Known as "Tough Tommy" by supporters and detractors alike, Thomas Meskill, who died yesterday at 79, was a feisty governor and congressman for Connecticut and later served a lengthy term as a judge on the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.
In 1971, during his stormy single term as governor, Meskill led the repeal of Connecticut's income tax, passed earlier the same year by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly. Seeking to balance the state's budget, which had accumulated a deficit of more than $200 million, he instituted a state lottery and pari-mutual betting, raised sales taxes, and cut benefits to the poor. He correctly intuited that some of his measures did not enhance his popularity, but by the time Meskill left office in 1974, the state's budget was in surplus.
In one of President Nixon's final acts in office — just hours before he resigned — he submitted Meskill's nomination for the 2nd Circuit. The American Bar Association opposed the nomination, mainly on grounds of Meskill's inexperience as a jurist, but he was eventually confirmed, and was still a sitting judge at the time of his death. His office announced that he was due to sit on a case today.
Meskill was born January 30, 1928, in New Britain, Conn., where his father worked for a toolmaker, Stanley Works. After serving in the Air Force during the Korean War, Meskill graduated from the University of Connecticut Law School. He lost his first run for mayor of New Britain as a Republican in 1960, settling instead for a job as the city's assistant corporation counsel.
The next election, 1962, he again ran and won. Defeated in a re-election bid in 1964, he next ran unsuccessfully for Congress. But in the election of 1966, with Democratic voters split between the incumbent and a peace candidate, he managed to squeak into the House by a 2,000-vote margin. (His previous defeats as mayor had come by margins of 115 and 25 votes.) According to a 1971 article in the New Republic, Meskill "chalked up the most conservative voting record of any Connecticut congressman in decades."
In 1970, he ran for governor by attacking Democrats for the state's record deficits, and pledging to get tough on crime through wiretaps. He was elected as the first Republican to hold the state's top office in 16 years. In his inaugural address on January 6, 1971, he described the state as "wallowing in debt." Relations with the General Assembly were rocky from the start, and Meskill set a record for vetoes with 227 in 1971 and 1972.
In 1971, Democrats passed the state's first-ever income tax, which Meskill refused to sign. After popular protests, the General Assembly abrogated the law and compromised with Meskill to raise the state's sales tax to 6.5%, the highest in the nation at the time. Connecticut did not again adopt a personal income tax until 1991.
Meskill declined to run for a second term in 1974. A story popular at the time claimed that he did not run because of popular outcry over his failure to remain in the state during a damaging ice storm in 1973, but Meskill later contended that he wanted to spare his children the isolation of being raised in the governor's mansion. "It's a very unreal life for very young children to be brought to school by a state trooper," he told Connecticut Public Television in 1997.
Never a fan of public speaking, Meskill had a lower public profile in subsequent decades as an appeals court judge, but seemed to enjoy the job more. In the 1990s, according to the Journal-Enquirer of Mansfield, Conn., he once gave a speech titled, "I've Finally Found a Job I Really Like." Meskill is survived by is wife, Mary, and their five children.