Terry Backer, legislator and Soundkeeper, dies at 61

Terry Backer

Long Island Soundkeeper

Terry Backer

Rep. Terry Backer, D-Stratford, a burly lobsterman who brought a crusade to improve Long Island Sound to the General Assembly and helped Robert F. Kennedy Jr. promote the national “Waterkeeper” movement, died Monday night from complications of brain cancer. He was 61.

Backer, who had surgery and radiation for a brain tumor in 2010, was diagnosed with another tumor three months ago. He was hospitalized last week at Bridgeport Hospital, where he died, a spokesman for House Democrats announced at midnight.

It was hard not to notice Backer when he arrived in Hartford in 1993, seeming to have just stepped off a lobster boat. He had a thick beard prematurely going white, a face weathered by sun and sea, and he usually wore a faded Greek fisherman’s cap, a denim shirt and a gold sea-anchor earring.

But Backer, a Norwalk native who had been a logger on the West Coast before returning home to fish the degraded waters of the Sound, also was an activist, co-founding a coastal fishermen’s association that brought lawsuits under the Clean Water Act.

Their targets were antiquated sewage treatment plants that dumped nutrients into the Sound, feeding massive algae blooms that created dead zones in the western Sound, areas with too little dissolved oxygen to support marine life.

The cause became a full-time job in 1987: With Kennedy and others, Backer created the Long Island Soundkeeper Fund, modeled after the Hudson Riverkeeper, a non-profit dedicated to protecting waterways through litigation and political action.

Backer assumed the title of Soundkeeper and worked as the group’s executive director. Both Riverkeeper and Soundkeeper were early models for about 200 other Waterkeepers in 20 countries, a role Gov. Dannel P. Malloy noted when he proclaimed April 23, 2012, as “Terry Backer Day.”

Terry Backer accepting a proclamation in 2012.

House Democratic Caucus

Terry Backer accepting a proclamation in 2012.

“Terry Backer has successfully brought to light pollution issues associated with damage to Long Island Sound’s water quality and aquatic resources through advocacy and direct legal actions that have resulted in the creation of significant habitat restoration and water quality improvements, reduction of pollution from storm water and energy security,” Malloy said in the proclamation.

On Tuesday, the governor ordered state flags lowered to half-staff to an honor a man whom he described as “a larger-than-life crusader.”

Terrence E. Backer was elected to an open seat in the House in 1992 from the 121st District of Stratford, near the western end of Long Island Sound, outside Bridgeport. He was the unconventional successor to Robert F. Frankel, a lawyer and parliamentary expert who left the legislature as the House majority leader.

The Republican he defeated, Kevin Kelly, who later was elected to the state Senate, praised his one-time opponent Tuesday as a friend and public servant.

“Through his many years representing Stratford in the Connecticut General Assembly, Terry fought tirelessly to protect our Long Island Sound,” Kelly said. “From helping to pass environmental legislation to raising money to protect the Sound he held so dear. Terry was a statesman and made our own proud.”

 Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, whose district includes the shoreline in East Haven, said, “He was incredibly dedicated. He was determined. He was a fighter. Terry Backer left a lasting impression on every lawmaker in this state.”

House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, called Backer a colorful character and a man who figured out how to “give back more than you take in a lifetime.”

“His trademark denim attire reminded us he was never a traditional suit and tie guy, and that endearing image added perspective to every debate,” Sharkey said. “An acknowledged expert on environmental issues, and in particularly his treasured Long Island Sound, Terry garnered the respect of colleagues on both sides of the aisle, always articulating his views with flair.”

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat who served in the General Assembly for eight years, recalled being intimidated by Backer.

“To be honest, my early years in the state legislature were spent steering clear of Terry,” Murphy said. “To new, young entrants to the General Assembly, he could come across as a bit intimidating — that fisherman’s beard and the gruff, coarse voice. And that reputation served him well, because people in Hartford had little interest in crossing Terry when it came to issues relating to the environment and energy policy — his pet passions.”

Backer was re-elected 11 times, surprising colleagues by running a final time in 2014, when he won by more than a 2-1 margin, despite a multi-year cancer battle that had left him thinner and fatigued, causing him to miss late-night votes.

“I get a little tired here and there, but who doesn’t?” he told The Hour of Norwalk in late 2012. “As long as the good Lord gives me the will, there’s still work to do.”

He played a role in the 2015 session in convincing leaders to include an environmental protection measure in a budget implementer bill: A law requiring cosmetic companies to phase out the use of plastic microbeads that end up in the food chain of the Sound.

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection credited Backer with helping to establish no-discharge zones where boats were barred from dumping sewage. With a state grant, Soundkeeper offers free pump-out service from May to October.

Soundkeeper sued to force improvements in sewage treatment in Bridgeport, Greenwich, Norwalk and Stratford. In late August, not long before Backer was diagnosed with a recurrence of his cancer, he was publicizing a lawsuit against National Grid for failing to modernize the cooling system of its power plant in Northport, N.Y.

Backer called the plant, which draws and discharges a billion gallons of Long Island Sound water daily, a “giant fish-killing machine.” Its water-pollution discharge permit expired in 2011, but the plant can operate without improvements while its permit is reviewed.

He did not mince words in what would be one of his last public acts as Soundkeeper: He blamed New York’s state Department of Environmental Conservation for taking a “lackadaisical, dilatory and laissez-faire” approach to the Sound.

His final public appearance for an environmental cause may have been in October, when he joined Murphy at Lighthouse Point Park in New Haven to back the senator’s call for a federal ban on plastic microbeads.

 “It’s one of those issues that I might not care about if it wasn’t for him,” Murphy said.

Murphy said Backer was obviously ill, but he still came.

“Despite being so ill, he was there, shivering, standing with me on a beach on Long Island Sound, making one final pitch to preserve the waters that defined his life and career,” Murphy said. “And though I’m so sad he’s gone, I’m glad that’s the last time I saw him – standing on the shores of Long Island Sound, urging us all on to preserve his legacy. To his very last breath, the Soundkeeper.”

Backer is survived by two sons, Luke and Jacob.

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