On Jan. 11, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd abandoned the classic strategy of returning to his home state to announce his presidential candidacy and instead chose to declare his intentions to the national audience of radio talk show host Don Imus. The choice suggested that the senator recognized the necessity of emerging from the shadows of prospective heavyweight candidates, including Senators Hillary Clinton LAW ’73, Barack Obama and John Edwards.
But on Friday, Dodd returned home for a rally in Hartford before a swing through the Northeast where, unlike on the national stage, his reputation precedes him. And whereas on “Imus in the Morning” he admitted to being a “dark horse” candidate, he told reporters Friday that there was plenty of time to build up national support.
Dodd’s chances of success depend on whether he can communicate his political experience to voters nationally and on how the perceived front-runners fare under scrutiny, experts said. While he boasts considerable expertise in health care, family and Latin American issues, the tendency for modern political parties to quickly winnow the field of prospective candidates may hamper his chances to rise to the pinnacle of American politics.
Idealist on the Rise
Mike Lawlor, a Democratic congressman who represents East Haven, remembers the first time he met Dodd. It was in the aftermath of the 1974 elections in which a new batch of idealistic politicians, including Dodd, swept into Congress on the coattails of public disillusionment with the Watergate scandal, promising reform and a new brand of politics. So when Rep. Dodd spoke to Lawlor in his University of Connecticut political science class, it was one freshman — Dodd in politics, Lawlor in college — speaking to another.
“He was really smart, really sane, and he really cared, not that phony kind of pandering,” Lawlor said. “It was very real and very special.”
Four years later, Lawlor would work for Dodd as an intern. Lawlor said Dodd’s political priorities have not changed since then.
“Way back then, he was talking about [health care and families],” Lawlor said.
It took until 1993 for Dodd to push through Congress what a Senate aide called his landmark piece of legislation — the Family and Medical Leave Act, which gives workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave following a child’s birth or a family member’s medical emergency. But his commitment to these issues developed much earlier.
Those who knew him before his political career began say his early experiences shaped his later concerns as a representative and then as a senator. Between 1966 and 1968, Dodd served in the Peace Corps in rural villages in the Dominican Republic. Louis Ferrand, who served in the Peace Corps with Dodd and is now the chief legal adviser to the general secretary of the Organization of American States, said Dodd’s involvement in the Peace Corps — building wells, roads, schools and latrines — doubtlessly influenced his political outlook.
“He interacted [there] with bright, capable peopl, barely scraping by, held back only by a lack of opportunity,” Ferrand said.
In the Senate today, Dodd, who speaks fluent Spanish and who in 2005 introduced legislation to invest in social and economic development throughout the Americas, is known as an expert on Latin America.
But during the Cold War, Dodd’s positions of Latin America sometimes led to conflict with hardliners in the Reagan administration. Dodd’s support of socially progressive movements in Central America led to confrontations with the president’s policies, including Reagan’s support of the anti-Communist Contra terrorists in Nicaragua who sought to overthrow the Sandinista government.
A Serious Contender?
Dodd’s commitment to equal opportunity and expansive social policy makes him a favorite of progressive liberals, said members of both parties, but they split along partisan lines as to whether this would be a benefit or a detriment.
Republican strategist Dan Schnur — who has worked on four presidential campaigns, most recently as the national communications director for Sen. John McCain in 2000 — said that if Dodd somehow managed to win the primary, his record would be both his greatest strength and greatest liability.
“[Republicans] could portray him as the last of the old-line liberals,” Schnur said. “But it will take a lot more to knock Chris Dodd off his game than someone less experienced like Obama.”
But with three front-runners, Schnur said, even if Dodd manages to separate himself on policy from one candidate, it will only bring him closer to the other two. Likewise, if one front-runner stumbles, there will still be two candidates left standing for Dodd to overcome, he said.
But others said Dodd’s policy expertise could tilt votes his way, especially late in the primary season if there is no clear front-runner. John Yuasa, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, health policy director for the Greenlining Institute and one-time campaign manager for Dodd, said the candidate’s enthusiasm and ability to excite a crowd will allow him to make the Family and Medical Leave Act a primary strength. The reason, he said, is Dodd’s ability to clearly explain how the act directly affects the average American.
“Health care is near the top [of important issues] for voters,” Yuasa said.
Republican Connecticut State Sen. Bill Nickerson agreed that Dodd is an impressive speaker, and he said he respects Dodd for his sincerity in his beliefs. But Nickerson called Dodd’s presidential campaign “quixotic” and said he does not consider him a serious candidate.
“He is a very effective political animal, quick on his feet,” Nickerson said. “And he has unwaveringly supported the old-time religion of Democratic politics.”
The irony, Yuasa said, is that when Dodd first entered office, he was there to shake things up. Now, he is asking voters to recognize the strength that a seasoned politician can bring to the presidency.
Dodd at Home
Yalies said Dodd’s candidacy would be a boon both for students interested in politics and for the community as a whole.
Ward 1 Alderman Nick Shalek ’05 said the issues facing New Haven and Connecticut make the region a microcosm of the country at large. For people who care about local politics, Shalek said, it will be very valuable to have a president familiar with the economic challenges facing the area.
Dodd comes from a family with deep roots in Connecticut politics. His father, the late Connecticut senator and former Nuremburg trial lawyer Tom Dodd LAW ’33, was elected to the House of Representatives in 1952 and served in the Senate from 1959 until his death in 1971.
Eric Kafka ’08, president of Yale College Democrats, said students would also benefit from the ability to get directly involved in campaigns — provided Dodd remains a contender.
But Nickerson said Dodd lacks the name recognition, money and political organization to make him a serious primary challenger to Clinton or Obama.
Yale political science professor Justin Fox said he agreed that given how quickly parties today consolidate around a single candidate, he was not even sure Dodd would make it as far as the Connecticut primary elections.
“Politics isn’t fair,” Schnur said.
Yuasa, who while living in Washington often sat down to lunch with Dodd, said he is leaning toward supporting Dodd for president, but that he will not commit his vote to a particular candidate until he researches all of their platforms.
“I think it’s how he would want me to look at it,” Yuasa said.