February 9: Connecticut’s 1st African-American Congressman


Today in 1953, future Congressman Gary A. Franks was born in Waterbury, the youngest of six children in a family of limited means. His parents put a high value on education, and all six of their children went to college, and three obtained doctoral degrees. Gary was an All State high school basketball player, and went on to play for Yale University, from which he graduated in 1975. During the next decade, Franks worked as a labor relations executive for three Fortune 500 companies, before starting his own real estate firm in Waterbury. Encouraged by his friend John Rowland, Franks entered politics in an effort to bring “new blood” to the Waterbury Republican Party.

Future Congressman Gary Franks as Yale basketball player
Franks played basketball for Yale University (Yale Media Guide)

In 1990, when Rowland vacated his congressional seat to run for governor, Franks successfully sought the nomination for his seat as a black Republican conservative, beating out six other candidates. In a campaign that drew national attention, Franks, aided by campaign appearances from President and First Lady George and Barbara Bush, was able to defeat well-known Democrat Toby Moffett in a district where Democrats outnumbered Republicans two to one.

Franks was the first African American elected to Congress from Connecticut, and the first black Republican elected to Congress in 60 years. A member of the Armed Services committee, Franks secured large numbers of defense contracts for the state. He also wrote the bill that led to the establishment of Weir Farm as Connecticut’s first National Park site.

Franks authored the bill making the Weir Farm arts colony Connecticut’s only National Park. Xiomaro, Photograph. “Young Painting 2,” (Weir Farm N.P.S.)

Franks helped craft the GOP’s 1995 welfare reform package, and upset many in the African American community because of his strong opposition to affirmative action and his support for the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

Franks’s strong and independent views put him at odds not only with members of the Black Congressional Caucus, but sometimes with his own party leadership. Nevertheless, he served three terms, until his defeat in 1996 by Democrat James Maloney. Two years later, after a failed attempt to unseat Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, Franks retired from politics.

Researched and written by Jacob Wieloch

Further Reading

Gary A. Franks,” US House of Representatives archives

Jacqueline Trescott, “Rep. Gary Franks: Unexpected Republican,Washington Post archives