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Schneller's distinctive career

Published February 08. 2013 4:00AM

State Sen. Richard Schneller did something that few politicians ever do when in 1984 he stepped aside from a position of power and abandoned what appeared to be a bright political future. Then again, Sen. Schneller was not your typical politician and his contemporaries recall that the desire to promote smart public policy was his driving force, not self-aggrandizement.

Mr. Schneller died Tuesday at age 90 at his home in Palm Desert, Calif.

When Mr. Schneller, a Democrat, first ran in 1974 for state Senate in the 20th District - which then as it does now included New London, Waterford, East Lyme and other surrounding communities - he was looking for a new challenge. Yale educated and a retired Navy lieutenant, Mr. Schneller had built and subsequently sold a successful lighting manufacturing firm.

Once elected, contemporaries recall that his serious personality and intellect made him appear aloof in a realm populated by affable, back-slapping politicians often more interested in cutting deals than digging deep into the nuances of public policy. In later interviews, Mr. Schneller admitted that going from leading a business, where he gave the orders, to working in a legislative body where it was necessary to build a consensus for his ideas, took some getting used to.

In time his ability to make that adjustment, while maintaining his high sense of professionalism, made him very successful, and in 1981 his colleagues elected him as the Senate majority leader. His chief legislative achievement was playing a pivotal role in the enactment of the Guaranteed Tax Base (GTB), a precursor to the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) formula. GTB for the first time attempted to assure that the state distributed education money fairly among cities and towns.

A man before his time, he repeatedly pushed for a state income tax, arguing it was fairer and necessary to stabilize state finances, but he was never able to get sufficient backing. The legislature would approve the income tax under Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. in 1991 after Mr. Schneller left office.

One lesson from business he said he never forgot was customer service.

"To me constituents were customers," Mr. Schneller once told a reporter. "And customers are there to be serviced. And if you don't service them, they'll go somewhere else."

In his district, and in an age before e-mail, he was known for returning every phone call, answering every letter and taking constituent concerns with great seriousness. His served his district well.

At a time when many were speculating that he would make a strong gubernatorial candidate, a possibility Mr. Schneller would not rule out, he shook Connecticut politics by announcing on his 62nd birthday in 1984 that he would not seek a sixth term. It was time for a new chapter, said Mr. Schneller, and he planned to spend more time with family.

In 1986 he served as campaign coordinator for Gov. William A. O'Neill's re-election and in 1987 Gov. O'Neill appointed him to head the investigation into the collapse of the L'Ambiance Plaza that killed 28 construction workers. The investigation led to major changes in building rules in Connecticut and nationally.

Though out of the limelight for many years, the state and this community should not forget Mr. Schneller's many contributions. Funeral Services will be held Sunday at 2 p.m. at Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek in Chester.

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