservation (1979-1986), Health (1974-2000), Rules (1981-2000), Veterans (1985-2000), Corrections (1987-2000), House Operations (1980-c 1990) and Ways and Means (1993-2000). In addition, Connelly chaired the Subcommittee for Drunk Driving and the Assembly Intern Committee. She also served on the Assembly Subcommittees for Women Veterans and for Urban Health Care. She served on many tasks forces including the New York State Task Force on the Implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the New York State AD HOC Task Force on AIDS, the New York State Task Force on Teenage Suicide Prevention, Governor Cuomo's Interagency Task Force on Troubled and Needy Children and the Assembly Task Forces on the Homeless and on New Americans. Connelly also ran successfully for Delegate to the Democratic National Conventions in 1976, 1980, 1988 and 1996. In the 1990's, Connelly held several leadership positions in the state government. In 1993, the Legislature elected her to chair the New York State Legislative Women's Caucus and Speaker Saul Weprin appointed her to chair the Committee on Committees. Speaker Sheldon Silver appointed her to be Speaker Pro Tempore in 1995, the highest-ranking leadership position ever held by a woman in the history of the New York State Assembly. When Connelly retired in 2000, she was the longest serving woman in the history of the New York State Legislature. Connelly was called the "guardian angel of the mentally disabled in New York State" by Dr. Kenneth Popler, Executive Director of the Staten Island Mental Health Society. She was instrumental in securing funds for mental health programs and in creating the Commission on Quality of Care for the Mentally Disabled. Connelly was also involved in issues related to Willowbrook State School, and pushed for improvements after she made an unannounced tour of the school in January, 1974. Connelly fought against negative stereotypes of the mentally ill and developmentally disabled. She worked to extend the MTA's Half Fare program to include the mentally ill, to create a wheelchair "lemon law" and to limit extensive travel time for handicapped students. She was interested in issues relating to special education, deinstitutionalization, group homes and the treatment of the mentally disabled in courts, prison systems and death penalty laws. She was instrumental in passing laws requiring insurance coverage for formulas needed by persons with metabolic disorders such as Phenylketonuria (PKU), which if untreated, causes mental retardation. She was also a strong proponent of involuntary outpatient commitment and was the prime sponsor of legislation creating the pilot program at Bellevue Hospital. Her personal commitment and leadership of the Committee on Mental Health helped redefine how the mentally ill and developmentally disabled are treated in New York and throughout the United States.Connelly was also a strong supporter of environmental causes. She successfully sued the City of New York over Fresh Kills Landfill in 1978. As a result of her lawsuits, the city was required to maintain stricter control over the landfill and to meet certain conditions regarding its operation. In 1996, Connelly co-sponsored legislation to close the landfill by 2002. Connelly was involved in many environmental concerns including the Greenbelt, Sandy Ground, Graniteville Quarry, Mount Loretto, parks, wetlands, air quality, the mechanical dredging of shellfish,aircraft noise pollution, LNG tanks and ship pilot's issues. She also worked tirelessly against dredging and the deposit of dredged materials in waters around New York Harbor and Raritan Bay. Connelly is also well known for her commitment to Staten Island and to issues related to health, veterans, education, compulsive gambling, alcoholism and substance abuse. She also fought for the people and neighborhoods in her North Shore district, which included the poorer areas of Staten Island. She was involved in efforts to re-open the abandoned North Shore railroad and she fought to keep shipping container companies and to preserve jobs, an Army National Guard Unit and the Naval Homeport. She also supported Staten Island's secession movement and was the Vice-Chairman of the Staten Island Charter Commission. Connelly was involved in local groups and issues throughout her career. She served on numerous boards and was a member of many committees, societies, councils and other community organizations. She was also one of the two first women named to the Board of Trustees of The Staten Island Hospital during her first year in office, and was later the first woman chair. She received 376 awards and citations during 1974-2002, and was named a Staten Island Advance Woman of Achievement in 1985. There are also several facilities on Staten Island that were named in her honor, including the Elizabeth A. Connelly Resource Center and the Elizabeth A. Connelly Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Center of St. Vincent's North Richmond Community Mental Health Center. She was committed to her family throughout her career, and by 2003, her three daughters had married and she had six grandchildren. She remains active during her retirement, and served as the Honorary Staten Island Chairperson for Hillary Clinton's U.S. Senate campaign in 2000.
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