From Gruesome Tragedy Emerges a New Life in Politics

William A. Petit Jr., a representative in Connecticut’s legislature, managed to emerge from one of the most shocking crimes in the state’s history.

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 already 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 Mr. Petit, a Republican, in the fall of 2016. “He is a very smooth deflector.”

For Mr. 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 last July, Mr. 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.)

Mr. 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.

Mr. Petit, who remarried in 2012 with the blessing of his late wife’s family, brought his son, William Petit III, to the legislature’s opening session last month. Jessica Hill/Associated Press

“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 I.Q., decision making and executive function.”

Quiet and low-key, Mr. Petit is not the first victim of a horrific tragedy to enter politics in the New York region. In…

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