April 9: Son of Russian Immigrants Who Rose to Become Both Governor & Barrier-Breaker

Today in 1910, Abraham Alexander Ribicoff was born in a New Britain tenement house to Ashkenazi Jewish parents who had immigrated to Connecticut from Poland. Over the course of his lifetime, he would spend nearly 50 years in public service. The highlight of that half century of service was when he overcame entrenched anti-Semitism to become the state’s first governor of Jewish faith.

After graduating with degrees from NYU and the University of Chicago Law School, Ribicoff set up his own legal practice in Kensington and soon began his meteoric rise through the ranks of Connecticut politics. Beginning in 1938, Ribicoff served for two terms in the Connecticut General Assembly; by the early 1950s, he had also served as a Hartford judge and was twice elected as a US Representative from Connecticut’s first Congressional district.

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Governor Ribicoff with a handful of telegrams related to Connecticut’s devastating floods of 1955. (Hartford Public Library)

In 1954, Ribicoff ran for governor as a Democrat and won in spite of entrenched anti-Semitism in a political arena overwhelmingly dominated by Protestant Christians. During his campaign, he repeatedly emphasized his modest upbringing and championed the promise of “the American dream” to immigrants and their families. As governor, he increased state spending on education and welfare programs, supported racial integration in urban and suburban schools, and worked tirelessly to rebuild badly damaged infrastructure after devastating floods hit Connecticut in 1955. Thanks to his popular platform and persistent optimism, Ribicoff was reelected in 1958 by the largest margin in Connecticut history. he was the first — and to date, only — Jewish governor of Connecticut.

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Newsweek’s issue of February 20, 1961 featured then-Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Abraham Ribicoff.

Having overcome a religious barrier to high office himself, Ribicoff worked to help another barrier-breaker, John F Kennedy, become America’s first Catholic president. A longtime friend of the fellow New England Democrat, Ribicoff was one of the first politicians to encourage Kennedy to run for vice-president in 1956, and was an ardent supporter of his subsequent (and successful) presidential bid in 1960.

As President, Kennedy appointed Ribicoff to be his secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. Ribicoff served in that prestigious post for a year and a half before returning to Connecticut to run for U.S. Senator in 1962. He won handily and served as Senator for nearly two decades before retiring from politics in 1981, having completed a long, distinguished and barrier-breaking career.

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Further Reading

Obituary: Ribicoff of Connecticut Dies; Governor and Senator was 87New York Times

Abraham Alexander Ribicoff,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress