From Gruesome Tragedy Emerges a New Life in Politics
Posted March 3, 2018 12:01 a.m. EST
PLAINVILLE, Conn. — When William A. Petit Jr. was campaigning door to door here for a seat in the state Legislature, he did not have to worry about getting residents to remember his name. They knew it.
The candidate, once a successful physician who hailed from a prominent family in this Hartford suburb of 17,000, had survived an unimaginable tragedy: Nearly 10 years earlier, his wife and two daughters were brutally murdered during an hourslong home invasion, leaving him beaten and broken.
“People would say they were sorry for what happened to him and he would say, ‘Thank you very much; I’m running for representative,'” recalled Deborah Tompkins, a Plainville councilwoman who knocked on doors with Petit, a Republican, in fall 2016. “He is a very smooth deflector.”
For Petit, it was a long, painful road from the aftermath of one of the most shocking crimes in Connecticut’s history to a seat in the state’s House of Representatives. In between were years of therapy; the formation of a foundation to honor his slain family’s legacy; two murder trials (one for each assailant); and his unsuccessful effort to block the state’s repeal of the death penalty, a move that led to the resentencing of the convicted killers to life without parole.
But as the 10th anniversary of the killings came and went in July, Petit, 60, was no longer defined by tragedy.
With the blessing of his late wife’s family, he remarried in 2012. His wife, Christine Paluf, is a photographer who had volunteered for the Petit Family Foundation. The couple have a young son, also named William. The foundation has raised more than $2.2 million to address chronic illness and violence and to encourage women in the sciences. (Before her death, his 17-year-old daughter, Hayley, was headed to Dartmouth, his alma mater, and planned to be a doctor.) Petit gave up his diabetes practice immediately after the killings to focus on the foundation. But he has deployed his medical expertise in the Legislature, where he serves on the public health committee. At a recent “pizza and politics” event for constituents, he sounded as much the doctor as the politician when asked about legalizing marijuana.
“At the moment, given the data, it’s hard for me to be in favor of it,” he said. “There’s good data that shows that when younger people, and even adults, use marijuana on a regular basis, there are long-lasting impacts on IQ, decision making and executive function.”
Quiet and low-key, Petit is not the first victim of a horrific tragedy to enter politics in the New York region. In the 1990s, Carolyn McCarthy won a seat in Congress after her husband was among six passengers killed when a mentally ill man opened fire on a Long Island commuter train. McCarthy became a tenacious advocate for gun control in Congress.
Petit declined to be interviewed for this article; his office said Petit wanted “to decrease his personal publicity, choosing instead to focus on his family and legislative work.”
Friends and colleagues said it made sense that Petit would seek a life in public service, pointing to his family’s long-standing involvement in politics in Plainville, where he grew up. “I’m not surprised that he entered politics at all,” said Tompkins, noting that both Petit’s father and sister served on the Town Council. “The Petit family is a big deal in Plainville.”
Every year since the home invasion, Bob Heslin, a former high school classmate of Petit’s, and Heslin’s brother, Gary, have organized a road race to benefit the foundation. In the early years turnout was especially large, and Petit found himself speaking to crowds of up to 3,000 people. As Bob Heslin sees it, Petit needed a new calling; politics was a natural outgrowth of his foundation work and criminal-justice advocacy.
“He was very successful as a doctor and at the top of his game, but after the tragedy he didn’t feel comfortable getting back into that for his own reasons,” Heslin said. “Possibly he couldn’t sit there and give full attention to his patients anymore. Through the court process, I think he realized that he could be effective and have a positive influence on the politics here.”
Petit’s colleagues said that while the tragedy was certainly a factor in his public service, he has balanced his own history with broader objectives. He has backed legislation that would impose tougher penalties on career criminals but also pressed for fiscal restraint, joining a bipartisan effort to impose caps on state spending.
There was a time, according to interviews Petit has given, when he seemed doomed to endlessly replay his family’s suffering. He himself was beaten with a baseball bat and lost several pints of blood, managing to escape moments before the house went up in flames. In the early months of the foundation’s existence, Petit struggled to make it through meetings without crying. He attended every day of each of the two trials, fighting off nausea as he neared the courthouse. He considered suicide.
A former neighbor in Cheshire, Bob Picozzi, remembers emailing Petit at Christmas, five months after the attack. “He said, ‘I am putting on my best face, but I wish we could just cancel it this year,'” he said.
In an interview with The Hartford Courant last summer, Petit credited his gradual healing to family and friends. “If you suffered a significant loss, significant injury — psychological, physical — it’s tough,” he said. “I certainly wasn’t jumping out of bed in 2007 and 2008. I had a vast circle of support, and I realize that a lot of people don’t have the support that I had.”
Petit considered running for Congress in 2014 but chose to spend more time with his new wife and baby, friends said. In early 2016, Helen Bergenty, then the Plainville town Republican chairwoman, telephoned him in Florida where he was vacationing to urge him to run for the Legislature. “I said, ‘You need to get some experience in Hartford before you run for governor,'” Bergenty recalled.
During the campaign against Betty Boukus, an 11-term Democrat, Petit did his best to focus on the issues. Right before the election, however, a labor-financed political action committee unveiled an advertisement trying to tie Petit to Donald Trump’s “attack on women and families.” Amid denunciations from Republicans and Democrats, the union official behind the ad resigned.
In his first year in office, Petit has attended Polish festivals — his sliver of the town of New Britain is heavily Polish — and learned the intricacies of bill-making. But Bergenty has not forgotten the governorship, especially in a year when the incumbent, Dannel P. Malloy, has decided not to seek re-election.
“He would be a terrific governor,” she said of Petit. “But he’s not ready. He would have to campaign all over the state, and it’s very time-consuming.”
Whatever Petit’s future holds, neighbors and constituents say they are heartened by his transformation. “People are very happy for him, especially anybody who saw him after what happened,” Tompkins, the Plainville councilwoman, said. “That he actually came back to life was such a good thing.”