A Taxing Situation : Politics: Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker loves a challenge. He’s facing his biggest one yet by proposing the state’s first income tax to solve its budget mess.
In an address to the state Legislature several weeks after he took office in January, Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. quoted one Phyllis Zlotnik, who had expressed amazement that Weicker had voluntarily sought the job.
“Why anyone would want to be governor right now is unfathomable to me,” Zlotnik told him in a letter. She expressed the sentiments of many who were watching the state’s former Republican senator take over as governor at a time when Connecticut’s economic sky really was falling.
In the same speech, Weicker announced that the remedy for the state’s enormous deficit would be a personal income tax, the first in Connecticut history. So Zlotnik’s befuddlement seemed understandable--to almost everyone except Lowell Palmer Weicker Jr.
“I like a challenge,” Weicker said in an interview last week. His lieutenant governor, Eunice S. Groark, took it one step further: The governor, she said, “loves a good fight.” With the state deficit rapidly approaching $3 billion, roughly 40% of Connecticut’s annual budget, that love will undoubtedly come in handy.
In his current political incarnation, Weicker is dealing from a position of strength. Although he alienated much of the state’s Republican leadership as senator and lost his Senate seat in 1988, two years later he formed his own party to successfully run for governor.
Weicker comes from a wealthy family. His family home in Greenwich is so venerable it has a name--Applejack Farm. And his patrician roots hold strong: He was said to have been “appalled” by the peeling paint and crumbling plaster in the executive mansion here. “He doesn’t have anything to lose,” and that’s what drives everyone crazy, an aide said.
Connecticut is in economic trouble because its traditional sources of revenue--retail sales tax and taxes on corporations--have plummeted. The governor and the Legislature have been battling over a budget since February, when he introduced his controversial tax plan. (Today is the deadline for adoption of the new budget and tax package. The budget battle raged all weekend.)
Connecticut residents, who enjoy the country’s highest per-capita income, were outraged when Weicker announced his proposal. In their minds, income tax and Connecticut are words that do not belong in the same sentence.
One of the 13 Colonies, Connecticut prides itself on its reputation as “the land of steady habits.” But in reality, it is a state of extremes. Many wealthy New Yorkers with weekend or summer homes in such towns as Greenwich use Connecticut as a tax haven. Meanwhile, gritty Bridgeport is bankrupt. Racial disharmony plagues New Haven and other cities. Hartford, the state capital, has experienced a significant increase in crime in recent years.
“We look like some banana republic,” a longtime resident of the state said.
In recent weeks, Weicker has been jeered by parochial schoolchildren, whose parents are angry about his plan to cut state funding for school buses that serve private and parochial schools. At a Whalers hockey game, Weicker took to the ice expecting to be cheered at halftime but was booed instead. Not far from his own resplendent office, a contingent of disabled workers occupies a street corner and yells at passing motorists and pedestrians. They are incensed over possible cuts in workers’ compensation.
“Anybody with half a brain is leaving this state,” said Frank Guerrera, one of the disgruntled workers.
Legislators who must campaign for reelection every other year took very seriously a spring poll that showed 70% of state residents oppose the tax plan.
“There just isn’t an income tax that will be acceptable to the people of Connecticut,” said state Rep. Edward C. Krawiecki Jr., the minority leader of Connecticut’s House of Representatives. “We’ve never wanted it. We never will.”
If the state is in an economic mess, said state Sen. George Jepsen, a Democrat from Stamford, “Weicker has made it worse by going for broke, trying to push and cajole and ramrod the state into an income tax of his choice.”
In characteristic fashion, Weicker has chosen to interpret the across-the-board rage as proof of the fundamental fairness of his budget package.
“Everybody is . . . (ticked off),” Weicker said. “Not one side or the other, but everybody. Now doesn’t that tell you this plan is fair?”
To take his political philosophy one step further, Weicker added, “Either (tick) ‘em all off or make ‘em all feel good.” It’s like “the old tennis analogy,” he said: “Go to the net or stay on the base line. Never play in the middle.”
Few people would accuse Weicker of playing in the middle. On the contrary, as a fledgling state legislator almost 25 years ago, Weicker chose to play in the back. As it happens, what he was often playing was cards, usually in the rear of the state legislative chambers.
Much of his earlier political career was undistinguished, including stints as mayor and selectman of wealthy Greenwich, his hometown. But as a freshman U.S. senator sitting on the committee that investigated the Watergate scandal in 1973, Weicker threw himself into the fray by becoming the first Republican senator to call for the resignation of Republican President Richard M. Nixon.
By 1988, the liberal Weicker had sufficiently alienated enough Connecticut Republicans to lose his Senate seat to challenger Joe Lieberman, a conservative Democrat.
In his own way, Weicker had grown disenchanted with Washington. “Things got pretty rancorous down there--is that a word, rancorous ?” he said. “I think the civility by degrees left.
“Everybody had to win every issue all the time. The net result was that we spent 90% of our time on these philosophical issues and less and less time shaping public policy.”
Credit for Weicker’s 1990 gubernatorial victory in a spirited three-way race was ascribed largely to support from Democrats. Weicker had by then resigned from the Republican party. To run for governor, he formed his own political entity, the Connecticut Party, made up of refugees from both mainstream parties.
Weicker, said Thomas J. D’Amore Jr., his chief of staff and fellow ex-Republican, “hasn’t put party politics first, in front of his career.” This is probably just as well, he added, because Weicker “has always been sort of at war with his own party.”
In Washington, Weicker is best remembered for operating outside party lines and for often championing causes typically unpopular with Republicans. For example, his was frequently the only Republican voice calling for a national health care policy.
That voice can be loud--and, some say, obnoxious. “Confrontational and combative,” George Jepsen said. “That’s Lowell.”
Weicker’s press secretary, Avice Meehan, said she had to be persuaded to work for him: “I thought he was a pompous windbag.”
Many people praise Weicker for his integrity and for his tenacity; others say he is rigid and uncompromising.
“He must have been . . . used to working on his own as a U.S. senator,” said Judith Greenberg Freedman, a Republican state senator from Westport. In Hartford, Freedman said, Weicker is “still acting like he’s in the U.S. Senate and it’s his way or no way.”
But state Sen. William DiBella, a Democrat from Hartford, said he finds Weicker’s strong-mindedness “refreshing.” Weicker’s point of view, DiBella said, is that “I may offend some people, but we’re in the game for the long run. I think when everybody is happy, something isn’t being done right.”
Weicker--who, like George Bush, is a graduate of Yale--turned 60 in May. His recombinant family of children and stepchildren from three marriages numbers seven boys, who range from elementary-school age to adults in their 30s. Weicker is friendly with his first wife, estranged from his second, and calls Claudia, his current spouse, a close friend and adviser.
The governor has white hair and the kind of blue eyes inevitably described as “steely,” even when they soften in mirth. At 6 feet, 6 inches and 240 pounds, he has an imposing quality that comes simply from being large. He is not easily ignored.
Weicker’s personality seems equally commanding. “There isn’t anything that he doesn’t feel passionately about,” Tom D’Amore said. “From sports to the food he eats to the ties he wears. He doesn’t feel so-so about anything. Weicker is a full-time enthusiast about life.”
Weicker hails from old money; his grandfather was a founder of the Squibb pharmaceutical company. Much of what friends of the governor think of as self-reliance--and what foes regard as arrogance--may be attributed to a family in which the children were taught that if they wanted to get something done, they’d better do it themselves.
(According to one family anecdote, the young Weicker once returned to the family’s Park Avenue apartment and dumped his bags in the lobby so the servants would carry them. Weicker’s father was quick to tell the boy that he could carry his luggage himself.)
“I don’t want to be flip and call it noblesse oblige, exactly, but (Weicker is) someone who was brought up believing that he was very lucky to have been born into fortunate circumstances, and that if he had a chance to use his skills to help other people, he should,” said Lt. Gov. Groark, another ex-Republican.
One of Weicker’s brothers is an Episcopal minister. A sister has worked in Pakistan as a nurse caring for war victims. Public spirit may run through the Weicker bloodline, but the governor said that after his 1988 Senate loss to Lieberman, he did not entirely miss public life during his two years as head of a foundation called Research America.
“A quarter of a million dollars (salary), and you’re able to lead your own lifestyle. That certainly assuages your hurt,” he said.
Still, “I was frustrated,” he admitted. He grabbed at the chance to run for governor. He took a substantial pay cut (from $250,000 to $78,000), but “as a practical matter, at least in my viewpoint, the new power base in this country are the governors.”
Some cynics in his state suggest that Weicker ran for governor because he wanted to leave as a winner, to clear his slate of his loss to Lieberman. Even D’Amore, who ran Weicker’s gubernatorial campaign, admits that his boss’s hard line on taxes may make him a one-term governor--but this time, when Weicker leaves office, D’Amore said, it will be on his own terms.
“Everybody thought it was nuts for him to run at this time,” with the state in such poor economic shape, D’Amore said. “But in the end, I think he is perfect, because what you see is what you get.”
Weicker, said D’Amore, “would probably make a lousy governor in good times because he thrives on the challenge. In the end, what convinced him (to run) was that the state was in such trouble.”
Weicker recognizes that imposing a 6% personal income tax and other corrective economic measures is not likely to win him many fans. In his speech announcing the tax package, he quipped: “Now, my friends, if indeed I still have any. . . .”
But in the same address, he concluded by borrowing again from Phyllis Zlotnik’s letter:
“And if you feel alone with your decisions, remember those of us . . . who are silently with you,” Zlotnik wrote.
Said Weicker: “I would rather be loved by everybody, sure. But I think everybody understands that it’s a certain amount of metal in the backbone that has brought me through other tough situations.
“What you can’t do . . . (is) take a look at the various faces of life knowing that you did less than your best,” Weicker said. “I’ve got to look these people in the face. I’ve got to know I did my best.”