Monday, December 05, 2005

Lowell Weicker and the 1990 Election

Lowell Weicker, who has lately returned to the news as rumors of a possible rematch with Joe Lieberman fly, has been a giant of Connecticut politics for nearly forty years. From his somewhat humble beginnings in the General Assembly as a representative from Greenwich, Weicker went on to serve in the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate (where he gained both fame and infamy for serving on the Senate Watergate Committee) and, following his 1988 defeat at Lieberman’s hands, one-term governor of Connecticut.

That race, Weicker’s last, is well worth re-examining, as it was also John Rowland’s first campaign as the Republican nominee for governor. Rowland would be the GOP’s nominee in every election year from 1990 through 2002. Next year, when his former lieutenant governor takes his place at the top of the ticket, will be the first gubernatorial election in sixteen years without him.

The 1990 race was supposed to be another easy cruise to re-election for Democratic Governor William A. O’Neill. O’Neill had been governor since the resignation of the ailing Ella Grasso in 1980, and had presided over a period of enviable economic expansion. He had been easily re-elected in 1982 and 1986, and was widely expected to run again in 1990.

However, the economic downturn of that period was beginning to hit Connecticut hard, and the state was plummeting into fiscal crisis. In 1989, as revenues shrank, O’Neill raised the sales tax to 8%, raised business and capital gains taxes ("Facing Facts in Connecticut."). These unpopular moves drove his approval ratings down, and when a poll was released showing O’Neill badly trailing Weicker and Rowland, the governor wisely decided to remove his hat from the ring (Ravo “Weicker”).

Weicker was at that point contemplating seeking either the Republican nomination or running as an independent. “So far,” reports the New York Times, “…a Weicker candidacy has been promoted by a small group of friends who would like him to run as a Republican and thwart the campaign of [Congressman] John G. Rowland of Waterbury,” who was the Republican front-runner (Ravo “Weicker”).

However, Weicker had finally had enough of the conservative-leaning Republican Party (although his desire to avoid a costly primary with Rowland may have also had something to do with his departure), and announced on March 2nd his intention to run as an independent.

In the meantime, O’Neill’s withdrawal from the race had left Democrats at a loss. Congressman Bruce Morrison was the only other Democrat in the race when O’Neill exited, and instantly became the front-runner. However, Morrison wasn’t particularly well-liked by Democrats and found his natural liberal base split between himself and Weicker (Goodrich). Morrison would eventually win the nomination following a bloody primary with William Cibes of New London (Johnson), but support for his candidacy never ran deep.

Weicker ate into Rowland’s support by gathering endorsements from prominent Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Reginald Smith, and by choosing respected Republican Eunice Groark, who was Hartford’s Corporation Counsel, as his running mate (Ravo “Splits”).

Economic issues dominated the campaign. Rowland was against the possibility of an income tax, while Morrison and Weicker seemed unwilling to commit. Weicker did his best to appeal to the anti-tax feelings of those times by promising to cut corporate taxes. Morrison ran a very negative campaign, attacking Rowland for his youth and Weicker for his pomposity (Foster), and both Rowland and Morrison raised questions about Weicker’s ability to effectively govern without a political party to support him in the General Assembly (Ravo “Rivals”). In the end, though, there was no help for them. Weicker won on November 6th, fielding 40% of the vote to Rowland’s 38% and Morrison’s 20% (another independent candidate received the remaining 2%).

Weicker led in the polls throughout 1990, although the gap between him and his challengers narrowed as the election approached. Both of the major parties had been badly damaged by internal divisions, and were vulnerable to an electorate desperate for solutions to Connecticut’s fiscal crisis. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans had credibility with voters that year, and the popular Weicker rode their discontent into office.

Weicker’s colorful term saw the controversial implementation of a state income tax and the agonizingly slow but steady righting of the state’s fiscal ship. Weicker left the state in much better shape than when he found it, although his personal popularity suffered because of the income tax. He decided not to run for re-election in 1994, leaving his lieutenant governor Eunice Groark to carry his party’s banner that year. She, Bill Curry and anti-tax radio personality Tom Scott all lost to John Rowland and his running mate, Brookfield State Representative Jodi Rell.

Weicker himself retired from politics, although rumors about a possible presidential run on the Reform Party ticket surfaced in 1996 and 2000. Whether he will return to challenge Joe Lieberman to a rematch of their long-ago 1988 battle remains to be seen.

The 1990 campaign was a turning point for Connecticut. It ended the long domination of gubernatorial politics by Democrats, who occupied the Governor’s Mansion for all but four years between 1954 and 1990 and haven’t occupied it since. Weicker’s election also cleared the way for the much-needed income tax, and for the spending cap that was added to the constitution a few years later. Connecticut government would henceforth be more frugal than it had in the past. 1990 also set the stage for the Rowland-Rell years, in which we find ourselves now.

Time will tell if Lowell Weicker seeks a rematch against Lieberman. Whether he does or not, his place in our history is cemented by his long service in Congress, and his handling of the state’s fiscal crisis after the 1990 election.


"Facing Facts in Connecticut." New York Times (1857-Current file) Mar 23 1990: A34.

Foster, Catherine. "Economy the Key Issue in Connecticut Contest." Christian Science Monitor (1908-Current file) Oct 12 1990: 7.

Goodrich, Lawrence J. "POLITICS CONNECTICUT Former Senator Weicker, Running as Independent Leads Race for Governor." Christian Science Monitor (1908-Current file) Mar 27 1990: 7.

Johnson, Kirk. "Democrats Slug it Out in Connecticut Race." New York Times (1857-Current file) Sep 7 1990: B1.

Ravo, Nick. "Rivals of Weicker Ask: Could He Govern Alone?" New York Times (1857-Current file) Oct 10 1990: B2.

Ravo, Nick. "Splits and Bickering Shake Connecticut G.O.P." New York Times (1857-Current file) Jun 3 1990: 32.

Ravo, Nick. "Weicker Sees Possible Run for Governor." New York Times (1857-Current file) Feb 9 1990: B1.


Ebpie said...

Who was Rowland's Lt. Gov in 1990?

stomv said...

Ask and me shall receive. Thanks for the recap!

Genghis Conn said...

Rowland chose Bob Jaeckle, the House Minority Leader. The Senate Minority leader was backing Weicker.

Morrison chose someone named Sandra Bender, who was an unknown bank executive.

Blue in CD2 said...

It would be interesting to know how much of population / registered voter turnover there has been since the last time Weicker was on a ballot.

It seems they are looking for a well known person to challenge the name cache of Lieberman.

How many new voters/new residents are there? How much name recognition does Lowell Weicker have to Jim Constituent?

I feel like Weicker is less well known than some people are assuming.

Aldon Hynes said...

Based on a quick analysis of the voter files from the 149th A.D. (where my wife ran last year), it appears as if 50% of the Republicans, 56% of the Democrats and 72% of the unaffliated voters registered after Weicker's last election.

That said, I registered here after the last Weicker election, yet I remember hearing about him from back then. My guess is that the same applies to Genghis, and perhaps quite a few other people here.

Genghis Conn said...

I was 13 when Weicker was elected governor... lots of movement since then.

Some total figures: In 1990, there were about 700,000 registered Democrats, between 550,000-600,000 independents and 450,000 Republicans in Connecticut. Those are the only numbers I have at hand right now; they are imprecise.

Now, there are 670,000 Democrats, 438,000 Republicans and 876,000 independents, according to the SOTS site.

The number of members of a party have dropped slightly, but the number of independents is much, much larger. That could actually bode well for a Weicker run, depending on who those folks actually are. That increase is also a sign of the breakdown of state political parties.

DeanFan84 said...

"they are looking for a well known person to challenge the name cache of Lieberman."--blue in CD2

Blue, who is the "they" that you refer to? I didn't know there was an active search committee. If so, is it made up of Democrats, Republicans, or MoveOn members?

Anonymous said...

This was the triumph of the Hartford Courant. The paper was like a daily press release singing Weicker's praises.

A map of the 1990 results shows the state split roughly on the area code divide. Rowland won 203, Weicker 860. The weak Democrat showing in metro Hartford and the defection of liberal WASPy R's in places like Essex and Avon was the ticket for Lowell

Aldon Hynes said...

A friend of mine who is a registrar of voters regularly comments that if you don't register with a party, you are throwing away half your vote.

Unfortunately, that isn't all that accurate. In a city like New Haven, where the Democratic Party has a very strong majority, you are throwing away a lot of voting power by not registering your party affliation. Likewise, in the 2nd CD where their was a congressional primary last year, you lost an important chance to vote if you didn't register party affliation.

However, in other areas, there aren't primaries and registering as unaffliated doesn't really make much difference.

So, I'm not sure that the increase in unaffliated voters really means a lot in terms of how people will vote or reflects a breakdown of the parties. It may simply reflect the lack of exciting primaries in recent history.

That said, the lack of exciting primaries could be viewed as either great party solidarity and strength of the parties, or it could indicate a general lack of interest and breakdown in the political parties.

Blue in CD said...


The "they" im refering to are those people unhappy with the current (D) Senator and who would like to unseat him during mid-term's.

I have the strong feeling that it wasnt Weicker's idea to possibly unretire to make a run at Lieberman's seat.

I think he was coaxed into this, that is if the rumors are at all true.

Whoever is holding the stick to dangle the carrot in front of Lowell is the "they".

Chris MC said...

Very good point, Blue in CD2. Weicker's name recognition wouldn't carry him far with the general voter who came of age or came to town during the Rowland years.

And in a general, not many U's and R's are going to be impressed with a third party candidate running to the left. Or a D running to the left, for that matter.

Hmmm. Is Weicker the Frank Lautenberg of Connecticut?

Could he really contend against a sitting Senator with plenty of dough and not that high negatives?

At the moment it seems to me that his only good shot at not screwing up his historical position by embarrassing himself (imagine if Joe Louis actually did come back ten years later for a rematch while Ali was still in his prime) would have to be to take Joe out at nomination time.

Some of the yahoos around here might like that idea, but if Weicker was the alternative, I can't imagine the party stalwarts committing that kind of treason en masse. He'd have to primary for the D nomination.

And as one astute (and much more to to the left than I) friend of mine said to me on the phone today, last time he saw Weicker, the Governor was walking with a cane.

Under the new rules, it isn't inconceivable that he could get on the ballot. And he is the scion of the Pfizer family fortune. (Heh, and Joe is a friend of Pfizer - just an aside.) And supposedly MoveOn would get behind him, presumably bringing more dough with.


Now, you have to consider that the (paleocon) R's already kissed him off back in '88. Joe's since earned the love of the neocons (most of whom, by the way, were D's before the Carter Administration). Which is no mean feat, since the paleos profoundly disagree with the neos (and Buckley never liked the Bushes, if memory serves). And all that despite his (I think - if you accept Aldon's earlier post on the subject - we can largely agree) moderate voting record overall. Making Joe a rare political animal indeed.

Nope. Weicker is a Connecticut elder statesman who retired a success. I don't believe he's passed into the kind of foolish hubris that would have him tilt at Lieberman. He's telling the truth. He ain't running.

Get another horse ya'll.

Anonymous said...

weicker has no relation to pfizer.