July 16, 2012

Gallo retains fire for social issues

Photo / Pablo Robles
Photo / Pablo Robles
Betty Gallo sees nothing unseemly being a feminist and a lobbyist, as long as the issues she and her clients pursue are just. Some 40 years navigating the State Capitol halls has benefited her clients and sated her desire to make a difference on social and civil-rights issues.

The year was 1976.

Connecticut's first female governor, Ella T. Grasso, was in office. Women's issues were bubbling to the forefront on the state and national legislative agenda, paced by the newly minted U.S. Supreme Court abortion decision, Roe v. Wade.

Into that cauldron stepped neophyte Betty Gallo, a married young mother and a member of Trinity College's first coed graduating class, propelled by a low-paying job lobbying on behalf of grassroots Connecticut nonprofit Common Cause.

Hired as "eyes and ears" on the state's first try enacting an ethics code for public officials, she was way in over her head.

"I was so naive,'' said Gallo, who for the last 32 years of her storied career has run an eponymous lobbying firm on behalf of clients in pursuit of feminist and other civil-liberties and civil-rights issues. "One of the reasons they hired me was because nobody else would do it … I'd never been in the Capitol before.''

The ethics measure passed "but it was a mess,'' she said. "It took me three years to understand why it passed.''

Today, Gallo's reputation is strong with her peers for her quick grasp and tenacity on issues, particularly ones that personally goad her. That's buttressed by a long roster of nonprofit clients and an even longer list of contacts inside and outside the Capitol.

For her lifelong impact on social justice, civil rights and healthcare issues, Gallo last year was inducted in the Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame.

"She's a woman of integrity. Passionate. Never gives up,'' said Patricia "Paddy'' LeShane, started her own lobbying firm — Sullivan & LeShane — in 1983, two years after Gallo.

At that time, both Gallo and LeShane were among a handful of female lobbyists in an arena in which mostly male lawyers roamed the state Capitol halls.

Three decades later, Gallo, 65, and her business are beneficiaries of a new gender reality in which women predominate in running Connecticut nonprofits as CEOs and board chairs, which leads many of them to her doorstep.

"I am just blessed because a lot of people have tasked us with issues that are incredibly transformative,'' she said in in the Frog Hollow office building at 227 Lawrence St. that houses her, two other lobbyists and a support staff of three.

Born and reared in Hickory, N.C., Gallo says she was shaped by the segregation she witnessed. Gallo recalls a school nun admonishing her for being "too empathetic'' when she tried to intervene on behalf of an African-American schoolmate.

Years later, marriage to a Hartford native and Trinity pupil drew her to transfer from Catholic University in Washington D.C., where she majored in psychology, intending to conduct clinical research.

But by the time she and three fellow female classmates collected their Trinity degrees, children and divorce had intervened to alter Gallo's career arc.

Her Common Cause lobbying deeply immersed her into the inner-workings of the Capitol, such that three years later, in 1979, when a reworked ethics code was debated and adopted, Gallo's fingerprints were all over it, she says.

"I remember thinking, 'Yes, this is what I want to do.' I just didn't know what 'this' was,'' Gallo said.

So has been her touch, too, on the state's other leading human rights and social issues: Gay-lesbian marriage, racial and healthcare profiling, and, she says, the high-water mark of her career — the state's recent abolition of the death penalty.

A self-described feminist, Gallo chafes at what she considers the unfair stereotypes that come with being labeled as such, as well as being a lobbyist.

"The term has been so battered,'' she said. "Anyone at the Capitol, who is honest, will tell you it would stop working without lobbyists. Collectively, we're a voice for [the people's] interests. There are people who lobby for [United Technologies Corp.]. But there are people who lobby for poor people.''

Gallo's free time is spent on travel, especially summers on Cape Cod, with her two grown children and her grandchildren, and reading. She says retirement is not yet on her radar.

"I wake up in the morning and read the paper,'' she said, "and if something makes me mad, I get to go to work to try to fix it.''

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