HARTFORD — Trude Johnson Mero, a no-nonsense matriarch of Hartford politics who mentored generations of Democrats at her kitchen table, died Tuesday of complications from diabetes. She was 85.
Mero had been in declining health for years and usually bounced back, ready for another fight, relatives said Wednesday.
"Loved the community and loved young people," said Sara Johnson-Davis, one of Mero's five children. "We have basically shared our mother with the community all our lives."
State Treasurer Denise Nappier counted herself as "among the fortunate to have received her blessings, more often than not."
"Those influenced by her wise counsel include those who have risen to prominence in the private and public sectors," Nappier said in a statement. "I never stopped learning from her — especially the importance of what to do and when to do it."
Mero was the peacekeeper in her family but relentless when it came to issues she cared about, such as education, economic development and minority hiring for state and city contracts, associates said.
Born in South Carolina, Mero attended segregated schools in New Jersey before moving to Hartford in 1948. Her husband was the late Wilfred X. "Spike" Johnson, widely cited as the first black Democrat elected to the General Assembly as a state representative in 1958.
In her own right, Mero became one of the most prominent African American women in Hartford, politicians said.
She helped found Project Concern in 1966, one of the nation's first voluntary school integration programs, and served as an executive assistant to four governors, the last one being former Gov. William A. O'Neill.
Over several decades of community organizing, Mero advised young activists and aspiring leaders in Hartford, and was known to pinch someone if she thought they weren't listening. After being widowed in 1972, the "hip mom" became a more stern woman who cut to the chase, two of her daughters said.
Some of their brightest memories revolve around the family kitchen, where in the wee hours Mero would fry chicken for her children and their friends, who sought Mero's advice as much as the city Democrats who congregated at her North End house.
"Mom's kitchen was the meeting place," said daughter Winnie Johnson. "We'd come home — there could be the mayor, the governor."
Mayor Pedro Segarra, paying respects to Mero's family Wednesday evening, said he first met Mero in the mid-1980s when he was a practicing attorney. Several years later, she essentially recruited him to become the city's corporation counsel.
"She's in a way responsible for the launching of my civic career," Segarra said. "Always honest, always straightforward."
On Wednesday, tributes rolled in from Connecticut Democrats who recognized her as a political force whose influence could torpedo or deliver votes in the city's North End.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy called Mero a "Hartford legend."
"If you know Hartford politics, you know Trude Mero," Malloy said in statement. "She was a gift to her community and fought tirelessly as an activist for people who often needed a voice to advocate on their behalf. She never minced words, and let you know exactly what was on her mind."
Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman described Mero as a tough lady with "a heart as big as the city she loved." U.S. Rep. John Larson, one of the people who benefited from Mero's support, considered her a friend who "epitomized advocacy in Connecticut."
"Countless children and families throughout Hartford and Connecticut are better off today thanks to her passion and activism," U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal added.
Mero was chairwoman of the state's African-American Affairs Commission in the late 1990s and had been involved in various community groups, including the Greater Hartford Progressive Democratic Women's Club.
More recently, Mero served as a commissioner on the Metropolitan District Commission, and she owned a business, Nutmeg Planners, that she started eight years ago to assist minority contractors with compliance issues. Mero also was instrumental in developing Voices of Women of Color, a consulting firm in Hartford that focuses on social justice issues, relatives and friends said.
Andrea Comer noted a quieter side to Mero: Her under-the-radar help for women.
"Doors suddenly opened up because Trude made a phone call," said Comer, a Hartford charter school administrator and State Board of Education member.
People also knew the danger of crossing her. John Kennelly, the son of former U.S. Rep. Barbara Kennelly, remembered how he almost destroyed his political career at the age of 30 when he chastised Mero the morning of the 1999 Democratic primary.
Kennelly was a campaign manager and questioned Mero for what he thought was low voter turnout. As the words left his mouth, the room of North End campaign workers fell "so silent," he said.
Kennelly later made amends with party elders and credits support from Mero and her North End base for his election to the city council in 2001. "When she set her sights on a goal or issue, heaven help those who got in her way," he said Wednesday.
One of Mero's causes, economic justice for minorities, was linked to public education. She argued that Hartford children were being underserved and needed more school options.
Mero became an organizer of Project Concern, which drew critics in Greater Hartford at the time. In 1968, she explained to West Hartford residents why urban children should be allowed to enroll in their town schools.
"It is not right for a child not to be able to dream — to dream of an education, which brings a job and a home and a lot of other things most people take for granted," Mero said.
Mero's own children were bused to the suburbs for Project Concern. Johnson-Davis recalled attending school in Coventry with her brother, Jeffrey, and defending the North End to their new classmates. So Mero hosted a grand picnic for the Coventry students at the family's large Tower Avenue house, Johnson-Davis said with a smile. That home, known as the Wilfred X. Johnson House, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Elizabeth Horton Sheff, one of the plaintiffs who brought the landmark desegregation case against the state in 1989, recognized Project Concern as a predecessor to the lawsuit. Thousands of schoolchildren across the region attend magnet schools and schools outside their hometown as part of the court-ordered Sheff settlement.
"With Sheff vs O'Neill, I definitely point to the beginnings, which would be the work that Ms. Mero did on behalf of the children," Horton Sheff said Wednesday. "It's going to take a while to absorb that we lost another icon in our community."
Horton Sheff, a former Hartford city council member, conceded that she had "bumped heads a couple of times" with Mero in the political arena, particularly over which candidates to support.
"But that's politics," she said. "You can't be mad at her about that."
Calling hours are planned for 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Monday at Faith Congregational Church on Main Street in Hartford. On Tuesday, visitation is set for 10 a.m. and a memorial service will begin at 11 a.m. at the church, family members said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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