HARTFORD (TNS) — Connecticut state Rep. Terry Backer, an outspoken and colorful Democrat whose deep love of Long Island Sound defined much of his life, died late Monday after battling brain cancer for more than five years. He was 61.
First elected to the General Assembly in 1992, Backer
was the first Soundkeeper — a paid, full-time protector of Long Island Sound. The position had its genesis in the fish and shellfish die-off caused by an oxygen-killing algae bloom in the Sound in the late 1980s.
Backer, who was from Norwalk and who came from three generations of fishermen, created Soundkeeper Fund Inc. — a nonprofit that filed lawsuits against New York City and Connecticut sewage treatment plants for dumping raw sewage into the Sound. The lawsuits forced shoreline communities to improve and upgrade their treatment plants and ultimately made the waters in the Sound cleaner. Those sued through the years included New Haven, Bridgeport, Stamford, Norwalk and Westport.
One of the longest-serving legislators, Backer served most recently on the energy and technology and environment committees, and could talk for long periods on complicated subjects involving energy.
Friends and colleagues mourned his passing Tuesday.
“Terry Backer was one of a kind — a fearless fighter for Long Island Sound, an effervescent raconteur and a warm and deeply generous friend,” U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said. “Terry had a big heart — a relentless love for everything that exists and lives on the planet and a tireless devotion to public service and the people of Stratford and Connecticut. I will remember him and his legacy in the beauty of the Sound.”
Outspoken at times, Backer was known as a reliable Democrat who normally voted with his party on key issues.
Backer first arrived at the Capitol in January 1993 when Lowell Weicker was governor. He also served under Republicans John Rowland and M. Jodi Rell, as well as the current governor, Dannel P. Malloy.
“Terry Backer will always be remembered at the state Capitol as a larger-than-life crusader who was passionate about Stratford, unwavering in his love of Long Island Sound, and deeply dedicated to his lifelong mission to preserve the waterways for future generations,” Malloy said Tuesday. “The state of Connecticut will forever remember him as the Keeper of the Sound.”
In 2013, Backer joined Long Island officials in Port Jefferson for the second annual Bi-State Long Island Sound Roundtable, where he spoke out against pollution in the waters. Contaminants such as nitrogen from septic systems and fertilizers threaten wildlife in the Sound, he said.
“We have used the Long Island Sound for 150 years as a chemistry experiment,” he told Newsday.
While fighting his illness and losing 85 pounds, Backer ran for re-election in 2010, 2012 and 2014, saying that he would run as long as his health permitted.
He underwent six hours of brain surgery at Bridgeport Hospital in October 2010 to remove a tumor. He then underwent radiation and chemotherapy, which often sapped his strength and led, at times, to his leaving early during the late nights at the Capitol. As the years went by, Backer became more reflective and was not afraid to talk about his illness.
“If I’m on my feet like I am today, and the good Lord keeps me here, I’m running,” Backer said as he contemplated whether to run in 2012.
“I feel blessed. Everything could have been worse. You know what? They’re not always right. The Lord has really blessed me.”
Although saying that he did not have definitive, scientific proof, Backer once told a reporter that he believed he developed brain cancer from talking too much on his cellphone while he was out on a boat in Long Island Sound during the early days of cellphone technology.
In June 2011, Backer returned to the Capitol on the final day of the legislative session and was welcomed by a roar of applause in the Hall of the House. After casting some votes, Backer tired and left the chamber. The crowd broke into applause once again.
“Don’t get used to this seat being empty,” Backer said then. “I’m coming back.”
© 2015, The Hartford Courant. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.