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David Pudlin, a longtime labor organizer who advocated for low-wage workers and marginalized residents as Connecticut House majority leader two decades ago, died at his New Britain home Friday. He was 69.
His sons Jacob and Sam Pudlin said the cause of death was an accidental fall.
Pudlin, a New Britain Democrat, was elected House majority leader in 1998, following five years as deputy speaker. As majority leader, he was second-in-command to House Speaker Moira K. Lyons, the first woman in state history to hold that position.
“He was one of the leading progressives in fighting for the minimum wage and health care and other causes before they attracted even wider support,” U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said of Pudlin on Saturday. “He was ahead of his time in many ways and was very focused and fierce in his advocacy.”
Blumenthal, who served with Pudlin in the state legislature, remembered him as a leader who could distill complex issues to a handful of persuasive sentences. Even after swapping his position in union leadership for one in state leadership, Pudlin continued to be guided by the knowledge of “how powerful even the most vulnerable could be, if they stuck together,” Blumenthal said.
Rep. Rick Lopes, D-New Britain, remembered Pudlin as an “unabashed progressive liberal” who helped steer the direction of the Democratic Party in Connecticut toward a politics of compassion, putting the issues of the working poor and marginalized residents front and center.
“Everything he did was based on helping people with lower economic needs, people of color, people who were marginalized in any way. That was his passion and commitment: to help people without power,” Lopes said.
David Barry Pudlin was born in New Britain on July 24, 1952, the son of Alvin and Rose Pudlin. His middle name was a nod to the Irish Republican Army leader Thomas Barry, his family said.
After attending the former Pulaski High School in New Britain, Pudlin graduated from UConn, where he studied Judaica. His dedication to the labor movement emerged at a young age; as a teenager in the 1960s, he vandalized grocery stores during the Delano, California, grape strike. Pudlin went on to organize drives and strikes for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. By the 1980s, he was the vice present of 1199 New England, a local union of the Service Employees International Union, which he helped grow to become the largest local in the world by membership at the time.
At the advice of older labor organizers who sought greater support in the state government, Pudlin pivoted toward state politics. As a legislator in the General Assembly, he fought to improve access to health care, raise the income tax, increase state support for education and expand the right to organize.
Gov. Ned Lamont recalled Pudlin on Saturday as “an extraordinary person who deeply cared for the people of his hometown of New Britain, as well as a devoted advocate on behalf of all Connecticut working men, women and their families.”
In 1995, amid a debate in Connecticut about the $4.27 per hour minimum wage, Pudlin argued that raising the amount would boost consumer spending as well as give low-wage workers a crucial safety net.
“Henry Ford talked about the importance of making sure people were paid enough to buy Ford cars,” Pudlin told The Courant. “If we are determined to get people off welfare, how are we going to do it if the alternative [the minimum wage] is an income level that doesn’t bring you to the poverty level? That is not much of an incentive.”
By the time Pudlin left the General Assembly, the minimum wage had increased by 66%, or almost three dollars. It was his proudest achievement, Sam Pudlin said: “He wanted his career there to be judged entirely on how much he got the minimum wage up.”
Even after leaving the House, Pudlin continued to serve as a devoted — and, at times, cantankerous — mentor to up-and-coming state Democrats.
“His retirement role was, as he felt it, to keep us cognizant of why we’re there and what we’re fighting for, and he was never shy of sharing it with us,” Lopes said.
In addition to his sons, Pudlin is survived by his wife Elisabeth Nicholas, his sons’ mother Nancy Clark Otter, his brother Bennett and other relatives.
Aside from progressive organizing, Pudlin’s great passions were New Britain and chili dogs, his sons said. After securing his COVID-19 vaccination, his first stop was Capitol Lunch in New Britain, for a Martin Rosol’s dog with onions and Cappie’s chili sauce.
“He loved food in all things. He always advised new legislators to ‘follow the fat man’ if they didn’t know where to go to lunch,” Sam Pudlin said.
In 2008, David Pudlin and radio host Colin McEnroe toured the region’s finest chili dog joints — informed by pages upon pages of Pudlin’s own notes.
“I’m from New Britain. What else am I going to know about?” Pudlin told McEnroe. “If I had grown up in Rome, I’d probably know a lot about statues and fountains.”
Lopes recalled Pudlin’s obsession with particular fondness.
“Even though he could speak at length about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and nuances of the Connecticut state law, he would put that same level of effort into asserting the difference between New Britain and Waterbury chili dogs,” he said.
Eliza Fawcett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.