By ANNE M. HAMILTON, Special to The Courant, The Hartford Courant
Gail Hamm was a lawyer, legislator and advocate whose mission was to improve the lives of children. From a young age, she loved debate and negotiation, skills that served her well in her law practice and in the Connecticut House of Representatives, where she served seven terms.
Hamm, 62, lived in East Hampton, where she died of cancer on Oct. 24.
She was born on Aug. 19, 1951, in Hillsdale, Mich., to Norma and Denver Hamm. Her father, a truck driver, died when she was very young, leaving her mother, a teacher, to raise their four children.
t Hillsdale High School, Hamm was in the center of everything: student government, athletics, editor of the school newspaper, on the debate team and the Homecoming Court.
Her politics were shaped early: Her mother was active in the teachers union, and spoke frequently about the important role that unions played.
Norma Hamm also conveyed a message to her children — make a difference — recalled Julie Hamm, the youngest of the Hamm children.
Gail’s idol was former U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, whose activities sensitized her to the issues of poverty and civil rights. “He set her on a path,” Julie said.
After high school, Hamm attended Western Michigan University, and worked part-time at W.T. Grant’s, where a co-worker, Alan Hurst, was also the owner of a bookstore. Their first date was a breakfast, where he invited her to discuss the Pentagon Papers, which the Washington Post and New York Times had published against the government’s wishes. Six weeks later, she and Hurst were engaged.
After graduating from college in 1973, she went to work for the (ultimately unsuccessful) gubernatorial campaign of Sander Levin and also ran in a primary for state representative in Michigan.
Hamm and Hurst married in 1975, while she was a student at Valparaiso Law School in Indiana and he was earning an accounting degree at Indiana University. While in law school, she was on the local Democratic town committee, and after graduation, she clerked for a juvenile court judge.
In 1978, the couple moved to Connecticut and Hamm worked for a law firm and became an aide to former state Rep. John Mannix of Wilton. Hamm wrote a position paper for him on the welfare system that was published in the New York Times. She also was a co-founder and board member of a non-profit organization called Women in Crisis in Norwalk.
In 1986, she became the legislative liaison between the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women and the General Assembly, where she repeatedly tried to persuade the Judiciary Committee to adopt child and family-friendly laws, including what became the country’s first Family and Medical Leave Act.
It was a mostly male group, the “old school politicos,” said Michael Lawlor, a former member and chairman of the committee. “They gave her a really hard time, but she was very feisty and determined. She was a very passionate and effective lobbyist.”
“She was smart and passionate, and did not cower,” said Gail Russo, the president of the commission’s board at that time. “She just made her case.”
Hamm pushed for a broad array of bills that would balance work and family for women, many of which were adopted.
“Today, the issues seem like common sense, but back then it was a heavy lift,” said Lawlor, who is now the state undersecretary for Criminal Justice Policy and Planning. “She was part of the crew that changed the ship.”
Hamm was elected to the East Hampton Board of Education in 1991 and served as chairwoman for three years. She stepped down in 1998 when she was elected to the General Assembly, representing East Hampton and part of Middletown. Her work at the commission meant that she was already familiar with the legislative process, and knew many legislators. She also maintained a law practice with her partner, Sharon Friel, that concentrated on children and families until she retired for health reasons.
During her seven terms in the legislature, Hamm managed to achieve change in a variety of areas. Always responsive to her constituents, she proposed eliminating the sales tax on coffins after a resident complained of the cost. She sponsored a bill that created a statewide telephone hotline to give out information on water quality. With a focus on children, she co-sponsored legislation that required high powered electrical transmission lines to be buried if they were near schools or child care centers.
Her focus on children led to a change in the way 16- and 17-year-olds were treated by the courts and to the elimination of detention for children who committed non-delinquent acts, including truancy or the possession of alcohol.
“Hamm’s work helped advance Connecticut’s juvenile justice system and moved it from a punitive model to one that is more age-appropriate and more likely to prevent future delinquent behavior,” said Sharon Langer, the former interim director of Voices for Children, a Connecticut based advocacy group. “Hamm’s comprehensive plan to provide services to adolescent girl juvenile offenders played a crucial role in ensuring that Connecticut’s girls are treated fairly and effectively.”
In the legislature, Hamm played an important role in the Democratic caucus, said Rep. Joe Serra. “Gail was our mentor, and would explain what was wrong with our system and what we could do to make it better for our young juveniles,” he said. “She knew her stuff.”
Hamm was a member of the East Hampton Rotary Club, and with her husband spent a week in the west African country of Niger on a campaign to eliminate polio. Among her many awards, she was chosen as the Norwalk Woman of the Year by the Federation of Business and Professional Women in 1986; she was named Citizen of the Year by the East Hampton Village Lions Club; and she was honored by the Lions International Humanitarian Award Program for Eastern Connecticut.
In addition to her husband and sister Julie, Hamm is survived by a brother, Marc Hamm and a sister, Kim Hinson.
“She really cared about the issues people cared about: kids, families, issues within the town that weren’t politically great for her career,” said Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, who served in the legislature with Hamm. “I was very impressed by her work and her dedication.”