Ned Lamont’s Senate campaign has two lucky numbers: 47 and 1,000.
Forty-seven is the percentage of Connecticut liberals who, according to a Jan. 11 Quinnipiac University poll, would like the Democratic Party to nominate Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman ’64 to serve again in the Senate — but 47 is also the percentage of Conn. liberals who want to see Lieberman defeated in the August primary. And 1,000 is the number of volunteers Lamont wants to recruit before his campaign to defeat Lieberman becomes official. But some Democrats question Lamont’s suggestion that Lieberman should be defeated because Lieberman is conservative on issues such as the Iraq War.
That quest for 1,000 volunteers brought Lamont, an antiwar progressive who plans to challenge Lieberman in the August Democratic primary, to New Haven’s public library on Saturday morning, where he addressed a crowd composed mostly of active progressives from New Haven and Fairfield counties. The listeners clapped at each condemnation of Lieberman’s drift towards the right, and the majority of the audience’s responses during the question-and-answer session were statements of support for Lamont.
“For me, the war is a terrible foreign policy blunder, but more, we didn’t ask the right questions — and Senator Lieberman cheered Bush along all the way,” Lamont said to the audience. “It’s time to start rocking the boat.”
Lamont is a cable company executive from Greenwich whose experience with statewide politics is limited to an appointment by former Gov. Lowell Weicker to serve as chairman of the state’s Investment Advisory Council. He served as a selectman in Greenwich, and, on the policy side, he said he has worked with the Brookings Institute researching the national budget deficit.
Lamont’s campaign faces some challenges. He lacks the name recognition of Lieberman, who was first elected to state-wide office in 1970, and as a businessman, Lamont lacks the record of an experienced campaigner. But many of those attending Saturday’s event said his message, which emphasizes opposition to the Iraq war but also addresses the need to make U.S. companies more competitive by improving education and health care, could appeal to that 47 percent of liberals who want to replace Lieberman.
“I thought, ‘He’s a businessman; how articulate could he be?’ But I was impressed,” John Hartwell, a coordinator for Democracy for America, said.
Hartwell said Lamont began his campaign after it became apparent that another progressive candidate, former Governor Weicker, would not run.
But New Haven Democratic Town Committee Chairwoman Susie Voigt said she thinks it is important for the Democratic Party to have those who are more conservative in their outlook, as well as those who are more liberal in their outlook.
To win, Lamont will have to convince moderate Democrats that he is a viable alternative – a considerable challenge because he said he expects few elected Democrats to support an outsider candidate against a politician as established as Lieberman. Lamont said he spoke with New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr., but DeStefano only gave him personal advice about the toll a campaign can have on a family.
“He’s going to have to reach out to more than just disaffected Democrats, and I think that’s going to be one of the challenges,” said Tom Swan, executive director of Connecticut Citizen Action Group and an advisor to Lamont’s campaign. “Most of the established party people are not going to be the first people who are willing to stand up.”
Swan said that in order to overcome having neither the funds nor the recognition of Lieberman, Lamont is looking to run a grass-roots campaign based on word of mouth and the energy of local activists. Already, Lamont has been discussed extensively on Daily Kos, a popular left-wing weblog.
“My emphasis is on going to as many of these towns as I can, raising dough in small amounts,” Lamont said.
Lamont said Lieberman is vulnerable to a challenge in the Democratic primary, where Republicans, who give the Senator a 68 percent approval rating according to the Quinnipiac University poll, cannot vote. Active Democrats from around the state confirm that they have noticed Lieberman’s recently declining popularity.
“I’ve heard some [criticism], in the last year or so, especially as it relates to the war in Iraq and his support for the administration,” New Haven Democratic state Rep. William Dyson said. “It’s a general sense of his not taking the administration on more forcefully than he has done.”
Still, Dyson, who has not spoken with Lamont, questioned whether Lieberman was vulnerable to a challenge from someone unknown to voters.
“Outside of having someone with some name recognition, it’s unlikely that it would happen,” he said.
Voigt also said that Lieberman is widely respected for his consistent support for issues such as environmental protection and abortion rights. Even some audience members at Saturday’s speech said they respected Lieberman for his position on social issues. Mitch Fuchs, chair of the Fairfield Democratic Town Committee, praised Lieberman’s opposition to a Senate bill that makes it difficult for individuals to declare bankruptcy.
Lamont, who will file papers establishing his candidacy committee this week, has until Aug. 8 to campaign for the primary. He started his campaign just this month, and Saturday’s event in the New Haven library was the first time some of his supporters heard him speak publicly.
“It’s clear that this campaign is just starting, and his stump speech is not fully fleshed out yet, but … you definitely saw inklings of a potentially very, very good candidate,” said Kevin Bock ’08, who is treasurer for the Yale College Democrats. “If he comes and speaks to the Yale Democrats, I think he’ll find a whole lot of people who would support him.”
Bock said Lamont plans to speak at the University, probably in late February.