OPINION: Remembering and honoring Julie Belaga

Julie Belaga recipient of the Sunrise Rotary of Westport Paul Harris Fellowship award listens as John Franklin announces her during the ceremony at the Birchwood Country Club on Friday, May 14, 2010.

Julie Belaga recipient of the Sunrise Rotary of Westport Paul Harris Fellowship award listens as John Franklin announces her during the ceremony at the Birchwood Country Club on Friday, May 14, 2010.

Amy Mortensen / ST

Two weeks ago we lost Julie Belaga. Like so many people in and around Westport, I called Julie my friend - in our case a friendship of over 40 years. We all admired her energy, exuberance, and optimism, qualities that inspired us and which we sought to emulate.

Of course, the personal friendships and professional respect for Julie went far beyond the borders of Westport, but Westport perhaps knew Julie best and benefited the most from her dogged and persistent civic leadership.

But Julie was more than a friend. She was for me a model of what public service should be, and she was a source of advice and political collaboration during the many years that we knew each other. My relationship with her goes back to the late 1970s, when she supported my effort to be elected to the Republican State Committee from the district we shared, she, as state representative from Westport, and I from the neighboring town of Weston.

A few years later I played a small role in Julie’s campaign for governor of Connecticut. Subsequently, we both were members of Connecticut’s delegation to the 1988 Republican National Convention (she, as a delegate, and I, as an alternate), where she tried without much success to shape a party platform that expressed support for civil and social rights, and for environmental sustainability. In all these areas Julie Belaga shaped my own political and moral values.

When I was asked to become commissioner of transportation by then Governor-elect Lowell Weicker, Julie was the first person whose advice I sought. During my first two years in that position I worked closely with Julie, as she completed her enormously successful and acclaimed tenure, as Boston regional director for the federal Environmental Protection Administration under President George H.W. Bush. She went on to serve as a member of the board of the U.S. Export-Import Bank, where she specialized in insuring that American credit support was focused on international projects that advanced environmental objectives.

Julie Belaga practiced a pragmatic style of politics and public service that prized negotiation and compromise and that tempered strong principles with realism. She was the epitome of bipartisanship, evidenced by her vigorous advocacy, as a member of the state Republican legislative leadership, but always earning the respect, if not the agreement, of members of the opposite party. Democratic leaders, like Sen. Chris Dodd, who nominated her for the Ex-Im Bank, treasured Julie, as a policy expert and a personal friend.

Sadly, the manner of civic leadership and the commitment to governance that Julie Belaga practiced and believed in so strongly have seemingly gone out of style in our politics. In her career, Julie was a close colleague of Gov. Weicker, of Congressmen Stewart McKinney and Chris Shays, and of Fairfield First Selectwoman Jackie Durrell, all of whom represented a Republican politics that put community needs over individual wants, and the public good over partisan advantage.

Today, at a time of sharp-edged partisan and ideological division, many, who hold elective and appointive office, reject Julie Belaga’s kind of politics.

Even as we mourn her loss, Julie’s life and extraordinary career should be models to us. They can demonstrate how we might escape this mire of bitter recrimination and how we might rise above the rejection of truth and expertise that has come to characterize our politics at all levels.

Such a lesson in the proper way to engage in politics and in public leadership should be Julie Belaga’s lasting gift to us.

Emil H. Frankel lived in Weston for more than 30 years, was a former Weston selectman, served as Connecticut’s transportation commissioner from 1991 to 1995 and as assistant secretary for transportation policy of U.S. Department of Transportation from 2002 to 2005.