By TAYLOR HARTZ
Political rivalries weren’t lost on the Crocodile Club dinner this year, when City of Bristol Mayor Ken Cockayne joked that the sun would be shining if the luncheon were held on the Bristol side of Lake Compounce.
In its 134th year, the Crocodile Club brought politicians from across party lines together last Friday, withstanding a heavy rainstorm, during the first meeting outside the park’s ballroom.
Sponsored by the Carousel Museum, the outdoor event hosted local and state politicians for a pavilion picnic, where attendees were encouraged to put aside their political differences. U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) State Sen. Henri Martin (R-Conn.) Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman (D-Conn.) and GOP Chairman JR Romano were joined by hosts Ken Cockayne (R), and Southington Town Council Chairman Mike Riccio (R) for an afternoon of friendly banter.
Begun in 1875, the annual Crocodile Club dinner bars any serious political talk. The event offers politicians who are often polarized in political settings to put aside their differences, poke fun at one another, and socialize in a more relaxed setting.
“Its not often that you can joke with the other side of the aisle and poke fun,” said Riccio, “Its fun to get our neighbors here. In Southington we’re big in tradition about inviting our neighbors. I think this is great.”
The club was established by Gad Norton, founder of Lake Compounce, who convinced legislatures to adjust town lines between Bristol and Southington so that he could trade and vote in Bristol—and cut down on horse and buggy travel time.
To thank his colleagues in the state legislature for making him a Bristol resident, Norton held a dinner where he served the now traditional fare of lamb, corn on the cob, watermelon, beer, and cigars to politicians from both parties.
The policy of no serious political conversation was dictated in the group’s establishment by Norton, who discouraged any talk of policy and limited speeches to three minutes.
For more than a century, the event has continued to allow politicians representing Bristol, Southington and the state “a chance to reach your hands across the aisle,” said John Norton, a relative of the original host.
Accompanied by his mother, Carolyn Norton, and sister, Julie Norton, John reminisced on decades spent shucking corn and sealing envelopes to keep alive the tradition that has passed through generations.
“It was always a tradition for Norton wives,” said 88-year-old Carolyn, widow of former Bristol mayor Harwood “Stretch” Norton, who worked as the event’s bookkeeper and has attended nearly 50 Crocodile Club dinners.
A former employee at the state capitol, Norton sat in the front row at the dinner as guests greeted her, and said that seeing old friends was the best part of the tradition.
“The Norton family really is the reason we’re here,” said Sen. Blumenthal, a frequent attendee of the dinner.
Blumenthal said he hopes he can bring the ideals embodied by the non-partisan Crocodile Club back to Washington.
“What the crocodile club means to me is the spirit of bipartisanship,” he said. “I hope we can revive and revitalize that spirit.”
In the crowded pavilion, attendees put aside their left and right preferences and huddled together amidst the down pour, laughing in unison as politicians attempted to roast one another and crack jokes on national issues and upcoming elections.
“You come here, and you’re more relaxed than at other venues that you go to,” said Sen. Martin.
Though the speeches were shorter and fewer than in years passed, the Norton family is glad to see the tradition continue, and said they will continue to keep the annual event a part of the Bristol and Southington communities.
“The traditions are part of what makes Connecticut great,” said Ray Dunaway, President of the club. “It’s wonderful to keep this tradition alive.”
Photos by TAYLOR HARTZ, TAMMI NAUDUS, and SUBMITTED (Historical Photos)