Jonathan L. Wharton

Political scientists often investigate political socialization or the process of learning about politics. This can be childhood experiences, transformative moments, or political officials sparking one’s political interest. With former US Senator and Governor Lowell P. Weicker, Jr.’s death this week, I was reminded of how I came to learn about Connecticut politics as a 10-year-old child. Members of my family were supporters of Weicker’s congressional re-election and I assumed senators visited homes like ours. When, in fact, Weicker did so for fundraising purposes.

What I knew then was that Weicker had a big presence. He was an imposing figure at 6 feet, 6 inches tall, but it was more about Weicker’s ability to command a room. He dominated conversations, especially when he would shop in my West Hartford neighborhood. People clearly knew and connected with Weicker. He would debate neighbors in grocery store aisles about why he made a specific decision or how he felt about an issue.

Since I teach Connecticut politics, students often ask what kind of political style Weicker employed as a legislator and governor. I think back to my childhood in these interactive moments and it also conjures up President Lyndon Johnson’s “Johnson Treatment” of bullying, cajoling, and assuaging adversaries as well as supporters about political decision-making.

Similarly, Weicker could be brash as well as confrontational. But he could easily remember details about individuals, legislative minutia, and he had a backslapper persona. These are rare traits in our current hyper-partisan era where toeing party lines and adhering to scripted exchanges have become the norm.

Weicker stood out because he could be transformational through his aggressive but relatable approach. Even if you disagreed, he and you would still listen to one another about an issue. This political style proved to be helpful for Weicker during the Senate Watergate Committee hearings when he pressed ahead with investigating President Richard Nixon and his administration. He also led his congressional colleagues, especially from his Republican Party, to challenge a Republican president.

But Weicker went further against his political party by running for governor as a third-party candidate under A Connecticut Party in 1990. Connecticut Republicans had multiple gubernatorial candidates and Democrats were fractured as well.

With the state party reforms a generation earlier, the two big parties had disempowered their political boss structure. Or, as Connecticut Judge Robert Satter offers in Under the Gold Dome about Weicker’s gubernatorial run, “his victory not only revealed the weakness of the two major parties but further diminished their power.”

Weicker took advantage of these internal schisms and party reforms. He won the gubernatorial race and led our state government as a third-party official. In other words, he was a political animal seizing the moment.

But part of the problem with politics is that it’s difficult and unsustainable to carry out initiatives alone. Party alliances and coalitions must be forged for policymaking. Weicker struggled to do so, especially with the passage of the state income tax. With over 40,000 protestors at the state Capitol, the proposal narrowly passed each General Assembly chamber after a series of legislative battles. And the income tax largely became his legacy when, in reality, he was a single official taking advantage of the political infighting and bickering between and within the Democratic and Republican Parties.

Being a political maverick like Weicker required unorthodox approaches and he had enemies surrounding the income tax and his leaving the Republican Party. Weicker was mindful of politics making foes. But he also knew that someone had to do something about Connecticut’s fiscal problems.  

Weicker thought beyond the status quo and he had as many supporters as he did enemies, but he pressed forward against a corrupt White House and through Connecticut’s financial crisis.

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D., is an associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

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