Edward Meyer
Edward Meyer ()

He was appointed as a federal prosecutor by Robert F. Kennedy, put members of the Genovese crime family behind bars, married a tennis pro and then spent decades as a lawmaker in both New York and Connecticut.

Now after 50 years of public service, state Sen. Ed Meyer, D-Guilford, is retiring as he approaches age 80. He announced recently that he will not seek reelection to his Senate seat this November.

“I think that Sen. Ed Meyer is sort of a larger-than-life figure in many ways,” said Sen. Martin Looney, a New Haven Democrat. “I think he’s had really an exceptional career.”

Looney has seen skills that Meyer acquired in the legal arena in action when he was trying to convince his legislative colleagues to pass a law. “His demeanor in knowing how to present a case, present evidence, he brings those skills of an advocate, a court litigator,” said Looney.

In Connecticut, Meyer said he’s particularly fond of being part of abolishing the death penalty, the enactment of gun restraints after Newtown, the emergence of same-sex rights and a host of environment initiatives, including restrictions on pesticides and other toxic chemicals.

Despite all those accomplishments, the first thing the proud father of six mentioned in an interview with the Law Tribune was his son Jeffrey Meyer’s recent appointment as a U.S. district judge in Connecticut. The U.S. Senate approved the nomination by a 91-2 vote. “You don’t find many votes like that in the Senate,” said Ed Meyer, who also has 13 grandchildren.

Jeffrey Meyer said his father has been a role model ever since he was a young boy. Jeff was just 7 years old when his father first took office as an assemblyman in New York. The judge said his father’s life was “why I chose a career in law, because of the public policy implications.”

“His example was part of the reason why I ended up working, as he once did, for the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” said Jeffrey Meyer. “So he’s certainly been an inspiration all my life.” The senator’s legal career also inspired a second son, Tim, who is now a professor at the University of Georgia Law School.

Ed Meyer received his bachelor’s degree and J.D. from Yale University. In 1961, he was trying to decide where he and his wife, Patty Ann Reese, a former professional tennis player and one of the founding members of the Virginia Slims Tour, would live. Meyer considered staying in Connecticut but ultimately took a job with New York City’s Davis Polk & Wardwell.

“One day the senior litigator of the firm, Lawrence Walsh, who had been a federal judge and left the bench, came into my office and he said, ‘We’re sending you to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for trial seasoning,’” Meyer recalled. “Those were the days when the big law firms in New York could make those sorts of arrangements.”

He was soon appointed by Robert F. Kennedy as a federal prosecutor in New York. Kennedy’s “real interest was organized crime,” said Meyer. “He appointed me as the chief prosecutor of the Genovese mafia family. I grew up in that intense experience. I had some major, major cases.”

At that time, Meyer said the mob was trying to break into legitimate businesses. One major case, U.S. v. Pagano, was a bankruptcy fraud case that focused on an attempt by organized crime to take over a legitimate meat-packing company. “I caught the public bug from that experience,” said Meyer.

Meyer left the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 1968 and joined a smaller general law practice, where he represented many tennis players, including Jimmy Connors. Due to his wife’s connections, he represented around 30 women’s professional tennis players.

Meyer said he brought major antitrust lawsuits under the Sherman Act on behalf of tennis players who were told what tournaments they could and couldn’t play in.

He said despite a burgeoning number of tennis professionals, the events were intentionally kept small—16 entrants for women’s tournaments, 32 to 64 for men’s tournaments—so as to maximize the prize money for the star players. Meyer said some pros wouldn’t even have to win a match to receive prize money.

Meyer said one of the more successful suits, which settled confidentially, still has a major impact on the sport to this day.

In 1970, Meyer decided to run for a N.Y. State Assembly seat representing Westchester County.

“I knew it’d be hard to beat a [14-year] incumbent, but he’d been a lazy legislator with no record for constituent service,” said Meyer. “So I left my law firm in January to go door-to-door to the entire district, 175,000 people.”

The effort paid off and Meyer won the race by a 2-to-1 margin.

At that time, Meyer was a Republican. During his four years in office, he soon learned the cutthroat nature of politics. He strongly opposed Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s efforts to build a bridge from Long Island to Westchester County. The governor’s ultimate goal was to connect Long Island to Canada and this bridge was “essential to that purpose,” Rockefeller told Meyer.

“If that had been built, it would’ve wiped out hundreds of thousands of homes and small businesses in my district,” said Meyer.

So Meyer formed a coalition to stop the bridge. The governor told Meyer if he didn’t stop those efforts, he would suffer political consequences. Rockfeller threatened to redraw political boundaries to remove Meyer’s home from his Assembly district.

Both sides followed through on their promises. Meyer and his coalition defeated the bridge. “And he took my house out of my district,” said Meyer. “I learned political hardball quickly.”

Meyer soon ran for Congress after that and lost a close race. He then returned to the practice of law, starting up his own firm. Also, he was nominated to become a member of the New York State Board of Regents, and served on the educational oversight body for 23 years. “I became very concerned that New York had two academic levels, one for cities that was low and the other for suburbs that was much higher,” said Meyer. He said the suburban students took what are called Regents exams to graduate. City school students didn’t.

“I believe this was very discriminatory against urban students and helped to lead a major change in New York where every student had to take Regents level courses and Regents exams to get a high school diploma,” said Meyer. “That experience has led me to advocate for the Common Core [curriculum] in Connecticut.”

In 2000, Meyer and his wife decided it was time to leave New York.

“I resigned from the Board of Regents and I started looking on the eastern seaboard where we might want to live,” Meyer recalled. “After a one-year campaign, we settled on Guilford, Conn. We just loved the town. It was close to my alma mater and my son, Jeff, lived in Branford.”

Meyer looked into becoming a law professor and spent a lot of time playing competitive tennis. One day he went into cardiac arrest while playing in the semifinals of a tournament at the New Haven Lawn Club. Paramedics had to shock Meyer’s heart back to life after other resuscitation efforts failed. “Lord, you’ve got something in mind for me. Life is not over yet. What’s going on?” Meyer recalled thinking.

Shortly thereafter, a friend invited Meyer to be a delegate at a Democratic convention in order to nominate someone to run against then-state Sen. Bill Aniskovich, also an incumbent of 14 years. However, that night the person who was supposed to be nominated decided a family issue would prevent her from running.

Next thing Meyer’s knew he was running against Aniskovich. Once again, in 2004, Meyer defeated an incumbent. Meyer was elected to his fifth straight term in 2012.

During his time in the Legislature, Meyer has served as chairman of the Environment Committee, the Children’s Committee and the Program Review and Investigations Committee. He’s also served on the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee.

“Every major piece of environmental legislation has Ed’s stamp on it as the primary advocate in the Senate,” said Looney.

As a chairman of the Environment Committee, Meyer said he’s most proud of a bill that passed five years ago that mandated reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Connecticut must reduce such emissions 20 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050, as part of the law. Meyer said the committee has also been heavily involved in shoreline protection issues in light of Hurricanes Sandy and Irene. He’s also excited about a bill proposal this session that would help protect the environment from the waste that results from fracking—a process used to unleash natural gas from subterranean rock formations.

Fracking waste can include any wastewater, wastewater solids, sludge, drill cuttings and other byproducts. While there is currently no fracking in Connecticut, he worries that nearby Pennsylvania and New York could try to dispose of their toxic waste here.

Meyer agreed that his legal background helped his political career.

“My legal experience has definitely made me a better legislator with respect to the drafting of legislation,” said Meyer, who authored 48 bills that became law in New York alone. “I do a fair amount of my own drafting. Also, a lot of what we have to do to be effective is to negotiate legislation in order to get enough votes to pass. You need 19 to pass in the [Connecticut] Senate. I’ve had to negotiate with my colleagues to get 19 votes on some bills. Some of our professional art as lawyers is learning how to negotiate successfully.”