At the State Capitol, a Tea Party of one

As the only avowed Tea Party adherent to win election in Connecticut, Joe Markley is a curiously laid-back representative of a movement known for its anger and frustration with government spending and policies.

“I’ve not the hard-driving sort,” said Markley, who has degrees in English from Amherst and Columbia. “I’m a very relaxed firebrand.”

Markley’s brand of small-government Republicanism has not sold well in Connecticut since 1984, when he and 11 other GOP challengers won state Senate seats on Ronald Reagan’s coattails, only to lose them two years later on a changing political tide.

After an absence of 24 years, he’s coming back in January to take the same seat, allied with minority Republicans and the even smaller Tea Party, an anti-tax movement that failed to coalesce here into a coherent political vision or strategy.

“If I can’t accomplish as much as I’d like to on the legislative side, it seems like the best opportunity I have is to try to pull the threads of this movement together–to the extent they can be pulled together,” Markley said.

Joe Markley

Joe Markley (CT Mirror)

He was the sole Tea Party figure to win in Connecticut, where Democrats won every statewide office, all five U.S. House seats and comfortable majorities in the General Assembly. Converting Tea Party anger with government into electoral action is a work in a progress.

“There were a lot of them that I think couldn’t see the need at a certain point to put down the signs, get a clip board and go knock on doors,” Markley said.

Markley has waved his share of signs. After losing his Senate seat, he helped Tom Scott organize a massive protest against Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. and the income tax in 1991, drawing a record crowd estimated by Capitol Police at more than 40,000.

When Weicker was invited by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities to give a talk on the current budget crisis in June, Markley was one of four protesters who greeted the former governor with placards.

Still, political activism has not consumed Markley’s life. He has taught at an inner-city high school and at a community college to immigrants preparing to become U.S. citizens. When recruited by  Tea Party activists, Markley said, he was living cheaply at a friend’s apartment in western Massachusetts, working on a novel “about  what I think is wrong with society.”

“I really had people that tracked me down to some extent and said, ‘There’s a movement going on, and you have seen this before in 1991 during the income tax thing, with rallies and with real grass roots activity. And we need you,’ ” Markley said.

Markley protest

Joe Markley, left, Bob MacGuffie answering the budgetary question: ‘What would Lowell do?’ (CT Mirror)

So Markley came back to Connecticut, preaching the need to get involved in state legislative races.  When a Republican candidate declined to run for his old seat in the 16th Senatorial District, which includes Southington, Wolcott and parts of Cheshire and Waterbury, Markley jumped in.

He won, 16,861 to 14,607. Markley, who lives in Southington, will succeed Sen. Sam S.F. Caligiuri, R-Waterbury, who unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Christopher Murphy, D-5th District.

Unlike 24 years ago, when he won a long-time Democratic seat with the help of the party lever and a GOP landslide, Markley now has a better chance at retaining it.

“The opportunities are completely different,” he said.

Markley acknowledges he will be a curiosity on two counts. For one, he could hold the record for the longest time between first and second terms: His interregnum was gone long enough for the election of three governors and four U.S. presidents.

More relevant is Markley’s status as the only legislator standing at the intersection of the Tea Party and GOP. Don’t ask how that will work out.

“To what extent the Tea Party comes into the [Republican] party, or attempts to alter the party, or stays out of it, but cooperates with it, I have no idea, no master plan,” Markley said. “I don’t know how all that is going to work.”

When he began a sentence with “we,” he was asked if he was placing himself with fellow Republicans or Tea Party activists. He paused before answering, “I would say both, I suppose.”

Markley, 54, a conservative back from a sojourn as a novelist in the liberal wilderness of Northampton, Mass., is twice as old as he was when elected the last time. His fiscal beliefs are largely unchanged from the Reagan era.

“I’m not going to compromise in the things I believe in at this point. There are certainly pretty clear lines in my mind,” said Markley. “I wouldn’t vote for a tax increase.”

Markley LOB

Markley talking to Wolcott students in LOB, which did not exist during his first term in the Senate. (CT Mirror)

He won’t have to, as a member of a political minority. Ownership of what is expected to be an unpopular mix of spending cuts and tax increases to erase a staggering deficit will fall to Governor-elect Dan Malloy and the Democratic majority.

“They are in a terrible bind right now,” Markley said.

With a lawsuit he filed in October, he could make that bind worse. He is challenging the state’s use of a surcharge on electric bills to pay debt service on economic recovery notes used to balance the budget.

Markley said he is a voice of caution in the Tea Party, telling its adherents that cutting spending is harder than they might imagine. Structural changes are needed, he says, and those are not possible in one budget.

He is a living testament to the power of incremental change. Since taking a break from politics in the mid 1990s– he managed Scott’s campaigns for Congress and governor in 1990, 1992 and 1994–Markley has lost 80 pounds.

He is six feet tall, 160 pounds. The round countenance some lobbyists may remember from his previous tenure at the Capitol–no incumbent senators served with him then–is now long and narrow, accentuated by a white goatee.

“I feel a lot can be done by incremental change, if you just recognize things need to move in a certain direction,” Markley said.

Does he see himself as a metaphor for state government?

“That it can be changed gradually? Yes,” he said, smiling. “Without having to do anything radical. Without even having a plan necessarily, but doing things that seem to make sense, one after another.”

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