Former Connecticut Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., maverick senator during Watergate, dies at 92

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FILE - Sen. Lowell Weicker, R-Conn., tells a Senate subcommittee on April 8, 1974, in Washington, DC, that a secret task force to compile intelligence reports on President Nixon's political enemies was set up inside the Internal Revenue Service within months of Nixon becoming president. Weicker, a Republican U.S. senator who tussled with his own party during the Watergate hearings, championed legislation to protect people with disabilities and later was elected Connecticut governor as an independent, died Wednesday, June 28, 2023, at a hospital in Middletown, Conn., after a short illness. He was 92. (AP Photo/File)

HARTFORD, Conn. – Lowell P. Weicker Jr., a Republican U.S. senator who tussled with his own party during the Watergate hearings, championed legislation to protect people with disabilities and later was elected Connecticut governor as an independent, died Wednesday. He was 92.

Weicker's death at a hospital in Middletown, Conn., after a short illness, was confirmed by his family in a statement released by a spokesperson.

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With a 6-foot-6-inch frame and a shoot-from-the-hip style, Weicker was a leading figure in Connecticut politics from his first election to the General Assembly in 1962 until he decided against running for a second term as governor in 1994.

He inspired strong feelings among many people he met. In one poll, opinion was split over whether Weicker was “decisive and courageous,” or “inflexible and arrogant.”

“I think he was just incredibly genuine, a little unfiltered,” Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat who considered Weicker a friend, told the Associated Press in 2021. “And we sort of miss that in this day and age with the teleprompter.”

Elected in 1990 to his single term as governor, Weicker restructured Connecticut’s revenue system, shepherding in a new income tax despite vocal opposition. He also helped craft a compact with the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation which ultimately brought casino gambling to eastern Connecticut.

“He was a leader who constantly challenged the status quo. He didn't want to win any popularity contests,” said Republican state Sen. Ryan Fazio, who represents Greenwich, the town where Weicker once served as first selectman. Such independent mindedness was praised Wednesday by Republicans like Fazio as well as Democrats, who control state government and the state's congressional delegation.

“He did immense good for Connecticut and our country, and he did it his way," said Democratic U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal. Former Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy praised Weicker for being “tough and compassionate at the same time."

Nationally, Weicker’s political marquee burned brightest during the 1973 hearings of the Senate’s special committee on Watergate. One of three Republicans on the seven-member panel, the freshman senator was not afraid to criticize President Richard Nixon, his own party or the attempted cover-up.

In his 1995 autobiography “Maverick: A Life in Politics,” Weicker said he didn’t volunteer for a spot on the committee to be an “anti-Nixon man,” or a “tough prosecutor,” acknowledging that he supported Nixon politically and how Nixon campaigned for him in 1968 and 1970.

“More and more, events were making it clear that the Nixon White House was a cauldron of corruption,” Weicker wrote. “And even as disclosures kept coming, more and more national leaders were acting as though nothing especially unusual had happened.”

Barry Sussman, a former Washington Post editor who worked with Weicker on his autobiography, credited Weicker with taking the Watergate scandal more seriously than his Senate colleagues and for investigating whether Nixon underreported his income.

“None of the other Republican senators had any interest in doing any probing, period,” Sussman said. “That was basically true of the Democrats, too.”

Weicker was born in Paris in 1931, to Lowell P. Weicker Sr. — whose family founded the pharmaceutical giant E.R. Squibb and Sons — and the former Mary Bickford, a daughter of a prominent British family.

After college, law school and service in the Army, Weicker was elected to the Connecticut House of Representatives in 1962 and served three terms. His national political career began in 1968 with election to the U.S. House of Representatives. Two years later, he moved up to the U.S. Senate.

Besides serving on the Watergate committee, Weicker worked for passage of the War Powers Act. The father of a child with developmental disabilities, he sponsored the Protection and Advocacy for the Mentally Ill Act in 1985 and 1988 and introduced legislation that would later become the Americans with Disabilities Act.

But Weicker was at odds with the conservative wing of his party on social issues such as school prayer, busing and abortion.

Irritated Republicans in 1988 backed then-Democrat Joe Lieberman and denied Weicker a fourth term in the Senate. But two years later, he was back in politics with a new affiliation. He won the governor’s office, sworn in as the state’s first — and last — independent governor since the Civil War, heading a new independent political party called A Connecticut Party.

When he took office, Connecticut’s budget deficit was $963 million. During the 1990 campaign, Weicker opposed instituting a personal state income tax, saying it would be like “pouring gasoline on a fire.” But his budget secretary convinced him the tax was the only fiscally responsible choice.

Weicker vetoed three state budgets passed by legislators until he got his way. On Aug. 22, 1991, lawmakers finally passed a budget with a 4.5 percent flat income tax and a reduction in the sales tax from 8 to 6 percent, coupled with spending cuts.

An estimated 40,000 protesters packed the state Capitol grounds in Hartford on Oct. 5, 1991, demanding lawmakers “axe the tax.” Some hanged him in effigy. Meanwhile, others, including furloughed state workers, protested Weicker’s budget cuts. A nun said she would “pray that he burns forever in the fires of hell” for trying to slash state aid to parochial schools.

Weicker’s favorability rating plummeted but the income tax prevailed and the state ended the 1992 fiscal year with a $110 million surplus.

The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation awarded Weicker a Profiles in Courage Award in 1992.

He said his decision against seeking a second term was a matter of family and money, not politics. Weicker said he wanted to spend more time with his third wife, Claudia Testa, his seven children and his grandchildren. He said he also wanted to make more money than the governor’s annual salary at the time, $78,000.

Weicker considered running for president as an independent in 1996 and was back in the spotlight in 1999 when former wrestler and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura encouraged Weicker to run for the Reform Party nomination. Weicker turned him down.