Weicker on Taxes, Politics, and His Legacy

Controversial governor has no regrets about bucking conventions of politics

FROM this impoverished industrial city in southwestern Connecticut, Gov. Lowell Weicker conducts his work from a modest first-floor suite in a downtown office building.

It is appropriately spare quarters for the grim urban landscape outside, but one that is a world away from his usual work place in the ornate Capitol building an hour north in Hartford.

``Very frankly, downtown Bridgeport has next to nothing,'' the governor says, very frankly, in a Monitor interview. ``There is a perception that downtown Bridgeport isn't a safe place to be. How do you rebuild?''

One of his answers is to maintain this ``satellite'' office, out of which he and his staff occasionally work. The theory is that, as he puts it, ``if you want to do business with the governor of the state of Connecticut, you'll have to come down here and do it.''

It is perhaps an unconventional way for a governor to try to spark an industrial renaissance, but characteristic of this longtime maverick politician.

Blunt, outspoken, independent, Governor Weicker has never had a problem doing things his way. In his three years as governor and three terms in the United States Senate, he has built a reputation as one of the country's most courageous, controversial, and unconventional politicians.

First he bucked the Republican Party to become an independent. Then he led the fight to impose Connecticut's first income tax, to name just two things. Earlier this month, he did another appropriately Weickeresque thing: he announced, abruptly, that he will not run again in 1994.

``I mean, what an adventure!'' he is saying of his three decades in politics. ``Granted, you have to go into it sort of being willing to roll the dice every day of the year for 30 years, which is my style, which is what I'm comfortable with. But it sure makes life interesting.''

Elected governor as an independent in 1990 under his own party, called ``A Connecticut Party,'' Weicker is leading the state through rocky economic times. One of his answers to the fiscal crisis, the 1991 income tax, prompted Time magazine to annoint him the ``gutsiest governor in America.''

Weicker felt he had to impose the levy to overcome a $2 billion deficit. But the move brought widespread protests - and still does - from anti-tax advocates.

``I expected it,'' he says simply of the criticism, blaming it on the anti-tax sentiment whipped up during the Reagan-Bush years.

Weicker was also never afraid to distance himself from the political mainstream during his days in Washington. A former liberal Republican, he gained national recognition in the Senate for his outspoken criticism of the Nixon administration during Watergate.

Dressed in a blue shirt, tan pants, tie, and suspenders, Weicker strikes a casual pose as he sits cross-legged on a sofa. Giving the appearance of a man at ease with himself, he speaks his mind on a range of subjects - including the party he left.

He calls the GOP today a ``narrow band of right-wing idealogues.'' Indeed, the party has changed under Presidents Reagan and Bush, he says.

Though he admires former Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire and Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon, he is not as keen on Senate minority leader Bob Dole of Kansas, whom he calls a ``typical Republican.''

In his early years, Weicker himself may have fit the mold as a typical Republican. But given the party's shift to the right, he will be remembered as ``one of the last liberal Republicans,'' says William Schneider, political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

And though Weicker is an independent, he has never shunned the traditional political process. He's quick to distance himself from Ross Perot, whom he calls ``merely a commentator.''

``I might be independent of thought and ideas but very traditional in the sense that the way I bring [things] to pass is through this free political system that we have in this country, and I'm very proud of that,'' he asserts.

While Weicker is respected by many, he is not loved by everyone. In a recent Hartford Courant poll, 51 percent of those surveyed said they would rather have someone else governor.

Leo Donohue, a former state auditor, says the administration has favored its business-leader friends. ``It has been far from free of politics, although [Weicker] led us to believe that this would be a nonpartisan and nonpolitical administration,'' he says.

Partisan or not, Weicker is throwing himself into several big initiatives. He is leading an effort to lure the New England Patriots football team to Hartford. He also put forth a voluntary plan in January to end racial segregation in public schools.

Republican leaders aren't impressed. Phil Smith, political director of the state GOP, says the governor ``tended to float a few high-profile'' issues while neglecting day-to-day management.

Others, however, admire Weicker for his forthrightness.

``He's got a lot of resources he can draw upon ... and he's no-nonsense,'' says Speaker Thomas Ritter (D) of the state House of Representatives. ``He can go into a meeting and resolve something in five minutes that could take a couple of months under normal circumstances.''

So what's next for the political veteran? After one more year in the governor's seat, he will chair the 1995 International Special Olympics Summer Games to be held in New Haven, Conn.

As for his reason to not seek reelection, he says he wants to spend more time with his family, including seven sons. Also, he admits, the job of governing in shaky economic times demands full-time leadership, which is difficult to do while campaigning.

Weicker intends to be no lame duck in his final year. Children will top his political agenda, he says, because young people are the most often neglected constituency. He will be pushing more education, health care, and job-training programs for the young.

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