Lowell Palmer Weicker Jr. — an iconoclastic lawmaker and Connecticut governor, a tireless advocate for the rights of the disabled, the first Republican to call for the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon, and a robust moderate voice on the Washington stage at a time when the capital began its late 20th-century drift toward political polarization — died Wednesday after a short illness, according to the Associated Press. He was 92.
The former lawmaker died in a hospital in Middletown, Conn., according to a family statement cited by the AP.
Born in Paris and educated at the elite Culver Military Academy and Lawrenceville School, Yale, and the University of Virginia Law School, Mr. Weicker had a patrician, worldly air that came with being an heir to the Bristol Myers Squibb pharmaceutical empire — though to his dying day he played down the notion that he reaped substantial benefit from his grandfather’s role as a founder of E.R. Squibb and Sons and his father’s role as president of the pharmaceutical powerhouse.
With an independence that came either from family fortune or personal fortitude, Mr. Weicker defied party leaders, presidents, convention, and expectations, capping his civic career by winning the governor’s office in Hartford on the ballot line of a party (“A Connecticut Party”) that he invented.
“He was a highly principled human being who never succumbed to taking positions for convenience,” the attorney H. William Shure, a onetime financial campaign chair and longtime associate, said in a 2022 interview for this obituary. “He didn’t hesitate to vote in a way that could have jeopardized his career.”
That brought him the opprobrium of the GOP congressional leadership as he wandered into traditionally Democratic political waters on Capitol Hill and the skepticism of virtually the entire Connecticut political establishment after he became governor on a third-party line and then alienated much of a state that regarded itself as, in the words of its informal motto, “the land of steady habits,” by breaking tradition in endorsing a state income tax. By then, he had already earned the enduring contempt of much of the national Republican Party after his highly visible break with Nixon.
“He was a Republican, he benefited from the Republican Party and from Richard Nixon, and then he said that what Nixon did was wrong,” said Paul Herrnson, a University of Connecticut political scientist. “That was a tough thing, but doing it early was even tougher.”
Mr. Weicker broke into politics by becoming the first selectman of the wealthy community Greenwich, Conn., a title that later critics would lord over him in efforts to dismiss him as a mere dilettante in politics. He served in the Connecticut House, was elected to the US House, and moved to the US Senate two years later, the beneficiary of a fissure produced when Joseph Duffey, later the president of the University of Massachusetts, prevailed in a bitter 1970 Democratic primary against two-term incumbent Thomas Dodd, who ran as an independent and in essence delivered the seat to Mr. Weicker.
The Connecticut lawmaker’s star turn came early in the Senate, when he was named to the Watergate committee because minority leader Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania thought the GOP should have a young person on the panel. That provided Mr. Weicker, then 42, a combination of peril and real prominence.
“For me it was going full circle,” he said in a 2014 retrospective interview with The Day newspaper of New London, Conn. “Richard Nixon campaigned for me, as a congressman.” In that interview, he said he began as “a Nixon fan and someone that liked his policies, and I end up … obviously not having a great respect for the man.”
Mr. Weicker may have moved with the swish of a man familiar with exclusive city clubs, but he was not, in the phrase of men of his class and time, “clubbable.” His struggle with fellow Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina over school prayer bottled up legislation designed to buttress the Small Business Administration. He bolted from his party to support legislation to increase the minimum wage. He sided with Democrats to back economic sanctions against the apartheid government of South Africa.
“He had an exterior imperiousness and was very aware of being a senator and being wealthy that wove its way into his personal relationships,” said Gary Hart of Colorado, who served in the Senate with Mr. Weicker. “But when I showed up he was friendly, kind, outgoing, and he gave me a sense of somebody who understood his role in the Senate. He had a combination of friendliness and distance. And he was bipartisan in a way that became unknown later.”
That bipartisanship was deplored in most contexts by Republicans but embraced by, among others, Senate minority leader Bob Dole, a disabled veteran, when that impulse took its form in Mr. Weicker’s work for the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act, which was signed into law in 1990.
“The important thing was that the ADA was bipartisan,” said former GOP Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, a longtime advocate of disability rights who was a member of the House at the time, “and Lowell was a very important part of making it bipartisan.”
With a son born with Down syndrome, Mr. Weicker was an indefatigable fighter for the rights of and education funding for the disabled. For six years, he headed both the Senate’s authorization and appropriations subcommittees that handled disability issues. And in classic Weicker style, he battled a president of his own party, Ronald Reagan, over the 40th president’s proposals to cut education spending for the disabled.
But it was Mr. Weicker’s alliance with House majority whip Tony Coelho, a California Democrat who suffered from epilepsy, that prepared the ground for passage of the disability-rights legislation. After Joseph I. Lieberman defeated him in a bloody 1988 Senate race, Mr. Weicker’s testimony before the Senate Labor Committee a year later was particularly poignant — and inescapably powerful.
“The 43 million Americans with disabilities have waited long enough to be equal in the eyes of the laws of the United States,” Mr. Weicker said. “For years this country has maintained a public policy of protectionism toward people with disabilities. We have created monoliths of isolated care in institutions and in segregated educational settings. … It is that isolation and segregation that has become the basis of the discrimination faced by many disabled people today.
“Separate is not equal. It wasn’t for Blacks. It isn’t for the disabled.”
His outspokenness and contempt for convention were less effective in Hartford during his tenure as governor from 1991 to 1995 following his victory in a three-way race against two US House members, Democrat Bruce Morrison and Republican John G. Rowland.
Connecticut had a tradition for gubernatorial candidates to take “the pledge” to resist instituting an income tax if elected, and for a generation or more it was understood that the pledge was indispensable to success. Mr. Weicker conformed, and when he broke it, he earned the wrath of much of Connecticut, along with a JFK Profile in Courage Award. Some 40,000 people packed a State House rally to pillory him; Mr. Weicker was spat at when he waded into the crowd. “I don’t intend to back down to that kind of stuff ever,” he said when he returned to safety.
Mr. Weicker proposed lowering investment, corporate, and sales taxes and instituting the income tax. After several budget showdowns, legislators agreed to a modified plan that included the wage tax.
“My policy when I came in was no income tax, but that fell apart on the rocks of fiscal fact,” Mr. Weicker later told Time magazine. “Obviously I would have liked to have ended up the most popular guy in the state of Connecticut.”
He didn’t. Nor did he retain loyalty to, or loyalty from, Republicans. In the new century, he endorsed Democrats Bill Bradley (2000) and Howard Dean (2004) for president.
He was the son of Lowell P. Weicker Sr., for three years assistant secretary general for production and logistics for NATO, and Mary Hastings Bickford, an ambulance driver during World War II. A list of survivors was not immediately available.