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.