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Lowell Weicker, Connecticut governor and U.S. senator, dies at 92

In 1973, during the Senate Watergate hearings, Committee Chairman Sam Ervin, right, confers with some of his committee and staff members including, from left to right, Sens. Howard Baker, R-Tenn., and Lowell Weicker, R-Conn., assistant counsel Terry Lenzer, and assistant counsel Rufus Edmisten.
Bettmann Archive
Lowell Weicker, second from left, in 1973, during the Senate Watergate hearings, confers with Committee Chairman Sam Ervin, right, and some of his committee and staff members including, from left to right, Sens. Howard Baker, R-Tenn., assistant counsel Terry Lenzer, and assistant counsel Rufus Edmisten.

Lowell P. Weicker Jr., who swaggered through three terms as Connecticut’s last Republican senator, challenging Richard Nixon over Watergate and the GOP’s rightward shift under Ronald Reagan, then willed the state’s income tax into existence in a second act as a third-party governor, died Wednesday. He was 92.

His death at Middlesex Hospital was announced by his family.

Weicker left elective office in January 1995 as Connecticut’s 85th governor, capstone to a career dominated by two decades in Washington, where he emerged as a fierce defender of abortion rights, the separation of church and state, and funding for social services, oceanic exploration, and AIDS research.

His legacy includes co-authoring the Americans with Disabilities Act, introduced in his final year in the U.S. Senate and passed 18 months after his departure, and striking an exclusivity deal as governor that allowed two tribal casinos to flourish while effectively banning commercial competitors.

But it was breaking his generation’s ultimate political taboo by ending Connecticut’s status as a state without a tax on wages that indelibly defined his time as governor, cemented his reputation as a maverick, and made him the target of the largest protest ever staged on the grounds of the state Capitol in Hartford.

Standing six-foot-six and possessing a booming voice, Weicker rarely doubted the correctness of his actions or ability to defend them. But he failed famously, even dangerously, on the autumn day in 1991 that he tried to engage the anti-tax protestors who came to Hartford to hang him in effigy and aim a mock cannon at the Capitol.

Weicker waded into a gathering crowd that would number at least 40,000, only to be pelted by soft drinks, spittle and insults, then was hustled to safety by an overwhelmed security detail. His friend Howard H. Baker Jr., the former Senate GOP leader, later marveled, “That’s the only man I ever met who would strike a match to look into a gas tank.”

Weicker could be a canny lawmaker working across the aisle during one term in the U.S. House and three in the U.S. Senate. The father of a child with Down Syndrome, he was passionate in working with a broad coalition to craft the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1988 and continue to fight for passage after losing reelection the same year.

“We have created monoliths of isolated care in institutions and in segregated educational settings,” Weicker said in testimony before a Senate committee in 1989. “It is that isolation and segregation that has become the basis of discrimination faced by many disabled people today. Separate is not equal. It wasn’t for Blacks. It isn’t for the disabled.”

But his public persona more often was that of a noisy brawler, unapologetically drawn to conflict and drama. If he could not have been a senator and a governor, Weicker once told a New York Times writer, he would have chosen life as an opera star.

“What could be better than to sing such wonderful solos?” he said.

His reputation was forged in the crucible of Watergate. He served with Baker on the select Senate committee that held televised hearings exposing Richard Nixon’s abuse of power, pre-empting afternoon soap operas with a more compelling drama. Then a first-term senator, Weicker was the first Republican on the panel to call for the president’s resignation.

It was one of many acts of independence that would bring accolades from outside the GOP and enemies from within. The latter accumulated.

Weicker famously fought with conservative William F. Buckley Jr., the Connecticut patrician who was three years ahead of him at Yale. They disagreed politically, but Weicker viewed the feud with his fellow Republican as deeply personal, a consequence of his refusal to support Buckley’s brother, James, in a U.S. Senate race in 1980 and then objecting to his nomination to a federal appeals court in 1985.

Buckley called Weicker disloyal and arrogant.

”His pomposity and tergiversations on every issue make his running as a Republican an anomaly we ought to correct,’’ Buckley said in 1988, when he organized a political action committee opposing Weicker’s reelection to the Senate. “Tergiversations” was an insult with two definitions: desertion of a party or cause, and a tendency towards equivocation.

On the first charge, Weicker insisted he was deserted by the party whose ideological and geographical center moved away from the fiscal conservatism and social progressivism of northeast Republicans. On the second, Weicker displayed few tendencies towards equivocation.

As governor, Weicker denounced a brash New York developer and casino owner named Donald J. Trump. The future president questioned Connecticut’s exclusive casino deal with the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribal nations, saying they did not look like Indians to him. Weicker called Trump “a racist” and “a dirt bag.”

Weicker apologized for calling him a dirt bag.

When it became clear that Trump would win the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, Weicker wrote a mournful piece for The Hartford Courant.

“When Republicans convene in Cleveland this summer and bestow upon Donald Trump the nomination to be the party’s standard-bearer, they will complete their slow and steady descent into irrelevance,” he wrote. “The party of Lincoln, once governed by ideals and principles that reflected prudent financial governance and social conscience, is no more.”

Weicker left Washington as a defender of the disadvantaged, an ally of the Senate’s liberal lion, Ted Kennedy, and a protester of apartheid arrested outside the South African embassy. Weicker was a guest at the inauguration of Nelson Mandela, a political prisoner for 27 years, as that nation’s first Black head of state in 1994.

But as a freshman congressman elected in 1968, Weicker supported prayer in public schools and an assault on judicial independence — a call for the House of Representatives to impeach William O. Douglas, the liberal justice Weicker later would admire and call, “in retrospect, one of the best.”

Weicker resisted introspection about his political evolution.

“Looking back, some of my actions there seem to be those of a different person, not the Lowell Weicker of today,” he wrote in “Maverick,” a memoir published after leaving office in 1995. “On occasion, I have been asked to reconcile these actions with my subsequent political record. My explanation is that I matured and changed. It’s as simple as that.”

Lowell Palmer Weicker Jr. was born in Paris and raised in privilege on Park Avenue in Manhattan and at Oyster Bay on Long Island. One grandfather was a co-founder of the pharmaceutical company, E.R. Squibb, the other a British general who served in India, where Weicker’s mother was born.

He followed his father’s footsteps through prep school at Lawrenceville and college at Yale, and both men had three marriages. But while the father went into the family business, the son gravitated to the unfamiliar worlds of law and politics.

“My father was a Republican, but only in a casual sense,” Weicker wrote. Hinting at a complicated father-son relationship, he said his father thought “politics was no place for anyone, including his son. It wasn’t until I was elected to the U.S. Senate that he finally accepted and was proud of my achievements.”

His memoir revealed a lingering resentment of business elites, his father included, who looked down on politics and its practitioners.

“One thing I do know from observing my own father and many like him since: Most American businessmen, though brilliant in their own chosen fields, don’t know their ass from first base about politics,” Weicker wrote. “They think it is a corrupt business, which it is not. They think us stupid, which we are not.”

Weicker said he was tired of members of the House and Senate “being caricatured as feckless, corrupt baboons. There are very intelligent men and women, and almost all are honest and hardworking. At one time or another, Democrats and Republicans have tried to knock my block off, and I love, respect, and thank them all.”

Weicker graduated from Yale in 1953 and the University of Virginia School of Law in 1958. In between, he served two years in the U.S. Army as an artillery officer and married Marie Louise “Bunny” Godfrey. She never moved to Washington, raising their three children on a 12-acre estate in Greenwich.

They divorced in 1977, though she was remembered fondly in his memoir. His second marriage to Camille Butler, his former appointments secretary, lasted a tempestuous six years, and the union went unremarked in Weicker’s book.

He married his third wife, Claudia Testa Ingram, a former chief of staff to the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health, human services and education, a week before Christmas in 1984. She would become his partner in private and public life, a woman with a deep understanding of policy and politics and a knack for smoothing what Weicker ruffled.

In addition to his wife, Weicker is survived by three sons from his first marriage, Scott, Brian and Gray, two from his second, Sonny and Tre, and two stepsons, Andrew and Mason.

The dominance and diminishment of Connecticut Republicans can be tracked in Weicker’s biography. Weicker began his political career in Greenwich, a redoubt of a once-dominant strain of northeast Republicans. He was elected state representative in 1962 and first selectman in 1963, holding both offices for a time.

Weicker arrived at the General Assembly with Connecticut on the cusp of a dramatic political shift. The U.S. Supreme Court’s “one-man, one-vote” decision in 1964 would end a century of Republican dominance in the state House of Representatives by requiring that legislative districts be apportioned equally by population, not towns.

In Weicker’s first term in Hartford, Republicans outnumbered Democrats in the House, 183-111. With two seats, Hartford had just one more representative than tiny Hartland, even though Hartford’s representatives each were elected with about 37,000 votes to the 300 cast for Hartland’s.

Democrats won a 117-60 majority in a down-sized House in 1966 after the districts were redrawn. Greenwich would remain reliably Republican until Trump’s presidency, but it was Weicker’s last term as a state lawmaker.

His ambitions had shifted to Washington.

In 1968, Weicker unseated Donald J. Irwin, a three-term Democrat, in the 4th Congressional District of lower Fairfield County. He ran to the left of Irwin on the issue of Vietnam. Despite Weicker’s anti-war stance, he was endorsed by Nixon.

For the first time, his constituency stretched beyond the comfortable confines of Greenwich.

“When we start in politics, if we’re going to be successful, we’re going to mature in politics. I started out, as first selectman of the town of Greenwich, as a very conservative Republican, and even when I was in the state legislature, I might have moderated a little bit, due to my interaction with representatives from the other towns and cities of the state,” Weicker said in an oral history recorded in 2009.

“But when I became a congressman and all of a sudden I was no longer representing just Greenwich, I was representing Bridgeport, I was interacting with a different set of circumstances,” he said. “That’s going to be the critical point as to whether you mature in terms of your constituency or whether you’re going to be an ideologue.”

A fortunate son’s gamble

Weicker ran for U.S. Senate in 1970, encouraged by Thomas J. Meskill, a conservative Republican congressman who opted to run for governor rather than the Senate, as many had expected. Weicker said he agonized over giving up a recently acquired congressional seat for an uncertain statewide race.

“I finally came to the conclusion that I had been fortunate in having a life in which many things were given to me on a silver platter. If there was anyone who could afford to roll the dice, it was me,” Weicker wrote in his memoir. “I went back to Meskill and said that if he was crazy enough to run for governor, I supposed I had the guts to run for the Senate.”

He and Meskill prevailed. Weicker defeated a liberal anti-war Democrat, Joe Duffey, helped by a divided Democratic Party. The Democratic incumbent, Thomas J. Dodd, reconsidered his retirement and ran as an independent, splitting the Democratic base. Weicker won with 41.7% of the vote.

The Senate Republican caucus that welcomed him in 1971 was ideologically diverse, including liberals like Edward Brooke of Massachusetts and Jacob Javits of New York, who supported Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, who had urged fellow Republicans to resist McCarthyism in 1950 and defended every American’s “right to hold unpopular beliefs,” was in her final term.

Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire each were represented in the Senate by one Republican and one Democrat. Today, only one of the 12 New England senators, Susan Collins of Maine, is a Republican.

Weicker’s role model quickly became Javits. But his mentor lost a Republican primary to conservative Al D’Amato in 1980, a harbinger of difficulties to come for Weicker, whose loyalties were questioned during Watergate.

In a speech during the Watergate hearings on June 28, 1973, Weicker accused the Nixon administration of circulating rumors he was going to become a Democrat. Weicker said he and others exemplified Republican values, not the president who countenanced dirty tricks, domestic spying and kept an enemies list.

“Let me make it clear, because I have got to have my partisan moment, Republicans do not cover up; Republicans do not go ahead and threaten; Republicans do not go ahead and commit illegal acts; and God knows Republicans don’t view their fellow Americans as enemies to be harassed,” Weicker said. “But rather, I can assure you, this Republican and those I serve with, look upon all Americans as human beings to be loved and won.”

Weicker was applauded in the hearing room and again as he entered a restaurant that night.

“It was a heady feeling,” he recalled in his memoir.

In 1978, Weicker was one of 16 Republicans who joined 52 Democrats to ratify a controversial treaty that returned control of the Panama Canal to Panama, giving President Jimmy Carter the two-thirds necessary for passage. He was a candidate for president for two months in 1979 as the self-described “longest shot in the field.”

Weicker grew isolated after Javits’ defeat and Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. In 1981, Weicker was the only Republican senator to vote against Reagan’s first budget, a marker in what would become an escalating battle against a popular Republican president’s fiscal and social agenda.

Beginning in 1982, he led the successful opposition to Reagan’s push for a constitutional amendment allowing organized prayer in public schools, a threat in Weicker’s eyes to the separation of church and state. Weicker was unmoved by polling that showed the proposed amendment was popular.

“My answer to that is very simple. Eighty percent of the nation supported racial discrimination at one time, 80 percent of the nation went ahead and discriminated against the retarded and disabled at one time,” Weicker wrote. “Shall we have followed 80 percent of the nation in what it felt on either of those issues?”

Isolation as the GOP veers right

It seemed Weicker might pay a steep price for his independent streak in 1982.

Prescott S. Bush Jr., the older brother of Vice President George H.W. Bush, challenged Weicker for the Senate nomination, laying bare the widening schism in the party. In a nominating speech for Bush, Hartford Councilman John O’Connell called Weicker a politician of “confrontation and obstruction” and a man “who will tolerate no opinion other than his own.”

Weicker’s allies cast the challenge in broader terms.

“Make no mistake about it, this is more than a Republican convention — it is a Republican trial, an inquisition,” said Roger Eddy, the party’s treasurer. “A few angry people have defined Republicanism in their own narrow, intolerant image, and whoever does not accept their definition as Republican gospel will, if they have their way, be burned at the political stake.”

With 35% of the convention vote, Bush easily surpassed the 20% then necessary for a primary. But Bush soon quit the race, a relief to some in the Reagan White House. They found Weicker troublesome, but a stronger match for the Democratic nominee, liberal Congressman Toby Moffett.

“Weicker may be an insufferable ass, but a worse day would be to elevate a cynosure of liberal activist youth of the 1960s and 1970s,” wrote Chase Untermeyer, an aide to the vice president. With wins in Connecticut, Vermont, Minnesota and California, the GOP won a 54-46 majority.

Weicker’s one electoral defeat came in 1988, when Democrat Joseph I. Lieberman ran to Weicker’s right, denying him a fourth term in the Senate. Weicker’s status with the Republican base had become clear at a rally at Fairfield University headlined by Vice President George Bush, the presidential nominee.

When Bush introduced him, the crowd roared with boos — leaving no doubt about the Connecticut senior senator’s standing in the Grand Old Party.

Bush carried Connecticut, the last time a Republican nominee for president did so. Weicker lost with 49% of the vote.

“One of the reasons I was defeated in ’88 was that I’d gone to the mat too many times on controversial issues without explaining to my constituents what it was all about,” Weicker wrote. “Now, some of those issues you never really can explain. You can explain them one on one, but you can’t explain them to the body politic.”

No Republican has been elected to the Senate from Connecticut since Weicker’s win in 1982, despite Linda McMahon spending $50 million on each of two races for open seats in 2010 and again in 2012, when Chris Dodd and then Lieberman retired. The last of the Republican-held congressional seats was the one once held by Weicker. It fell in 2008 with the defeat of Chris Shays.

Weicker’s Senate loss set the stage for a tumultuous encore, a comeback as an independent governor in 1990.

Weicker defeated two congressmen: Republican John G. Rowland of Waterbury, who had been elected to Congress on Reagan’s coattails in 1984 at age 27; and Democrat Bruce Morrison of New Haven, who captured his seat in 1982, knocking off Lawrence J. Denardis, one of the moderate Republican “gypsy moths” who fought Reagan’s budget cuts.

Rowland had erased most of Weicker’s lead in the polls with a commercial warning that Weicker would bring an income tax to Connecticut. In the final two weeks, Weicker pushed back hard with his own TV spot.

“I’m Lowell Weicker with a message for John Rowland,” Weicker said. “Don’t speak for me, John Rowland. Stop distorting facts and scaring people with misquotes and half-truths. Long before your negative ads, I was opposed to a state income tax. The people of Connecticut and I know it would be like pouring gasoline on the fires of recession. And nobody’s for that.”

Weicker won with 40% of the vote, similar to his first Senate win.

Pouring gasoline on the fire

Upon taking office, Weicker faced the biggest projected deficit in the nation, as measured as a proportion of the state budget.

Connecticut had steep taxes on interest, dividends and capital gains, as well as one of the nation’s highest sales taxes and corporate taxes. Weicker, who would insist he explored every other option, proposed a tax overhaul.

He proposed a tax on all personal income at a rate of 6% on adjusted gross income in excess of $25,000 for joint filers and $12,500 for single filers. As a sweetener, he would cut the sales tax by half, from 8% to 4%, while expanding the list of taxable items, and eliminate a 20% surcharge on the corporate tax. Treated as ordinary income, the taxes on interest, dividends and capital gains would be cut significantly.

Voters saw his proposal as reneging on an anti-income tax pledge, a flip-flop of epic proportions. Weicker demurred.

“I never made any damn pledge,” Weicker said later, emphasizing the letter over the spirit of his closing anti-tax commercial. “But even if I had, I would have broken it.”

Weicker vetoed three budgets that he denounced as fraudulent, packed with gimmicks and hidden deficits. One was so pitiful, he said then, lawmakers should “pour it back into the horse.”

Finally, the Senate acceded to him at 3 a.m. on Aug. 22, 1991, voting 18-18 for a revised version that imposed a 4.5% income tax and cut the sales tax by a one-fourth, from 8% to 6%, and the corporate tax from 13.8% to 10.5%. One of the two Republican senators who voted for the plan represented Greenwich, where the tax on wages was offset by the sharply reduced taxes on investment income.

Lt. Gov. Eunice S. Groark broke the tie. Passage failed in the House, then carried on reconsideration by day’s end. The fight didn’t end until December, when opponents gathered sufficient votes for a repeal bill that Weicker vetoed within 30 minutes of passage, chiding lawmakers for a “full-scale surrender to fiscal gimmicks and political fantasies.”

In a speech at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., Weicker also lectured his unhappy electorate, faulting them for as being asleep during decades of mismanagement.

“I was elected governor and inherited a trash of constituent neglect — a $3 billion deficit — the highest proportionate deficit in the nation,” Weicker said. “The people of Connecticut had demanded high-quality services at below-cost prices. When presented with the bill in the form of $1 billion in service cuts and a first-ever state income tax, 40,000 mobbed the Capitol to protest and demand repeal. These Rip Van Winkles had gotten the wake-up call of their life.”

Not surprisingly, the speech played poorly in Connecticut, where everyone was wide awake and in no mood to be lectured. As writer Michael Spector opined in a richly detailed New York Times profile, the speech was a classic piece of Weicker performance art — “compelling, persuasive and condescending.”

Weicker didn’t care then, and he would chide the electorate again in his memoir.

“The problem of the past few decades is that the citizenry has become preoccupied with itself, selfish,” Weicker wrote. “That is the massive corruption of our times, not some isolated political hack with a hand in the cookie jar.”

He fared better with audiences outside Connecticut.

On May 29, 1992, Weicker became the third recipient of the Profiles in Courage Award bestowed by the JFK Library. At the ceremony, Sen. Ted Kennedy said, “Perhaps no public figure of our time has been so vilified for a stand on principle as Gov. Lowell Weicker. He showed great political courage in taking that stand, and great personal courage in seeing the battle through.”

Weicker used the award as an opportunity to urge others to follow in public office.

“Now admittedly not only office holders display spine, but I want to say to young America out there that in terms of the volume of opportunity there is no better profession in the world,” Weicker said. “It’s the business of our democracy, if only enough people will do it.”

Kennedy expressed optimism about how Weicker would be remembered.

“It is impossible to tell what the future holds for Lowell Weicker. The seas seem calmer now,” Kennedy said, speculating “that the ground has moved, and that a political stand for the state income tax today is not necessarily political suicide. If so, it is because our guest of honor saw the right, and helped the people of his state to see it, too.”

Weicker declined to test Kennedy’s thesis. He did not seek a second term.

Belated thanks for fighting AIDS

Weicker retired to an antique house in the center of Old Lyme, a picturesque community at the mouth of the Connecticut River, with his wife, Claudia. He attended the 2019 inaugural of Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat from Greenwich whom he admired for challenging Lieberman for U.S. Senate in 2006.

When asked during gubernatorial debates in 2018 and 2022 to name Connecticut’s best governor of recent decades, Lamont twice chose Weicker.

When pressed off stage for his rationale in 2022, Lamont paused, then said, “Weicker’s got big cojones.” It was a salty answer, one more likely to come from Weicker than the more reserved Lamont.

Weicker was honored in 2015 by the National Institutes of Health for protecting its budget during the Reagan years and funding clinical trials of AZT, the first effective drug for the treatment of HIV. NIH named a building in his honor.

The NIH noted that while Weicker was chairman of the Senate subcommittee with responsibility for the agency’s budget, AIDS funding grew from $61 million in 1984 to $925 million in 1988.

Weicker remained proud of playing that role, but he was less sanguine about the legacy of Watergate. In a video for the Richard Nixon Presidential Library posted online in 2012, Weicker said America seemed to retain little of what he saw as a prime lesson of the scandal: the U.S. Constitution provides a necessary check on unfettered executive power.

“Do I think we taught a lesson with Watergate? No, I don’t — sort of a negative point of view,” Weicker said, shrugging. “I think we’ve forgotten a lot of those lessons in the sense of the Constitution.”

At his home in Old Lyme, Weicker received visitors in a study that held an eclectic array of political and sports memorabilia, as well as his collection of letters from artists such as George Gershwin. A baseball autographed by Hank Aaron sat on a shelf. A favorite photograph showed him on a visit to Cuba, where he swam in the ocean and talked oceanography with Fidel Castro.

On the wall was a photo of him with Reagan and a note from Barack Obama thanking him for an endorsement in 2008. His collection of letters included an exchange with Reagan in which Weicker said he prayed for the president’s health, though in church, not school. Regan replied that he was heartened to hear Weicker went to church.

Weicker was 62 when he journeyed back to Greenwich Town Hall in the autumn of 1993 to announce he would not seek a second term as governor, ending a political career that had consumed exactly half his life at that point. He was unusually reflective that day as he talked about life outside the spotlight, musing about finally “growing up.”

“Maybe as you get older you sort of focus in on that and understand that, you know, you don’t have all that much time left to go ahead and make sure you enjoy the greatest joys of life, which are your kids,” Weicker said. ”So I think that’s what it is. It’s just a matter of growing up.”

Often prickly at suggestions he was backing down from any fight, Weicker only smiled when asked if he was walking away from a job unfinished.

That is the nature of elective office, he said. “There always is something to do. There’s always a job to be finished,” Weicker said. “I could work a lifetime, and the job would never be finished."

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