Eating lunch in a corner of the Berkeley College dining hall last week, Rob Simmons, 66, sat calmly. For one who had recently announced his bid to represent Connecticut in the U.S. Senate, challenging an incumbent who has handily won his previous races, Simmons seemed relaxed — especially considering that his last campaign did not end in victory.
“We knew it was coming,” Simmons said pensively of his defeat. He lost by 83 votes.
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A former military intelligence and Central Intelligence Agency officer, teacher and legislator, Simmons announced last month that he would challenge Connecticut’s senior senator, five-term incumbent Christopher Dodd, in 2010. A former congressman — the Stonington, Conn., native represented Connecticut’s 2nd Congressional District from 2000 to 2006 — Simmons is a man few view negatively, despite political differences, his career marked by consistent public service.
During his congressional tenure, Simmons would regularly distribute his business card. Each, he said, granted its owner 15 minutes of uninterrupted time with the former congressman. Simmons estimates he gave out 60,000 of his cards during his six years in Congress, and held thousands of meetings with constituents in his office.
“I would tell everyone who received a card — everybody who received a card, regardless of whether they agreed with me — you get 15 minutes of uninterrupted time with me,” he said. “If anybody called, they got the time. Nobody was ever denied.”
Jane Dauphinais, district director during Simmons’ time in the House of Representatives and now director of the Southeastern Connecticut Housing Alliance, recalled that Simmons’ motto for the Connecticut office was “helping people.”
“That was his goal and ours,” she said. “He had a hardworking office of people determined to make government work for [constituents] every day. He was the kind of boss that made us want to go to work, and no one worked harder than he did.”
His chief of staff for much of his tenure, Todd Mitchell, said Simmons needed to hear all of the points of view regarding an issue before making his decision — something Mitchell said Simmons learned from his time as an intelligence officer.
“He feels strongly in keeping the trust between the voting public and their elected officials,” Mitchell said of Simmons. “He doesn’t like to see when that trust is violated.”
Indeed, Simmons said he is running against Dodd because of numerous allegations involving his ties to American International Groups’ troubled Financial Products Division and the failed company Countrywide Financial.
But Simmons has drawn criticism from Democrats, including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, for his ties to lobbyists. His first campaign event, a “Meet and Greet” at the headquarters of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee Tuesday, was reportedly hosted by a group of lobbyists representing banks and energy companies.
Furthermore, Simmons’ support for the Bush tax cuts has drawn criticism. In an interview with ABC News Tuesday, Simmons said he believed the cuts were responsible for some of the economic growth the nation had been experiencing.
But, as DSCC Communications Director Eric Shultz said in a statement Wednesday, “If past is prologue, we now know what the Simmons economic approach will be: the Bush model.”
Simmons has also been criticized for his vote for the war in Iraq — a vote he said he made because of flawed intelligence. Although Dodd survived his 2004 reelection campaign despite his pro-war vote, Simmons’ vote contributed to his 2006 loss, according to district polls.
A man of both the military and the CIA, Simmons distinguished himself in each. In Vietnam, Simmons earned two Bronze Stars during a 19-month tour. And serving a five year deployment in East-Asia for the Agency, including a three year stint in Taiwan, he ran an operation that prevented that government from obtaining nuclear weapons.
It was Simmons’ military career that brought him to Yale in 1986. While commanding the 434th Military Intelligence Detachment based in New Haven, he taught courses such as “Congress and the U.S. Intelligence Community” and “The Politics of Intelligence” for a decade.
When, in 2006, Simmons lost his congressional seat to Democratic Rep. Joe Courtney, it was only six years after he first took office.
“I don’t think he has any regrets,” Mitchell said. “He isn’t saying ‘what-if.’ He feels he was caught too close to shore, running in the least-Republican district of any Republican incumbent.”
For two years, Simmons served as Connecticut’s first-ever “business advocate,” a position abolished in recent budget cuts. Nevertheless, he enjoys significant support from Connecticut leaders. Gov. M. Jodi Rell, for one, sung his praises to reporters last week.
“I’m not endorsing him, but I love Rob Simmons,’’ Rell said. “He has the wherewithal. He has the intelligence. He has the stamina. He has the personality to get out there and do the job well.”
All in all, things are now looking up for Simmons. A Quinnipiac University Poll released last month showed him in a statistical tie with Dodd. And in a Quinnipiac Poll to be released today, Simmons is expected to place distance between himself and the incumbent.
But while Simmons said he was encouraged by the results, he insisted he would not become complacent, but that he would instead work hard to win his party’s nomination and ultimately unseat Dodd.
“As someone who used to run marathons in college, I know every race has a beginning, a middle and an end,” he said. “If you have a good start that’s good; if you have a good middle that’s good; but what you really need is a good end.”