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Former Connecticut senator, governor Weicker dies at 92

Last Republican senator from Connecticut later criticized the party

Sen. Lowell P. Weicker, R-Conn., with wife Claudia Weicker and Mary Audrey Mellor on June 5, 1986.
Sen. Lowell P. Weicker, R-Conn., with wife Claudia Weicker and Mary Audrey Mellor on June 5, 1986. (Andrea Mohin/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Lowell P. Weicker, one of the most prominent liberal voices in the Republican Party and the last surviving member of the Senate Watergate Committee, died Wednesday at age 92, according to a statement issued by his family. The statement did not specify a cause of death.

Frank and physically imposing, he was a senator from Connecticut from 1971 until his defeat by then-Democrat Joseph I. Lieberman in 1988, at which point he became a law professor in Washington.

Two years later, he was elected governor of Connecticut as a third-party candidate. As a senator, he briefly sought the Republican nomination for president in 1980, the year Ronald Reagan was elected.

“Lowell never ducked a tough battle, absolutely convinced that he was right and he usually was,” Connecticut’s governor, Ned Lamont, said in a statement ordering state flags lowered in Weicker’s honor. “He was always bigger than life and he always will be.”

At 6’6”, a giant both literally and figuratively of the Rockefeller Republican coalition, Weicker had more in common with today’s Democrats than the GOP, and by 2000 he endorsed exclusively Democrats. A reformer to the end, he continued believing in the power of government for good and the rightness of centrism. He won the 1992 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for instituting Connecticut’s first income tax to combat a large budget deficit.

He played a prominent role on many issues while in the Senate, most notably health and science. He was key to expanding the jurisdiction of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and continually advocated for conserving the oceans.

As he said in a 2014 interview with The Day of New London, Conn., “The main lesson is: In the end we are all responsible for the government in Washington. … If we involve ourselves, we’re going to get good government … and if we don’t, things like Watergate occur. And they could occur tomorrow.”

The small-government conservatism that emerged after he left the Senate seemingly precluded him from running for office again in that party, so he settled for being a critic of the right from the center.

In 2016, as Donald Trump was rising in popularity, he wrote a eulogy for the Republican Party. “Republicans have squandered every opportunity to put forward positive solutions to the nation’s ills,” he wrote in an opinion piece published in The Hartford Courant. “And now, embracing a presidential candidate who has insulted and offended nearly every American, the GOP is reaping its just desserts.”

Weicker had a passion for improving the lives of people with disabilities. His son Davidson, known as Sonny, has Down’s syndrome and has competed in the Special Olympics, founded by the sister of a close Senate colleague, Edward M. Kennedy.

Weicker was a booster of the Special Olympics, and introduced legislation that eventually became the Americans With Disabilities Act.

He also sparred with fellow Republicans, including Reagan, over funding for HIV/AIDS research, seeing past the disease’s taboo status to recognize a budding public health crisis in need of research dollars. He was able to get $46 million appropriated for clinical trials on AZT, a breakthrough HIV drug. In recognition of his advocacy, the National Institutes of Health named a building on its main campus in Bethesda, Md., in his honor.

Born in Paris on May 16, 1931, Weicker grew up wealthy in Greenwich, Conn. His grandfather co-founded E.R. Squibb and Sons, which would eventually become part of pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers-Squibb. Weicker graduated from Yale University in 1953, and after two years in the Army earned a law degree from the University of Virginia. He soon entered politics, winning a race for the Connecticut General Assembly in 1962.

In the tumultuous year 1968, he defeated incumbent Democrat Donald Irwin for a House seat. Two years later, he defeated two candidates to win a Senate seat: the scandal-ridden incumbent Democrat Thomas J. Dodd, who was running as an independent after his party didn’t renominate him, and Democrat Joseph D. Duffey, an anti-war candidate who had defeated the party convention’s choice. Weicker later referred to the campaign as “one of the hardest races I had.”

Weicker continued his vocal opposition to the Vietnam War, and was one of the most prominent Republicans during the hearings of the Senate committee that investigated the Watergate break-in and coverup. The committee issued its report in June 1974, and President Richard Nixon resigned in August. In recent years, Weicker said the United States had “forgotten the lessons” of the scandal, bemoaning the state of campaign finance.

Weicker’s loss to Lieberman in 1988 was partly due to the Democrat’s ability to attract Republican support due to his hawkish foreign policy positions.

In 1990, Weicker launched a bid for governor under the banner of A Connecticut Party, which he had formed. He defeated two incumbent House members to become a rare third-party governor.

Weicker was a strong and early supporter for gay and lesbian civil rights, signing a bill prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in 1991.

However, he quickly squandered most of his political capital by pushing for the state’s first income tax, and did not run for reelection in 1994.

By the time he left Hartford, Weicker had essentially abandoned his Republican roots. As governor, he fought against the influence of religious conservatives, much as he had in the Senate with his advocacy of funding to combat HIV/AIDS. In 1993, he was the only governor not to proclaim a National Day of Prayer in his state. He once compared the influence of religion in politics to “nitroglycerine in a Waring blender.” His opposition to the two major parties came to a head in 1995, when he flirted with an independent run for president.

Weicker remained active after leaving the governor’s office. He spent 15 years on the board of World Wrestling Entertainment, located in Stamford, Conn., and wrote an autobiography in 1995. He is survived by his third wife, Claudia, and seven children.

Daniela Altimari contributed to this report.

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