Rep. Terry Backer dies

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State Rep. Terry Backer, an environmental champion and the long-time Long Island Soundkeeper, died late Monday night in Bridgeport Hospital. He was 61.

The veteran Democratic lawmaker died at Bridgeport Hospital at about 11:20 p.m.. said his spokesman Joe Gresko, who began his term as a Stratford Town Councilman on Monday.

Backer was first elected to state office in 1992 and he was in the midst of his 12th term representing Stratford in the General Assembly.

Backer had been battling brain cancer since 2010. While he was able to treat it successfully, it was discovered again last August, Gresko said.

Gresko said Backer was a man who was “always going.”

“He was very much a larger than life character. He was like a ball full of energy, always going and always doing,” Gresko said. “He didn’t like being sick at all or the appearance of weakness.”

Prior to the start of the new Town Council's first meeting, Gresko asked residents to offer thoughts and prayers for Backer as his condition had worsened.

Mayor John Harkins, who served with Harkins in the State Legislature for 13 years, saluted Backer as a "tireless advocate for our community." Harkins ordered flags be lowered to half-staff in honor of Backer.

Gov. Dannel Malloy ordered state flags to be flown at half staff in honor of Backer. Malloy also spoke kindly of Backer in recognizing his service.

"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. "The authenticity of his advocacy was only matched by his unforgettable approach - he truly embodied his cause in the halls of the Capitol.  He had profound impact on the state's environmental and energy policies.  The State of Connecticut will forever remember him as the Keeper of the Sound."

"His passion for the environment, particularly for the preservation of Long Island Sound and the community garden at Pirhala Farm, was obvious and sincere," Harkins said. "It was my distinct privilege to have had the chance to know him and to serve with him in the Legislature. Stratford has lost a part of its fabric, and Terry will be sorely missed"

Jason Garnett, the program administrator for Soundkeeper Inc., announced Backer's death on the Soundkeeper website.

"Terry was a guiding light to this environmental non-profit and worked tirelessly throughout his life to raise awareness and take action to protect the Sound that he loved.  He will be missed by so many, and the Soundkeeper organization will continue in his honor to make further progress towards our founding mission of protecting and preserving the Sound," Garnett said. "Our expanded pumpout program, legal actions to prevent pollution and protect marine life, habitat restoration and projects to promote stormwater management and educational outreach will continue towards the goal of preserving a swimmable and fishable Sound."

Sen. Kevin Kelly spoke about Backer in a statement issued Tuesday, calling Backer a “longtime public servant and friend” who fought for years to protect Long Island Sound.

“Through his many years representing Stratford in the Connecticut General Assembly, Terry fought tirelessly to protect our Long Island Sound,” said Kelly, a Republican representing Stratford. “From helping to pass environmental legislation to raising money to protect the Sound he held so dear; Terry was a statesman and made our Town proud. His passing is such a loss to our region, our state and our neighborhood.  My thoughts and prayers are with his family in this difficult time.”

Rick Marcone, the town's Democratic registrar of voters and Backer's friend of 10 years, said he had never met anyone as dedicated to doing what was right for the community.

"He was an advocate for all that was good. The hours spent on the Sound would not be as good without him," Marcone said. "He tried to make sure we were well represented in Hartford and made Stratford got its fair share of the pie. We always knew we had a good friend in Hartford."

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy also offered kind words for Backer and his service, saying Backer "made a difference." Murphy also credited Backer for a generation of public servants and advocates caring more about protecting the quality of the state's air and water, particularly Long Island Sound.

“I count myself among those who fight a little harder for the health of Connecticut’s waterways because I knew Terry Backer, Connecticut’s one and only Soundkeeper, and didn’t want to disappoint him.  His passion for the water, honed by the side of his father as they harvested shellfish for a living for decades, matured as he took on the official role as the state’s chief spokesman for Long Island Sound," Murphy said.

Murphy added that Backer "made everyone around him understand that Connecticut’s economy and its cultural character were intimately tied to the health of Long Island Sound and the rivers and streams that flow into it.  In large part because of Terry’s urging, Connecticut set upon an aggressive course of cleaning up the sewage treatment plants that allowed dirty water to flow into the Sound.  Today, the water in and around our state is cleaner than ever – few beaches are closed every year and fish are returning to rivers that were barren of life for decades."

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal recalled Backer's toughness and care for the environment.

“Terry Backer was one of a kind – a fearless fighter for Long Island Sound, an effervescent raconteur and a warm and deeply generous friend.  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," Blumenthal said.  "I will remember him and his legacy in the beauty of the Sound."

Tom Andersen, communications director for the Connecticut Audobon Society, talked about Backer's advocacy for the Sound.
"I first met Terry in the late 1980s, during his first years as Soundkeeper. Long Island Sound seemed to be dying then, and Long Island Sound advocacy was in its infancy. Terry was a genius in summing up the issues in a way that was compelling to the press and also to environmentalists, commercial fishermen, and union members – three factions that didn’t necessarily speak the same language," said Andersen, author of "This Fine Piece of Water," an environmental history of the Sound. "In fact, he helped calm a protest by union members at a Long Island Sound conference in Westchester County in 1992. I don’t know if there would have been a Long Island Sound cleanup if Terry had not been part of the movement. And I don’t know who can replace him."
Stratford Democratic Town Committee Chairman Len Petruccelli said Backer could get along with anyone as he worked with Democrats and Republicans for the betterment of Stratford and helped the town secure state grants to improve the town.

"He was a great legislator and was a great person," Petruccelli said. "He's going to be missed."

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano offered his condolences as well.

“It is with great sadness that we mourn the loss of Rep. Terry Backer, an influential and steadfast legislator. As a fellow shoreline lawmaker, I greatly admired Terry’s tireless advocacy for the Long Island Sound and his fight to protect one of Connecticut’s most precious natural resources,” Fasano said. “He was incredibly dedicated. He was determined. He was a fighter. Terry Backer left a lasting impression on every lawmaker in this state. His legacy of environmental protection will forever be a part of our state, it's history, and future policy.”

Stay with the Stratford Star for more information on the death of Rep. Terry Backer.