updated 7/16/2008 5:15:09 PM ET 2008-07-16T21:15:09

Connecticut is by many measures the nation’s highest-income state and quite likely the wealthiest, not through any natural advantage but largely by virtue of its own pluck. Through most of its history this small chunk of rocky terrain has been isolated and insular, and politically Connecticut has been an odd duck, one of the last to renounce an established church (in 1818) and one of the last to impose an income tax (in 1991), one of the last to back the Federalist Party (1816) and one of the few to vote to reelect Herbert Hoover (1932). Connecticut was founded by Puritans who found Massachusetts too lenient and backsliding; Connecticut Yankees for years were flintier and more unyielding, more tight-fisted and set in their ways. Yet they were also open to reform: the state’s schools now tell pupils that Connecticut once had slavery, but neglect to mention how remarkable it was that in 1784 it voted for gradual emancipation—one of the first societies to do so. Life here still bears the imprint of the original 17th century settlers, even though most Connecticut residents today are descendants of Catholic immigrants who arrived here between 1840 and 1924.

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A tenacity to principle and an openness to innovation: these Yankee characteristics pervade the state’s history. Connecticut’s affluence came not from any windfall but from a knack for tinkering and making good productive use of savings. In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville was struck by how this spot on the map gave America “the clock-peddler, the schoolmaster, and the senator. The first gives you time, the second tells you what to do with it, and the third makes your law and civilization.” Connecticut made clocks of wood and metal and hats of felt; it produced combs, cigars, clocks, silk thread, pins, matches, furniture; it invented and still manufactures Pez candy in Orange, Pepperidge Farm bread and Nivea cream in Norwalk, the Stanley Powerlock tape measure in New Britain and the Wiffle Ball in Shelton. Connecticut, one of the least violent parts of America, has always specialized in arms. The quintessential Connecticut Yankee, Eli Whitney, was the inventor not only of the cotton gin but also of rifles with interchangeable parts. Connecticut has been an arms maker ever since Samuel Colt won a War Department contract to manufacture guns for the Mexican-American War; during the Reagan defense buildup of the 1980s it produced Air Force jets and Army helicopters and, in the Electric Boat Shipyard in New London, most of the Navy’s nuclear submarines. These arms industries, like Connecticut’s civilian manufacturers, depend heavily on meticulous work. For years, the state was the center of the brass industry, the nation’s main producer of precision instruments. Through decades of immigration Connecticut workers never lost the Yankee knack: Connecticut ranks second in new patents per capita, and a MilkenInstitute study ranked Connecticut number three among states in its ability to excel in the information economy. Over the years Connecticut has accumulated capital and invested shrewdly, with great skill at assessing risk; it is the home of several of the nation’s great insurance companies, and its laws are uniquely friendly to creditors and harsh on bankrupts.

But Connecticut may be finding its success hard to sustain. Connecticut has never entirely recovered from the recession of the early 1990s and has had the slowest rate of job growth of any state since. Its insurance companies were hit by huge casualty losses, and cuts in defense spending cost Connecticut nearly 150,000 manufacturing jobs. Its small central cities—New Haven, Hartford, Bridgeport—have been plagued by crime and have lost manufacturing jobs and people; in 1950 those three cities had 500,000 people in a state of 2.0 million, while in 2005 they had 388,000 in a state of 3.5 million. Connecticut’s post-1990 economic growth has been concentrated in two corners of the state, on opposite sides of the invisible divide that separates Yankee fans and Red Sox fans. In the southeast is the state’s biggest employer and taxpayer, the Foxwoods Resort Casino, opened in 1992, run by a battery of lawyers and lobbyists and developers working for the 650-member Mashantucket Pequot tribe; its big competitor is Mohegan Sun, owned by the 1,600-member Mohegans. In 2006 both casinos were embarking on $700 million expansions. In the southwest, Stamford and Greenwich have become major financial services centers and the headquarters of the burgeoning hedge fund industry. But population growth is limited in Stamford and lower Fairfield County by sky-high housing prices and constraints on growth. Otherwise growth has been most vigorous along Interstate 84 and Route 2; new subdivisions are cutting into open land, though there is enough of it for Connecticut to have 47,000 horses, one for every 72 people, the highest ratio in the country. Connecticut’s work force is aging, as over the last decade its 18-to-34-year-old population has declined by about 200,000, at the third fastest rate of any state. There has been an influx of immigrants from Mexico, Peru, the Dominican Republic and other parts of Latin America, who fill jobs others let go begging; Hispanics are now the state’s largest minority group. Small business growth is inhibited by high taxes, heavy regulation and requirements that health insurance policies cover every imaginable contingency: a comfortable enough situation for those who are already well off, but a “get out” sign to those who want to move up the ladder. Corruption has been widespread; mayors of Waterbury and Bridgeport were sent to jail and Governor John Rowland was forced out of office in July 2004. As former legislator Kevin Rennie wrote, “Affluence, high scholastic scores and verdant hills have masked an increasingly corrupt political system that thrives on a complacent public and political elite.” Demographically, Connecticut resembles Western Europe more than just about any other American state, and the question arises whether the achievements of the tinkerers and investors who built this state can be sustained in what now is a center for gambling and hedge funds.

For most of the 20th century, Connecticut politics was an ethnic struggle between Yankee Republicans and Catholic Democrats. Slowly, as Catholic birthrates exceeded Protestant, Democrats gained ground; their great leader was John Bailey, state Democratic chairman from 1946–75, a master legislative strategist and ticket-balancer, who was one of the first to endorse John Kennedy for president. Some traces of the old Protestant-Catholic divide are apparent today in geographic voting patterns, but not much in political rhetoric; splitting tickets is now common in a state where the straight-party lever dominated politics a generation ago. Then the central cities and Catholic suburbs voted Democratic, the WASPy suburbs and rural towns Republican. Today that pattern has almost disappeared, although it reappeared in the 2006 Senate primary, when challenger Ned Lamont carried most of the old Republican areas and incumbent Joe Lieberman carried most of the historic Democratic strongholds. As in other major metropolitan areas, high-income voters have trended toward the Democrats on cultural issues. The state whose ban on contraceptives produced the Supreme Court’s Griswold decision in 1965, the precursor of Roe v. Wade, is now solidly for abortion rights, and its legislature passed a law in 2005 legalizing civil unions for same-sex couples. Perhaps in reaction, there has been a smaller countervailing move by some blue-collar workers and Catholics toward the Republicans. The 2004 NEP exit poll has Connecticut Protestants voting 52%-47% for John Kerry and Connecticut Catholics voting 53%-47% for George W. Bush. Kerry carried affluent Fairfield, Guilford and Farmington and lost Greenwich, where Prescott Bush was first selectman before he was U.S. senator, by only 52%-47%. Bush carried working class Naugatuck and Beacon Falls and came within 161 votes of carrying Waterbury, where a crowd of 100,000 waited until 2:00 a.m. to cheer John F. Kennedy in 1960.

On balance Connecticut these days is mostly a Democratic state. It has two Democratic senators, though Lieberman, triumphant over Lamont in November, calls himself an Independent Democrat. Four of its five congressmen are Democrats and Christopher Shays, the last remaining Republican House member from New England, barely held onto his seat in 2006. Democrats have 2–1 margins in the legislature. It has not elected a Democratic governor since 1986, but Lowell Weicker, a former Republican elected as an Independent in 1990, pushed through a state income tax and Jodi Rell, the popular incumbent who succeeded the disgraced Rowland, has proposed a major tax increase.

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