There were cheers and tears from the crowd when Connecticut’s senior U.S. senator stepped before the lectern to say goodbye with just weeks left in his long tenure.
Teresa Younger — the executive director of the state’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Women and one of the organizers of a recent tribute in New Haven — still appeared stunned that Chris Dodd was retiring.
“I don’t know, because people don’t always understand politics, if the people of Connecticut understand what we are losing in the amount of clout and understanding and commitment and seniority that we had in Sen. Dodd,” she said.
The 65-year-old Dodd, who has served the past three decades in the Senate, as well as three terms in the U.S. House, announced in January that he would not seek a sixth term. While he said his decision stemmed from private soul-searching and the realization it was time to “let someone else step up,” it also came at a time when public opinion polls were showing he was in trouble. The voters had tired of him.
Beaten up by controversy involving mortgages he received under a VIP program, his role as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee during the financial meltdown, his failed presidential bid and his decision to move his family to Iowa weeks before the 2008 caucuses, Dodd found himself trailing a Republican challenger and losing the support of the voters who had backed him for decades.
A November 2009 Quinnipiac University poll showed that 54 percent of Connecticut voters disapproved of Dodd’s performance in the Senate and only 39 percent considered him honest and trustworthy.
“He was never able to come back among the general public once he lost his standing,” said poll director Douglas Schwartz. “Even when he said he wasn’t going to run for re-election, he still didn’t gain in the polls. There wasn’t a sympathy vote for him.”
Yet among some activists, such as advocates for women and children’s issues and organized labor, Dodd was — and still is — a hero. Some recently flew to Washington, D.C. to witness his farewell speech on the Senate floor. Others have organized events across the state this month to publicly retrace his legislative accomplishments, such as passage of the Family Medical Leave Act, which he championed.
Lori Pelletier, secretary-treasurer of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, recalled how she recently took a tour of the U.S. Capitol and saw a film for visitors that highlighted that law as being among historic pieces of legislation passed by Congress.
“When he announced that he wasn’t running, many of us said, ‘We’re going to miss him when he’s gone.’ We’re a small state. In total, we have seven people down in the Congress. It’s hard to compete with California and Texas, which have dozens and dozens of representatives, and we’re going to miss him,” she said. “Whether we like those rules or not, the Senate’s stock is about seniority. We’re losing a huge amount of seniority.”
While Dodd’s replacement, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, is a fellow Democrat, he’ll also have the littlest seniority among the Senate Democrats. Of the three freshman Democrats, two of them, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Chris Coons of Delaware, had to be sworn into office immediately because they won their seats in special elections.
Democrats still retain control of the Senate, however. And Blumenthal is seen by many of Dodd’s supporters as a strong ally for their issues as well.
Art McNally, 70, of Woodbridge, isn’t worried that Connecticut is losing Dodd and his seniority. Back in October 2009, before Dodd announced his retirement, McNally stood outside a political fundraiser for the senator and held a sign that read “Dump Dodd.” The retiree credits the “Dump Dodd” movement, coupled with the work of tea party activists, with forcing the Democrat to ultimately step aside.
“Am I happy he’s gone? He couldn’t be gone sooner,” said McNally, who said he has nothing personally against Dodd but believes the senator took positions on issues that did not take the constitution or individual rights into account.
“He was a disaster for Connecticut and for the United States Senate,” he said.
Without Dodd’s clout, McNally said, state officials in Connecticut will have to deal with financial woes without the help of bailout money from Washington, which he argues taxpayers cannot afford.
“I think it will do Connecticut some good because it will force the Democrats in the state of Connecticut to face the financial crisis that they’ve been putting off,” McNally said. Connecticut’s budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 faces an estimated deficit of as much as $3.67 billion, or about 18 percent of estimated spending.
Dodd, who has been on a farewell tour of Connecticut this month, said he planned to continue working on issues he cared about — such as improved food allergy guidelines and legislation designed to prevent underage drinking — during the final days of the 111th Congress.
He said he’s excited about Blumenthal being his replacement and maintains it won’t be hard to let go of a job with which he has been synonymous in Connecticut for decades.
“I’m not one of these people leaving embittered. I always think it’s so sad to hear that. I have great optimism,” Dodd said. “How could you not be optimistic about this country considering the obstacles that we’ve overcome and the kind of legacy this nation is leaving for itself and for the world, as a welcoming place, a creative and imaginative place? So, I’m very optimistic about the future.”