Ribicoff, Abraham A. (Abraham Alexander), 1910-1998Variant names
Born in New Britain, Connecticut, to Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants from Poland, Samuel Ribicoff, a factory worker, and Rose Sable Ribicoff, he attended local public schools. Ribicoff's relatively poor parents valued education and insisted that all his earnings from part-time boyhood jobs go toward his future schooling. After high school, he worked for a year at a nearby factory of the G. E. Prentice Company to earn additional funds for college. Ribicoff enrolled at New York University in 1928, then transferred to the University of Chicago after the Prentice Company made him the Chicago office manager. While in Chicago, Ribicoff coped with school and work schedules and was permitted to enter the university's law school before finishing his undergraduate degree. Still a student, he married Ruth Siegel on June 28, 1931; they had two children. Ribicoff served as editor of the University of Chicago Law Review in his third year and received an LLB cum laude in 1933, being admitted to the Connecticut bar the same year. After practicing law in the office of a Hartford lawyer, Ribicoff set up his practice, first in Kensington and later in Hartford.
Having become interested in politics, Ribicoff began as a member of the Connecticut House of Representatives, serving in that body from 1938 to 1942. From 1941 until 1943 and again from 1945 to 1947 he was the judge of Hartford Police Court. During his political career, Ribicoff was a protégé of John Moran Bailey, the powerful chairman of the Democratic Party of Connecticut.
He was elected as a Democrat to the 81st and 82nd Congresses, serving from 1949 until 1953. During that time he served on the Foreign Affairs Committee, a position usually reserved for members with more seniority, and was a mostly loyal supporter of the foreign and domestic policies of President Harry S. Truman's administration. Generally liberal in his outlook, he surprised many by opposing a $32 million appropriation for the construction of a dam in Enfield, Connecticut, arguing that the money was better spent on military needs and foreign policy initiatives such as the Marshall Plan.
After returning to his legal practice for two years, he ran for governor against incumbent Republican John Davis Lodge, winning the election by just over three thousand votes. As governor (1955–1961), Ribicoff soon faced the challenge of rebuilding his state in the wake of devastating floods that occurred in the late summer and fall of 1955, and he successfully led bipartisan efforts to aid damaged areas. Ribicoff then successfully argued for increased state spending on schools and welfare programs. He also supported an amendment to the state constitution that enhanced the governing powers of local municipalities. Easily reelected in 1958, Ribicoff had by now become active on the national political scene. A longtime friend of Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy, Ribicoff had nominated his fellow New Englander for vice president at the 1956 Democratic National Convention and was one of the first public officials to endorse Kennedy's presidential campaign.
When Kennedy became president in 1961, he offered Ribicoff his choice of cabinet posts in the new administration. He reportedly declined the position of attorney general, fearing that he might create needless controversy within the emerging civil rights movement because he was Jewish, and instead chose to be secretary of health, education, and welfare (HEW). Although he did manage to secure a revision of the 1935 Social Security Act that liberalized requirements for aid-to-dependent-children funds from Congress, Ribicoff was unable to gain approval for the administration's Medicare and school aid bills. Eventually, he tired of attempting to manage HEW, whose very size made it, in his opinion, unmanageable.
He was finally elected to the United States Senate in 1962, replacing retiring incumbent Prescott Bush by defeating Republican nominee Horace Seely-Brown with 51% of the vote. He served in the Senate from January 3, 1963, until January 3, 1981.
Ribicoff allied with consumer advocate Ralph Nader in creating the Motor Vehicle Highway Safety Act of 1966, which created the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency was responsible for many new safety standards on cars.
At the 1968 Democratic National Convention, during a speech nominating George McGovern, his senatorial colleague from South Dakota, he went off-script, saying, "And with George McGovern as President of the United States, we wouldn't have to have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago." Many conventioneers, having been appalled by the response of the Chicago police to the simultaneously occurring anti-war demonstrations, promptly broke into ecstatic applause. Television cameras promptly focused on the indignant reaction of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. Ribicoff spent the remaining years of his Senate career fighting for such issues as school integration, welfare and tax reform, and consumer protection.
During the 1972 Democratic National Convention, presidential nominee George McGovern offered Ribicoff the Democratic vice-presidential nomination, but he declined it and it eventually went to Senator Thomas Eagleton. After Eagleton withdrew, McGovern asked Ribicoff (among others) to take Eagleton's place. He refused, publicly stating that he had no further ambitions for higher office. McGovern eventually chose Sargent Shriver as his running mate. Later in 1972, following the death of his wife, Ribicoff married Lois Mell Mathes, who became known as "Casey".
During his time in the Senate, Ribicoff was chairman of the United States Senate Committee on Government Operations (94th and 95th Congresses) and its successor committee, the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs (95th and 96th Congresses).
On May 3, 1979, Ribicoff announced his intention to retire at the end of his third term. President Jimmy Carter released a statement crediting Ribicoff with having "compiled a distinguished career of public service that can serve as a model of decency, compassion, and ability."
In 1981, Ribicoff fulfilled his pledge to retire from the Senate and took a position as special counsel in the New York law firm of Kaye Scholer LLP and divided his time between homes in Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut and Manhattan. He was co-chairman of the 1988 Base Realignment and Closure Commission.
Having suffered in his later years from the effects of Alzheimer's disease, he died in 1998 at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale in The Bronx, New York City, and is interred at Cornwall Cemetery in Cornwall, Connecticut.
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