Back to 1983: Sullivan era ends, but his legacy lives on
FAIRFIELD — He was not a native Fairfielder, but over nearly a quarter-century, John J. Sullivan left an indelible legacy that continues to have a direct impact on the town to this day.
In 1983, Sullivan’s record-breaking tenure of 24 years as Fairfield’s first selectman came to end when he decided to retire — a record made possible by winning 12 two-year terms, unlike the four-year terms the first selectman serves these days.
He came to Fairfield from Massachusetts, opened a florist shop on the Post Road and over the next several decades got to know his new hometown — and became known to townspeople. In 1959, Sullivan decided to make his first bid for elected office by running for first selectman — and won, a victory that seemed even more unlikely since he was an Irish Catholic Democrat running in what then was still a stronghold of Yankee Protestant Republicans.
Of his different background from other politicians of the day, Sullivan later said when interviewed for an oral history project: “"I never hid where I was. I was a Democrat and I was a Catholic and that's all there was to it. They could either take me as I am and I'll take you as you are and we'll all be happy.”
Hallmarks of Sullivan’s administration included greater centralization of local government authority in the office of first selectman; strong support for public education at a time when the school population was growing rapidly, and acquisition of more than 1,200 acres of open space, recreational and other properties. Among the properties the town acquired during that time were Penfield Beach, Lake Mohegan and the Cascades open space, as well as the land used many years later to build Burr Elementary School.
It was Sullivan who helped to convince General Electric officials to move their corporate headquarters to Fairfield — becoming its largest taxpayer for more than four decades. The GE plan took shape after St. Vincent’s Hospital initially planned to move from Bridgeport to build a new medical center on the Easton Turnpike site, which would have removed the property from local tax rolls.
Earlier this year, GE announced it will leave the 68-acre Fairfield property and move its headquarters to Boston.
Perhaps one of the most profound insights into what made Sullivan so popular for so long came from the man himself, when he told the oral history interviewer: "I always liked people and politics.
"I don't' remember if I ever woke up in the morning and said, ‘I wish I didn't have to go to work today.’ ... I never took my number out of the book and I never had another phone where you could circumvent going through the regular phone. If you wanted to get somebody in my home, you rang the same number the day after I got in, the day before I got in and the day I left."