HARTFORD — One thing is certain about Attorney General Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73: His work ethic is praised across party lines. But what is less certain is whether he can maintain bipartisan support as his views on controversial issues start surfacing in his campaign for Christopher Dodd’s U.S. Senate seat.
Within hours of Dodd’s announcement Jan. 6 that he would vacate his Senate seat when his term ends next year, Blumenthal declared his candidacy. The Democratic primary is slated for Aug. 9. Blumenthal’s campaign, just a week old, is still in a developing stage.
Right now, the Yale Law School graduate is “super popular,” says Douglas Schwartz, director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. In every Quinnipiac poll conducted in the last decade, Blumenthal’s approval rating has topped 70 percent, Schwartz said. But he cautions that attorney generals do not publicly take controversial stances on out-of-state issues, so his popularity may decrease during the election. Blumenthal has taken an early lead against both Democratic and Republican challengers, according to this month’s polls by Rasmussen Reports, a national polling service, and Public Policy Polling, a private North Carolina-based polling company.
In an interview with the News on Wednesday, Blumenthal, a Democrat, said he does not always follow his party’s line.
He supports the death penalty.
He calls for tougher law enforcement.
He opposed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s fight to prevent Nevada’s Yucca Mountain from becoming the site of nation’s largest nuclear waste dump.
“I have been no stranger to controversy,” he said.
As he starts to speak out more, he’s inevitably headed for more of it.
Russell Osgood ’69 LAW ’74, the president of Grinnell College in Iowa, is one of many people who call Blumenthal an “incredibly hard worker.” Osgood said Blumenthal used to swim laps in the Payne Whitney Gymnasium pool every day, which was probably a result of Blumenthal’s Marine Corps regimen.
Blumenthal was a sergeant and, Osgood said, a “fanatical exerciser.” When Blumenthal was a young state representative and a legislative session would have a dinner break, State Sen. Martin Looney (D-New Haven) said, Blumenthal would often swim laps.
On the Yale Law Journal, Osgood worked under the future attorney general, who served as the periodical’s editor-in-chief. Osgood does not remember Blumenthal taking any strong stances on political issues while at Yale.
Blumenthal, for his part, said his time at Yale “crystallized and enhanced” his interest in politics and public service.
First elected attorney general in 1990, Blumenthal is widely seen by state legislators from both parties as one of the most hardworking and accessible public officials in the state — even to a fault.
“The joke is that he shows up all the time, to everything, even garage door openings,” said Gerry Garcia ’94 SOM ’01, a former New Haven alderman in Ward 9 and current candidate for secretary of the state.
Garcia recalled a 1998 Board of Aldermen hearing during which he and former Ward 1 Alderman Josh Civin ’96 LAW ’03 fought to prevent tobacco and alcohol advertising near schools. Although Blumenthal was in Washington at the time to testify before Congress, he flew back to New Haven to support Garcia and Civin’s initiative.
“Blumenthal is such a class act that for him, Congress and the New Haven Board of Aldermen are simply two citizen legislatures that he treats with equal respect,” Garcia said.
In his two decades in office, Blumenthal has prosecuted major cases against drug traffickers, polluters, civil rights violators and consumer defrauders.
Kevin Lembo, the state’s health-care advocate, said Blumenthal was instrumental in passing Connecticut’s 2007 law that barred health insurance companies from rescinding policies from individuals without departmental review, the first law of its kind in the country. Lembo said the state law has influenced national thinking about health insurance reform and has had a direct impact on legislation pending in Congress today.
Blumenthal said that while he would have voted for the Senate’s version of the health care reform bill, he prefers the House version, in which the insurance exchange is regulated by the federal government rather than the states.
On the economy, Blumenthal said he supports current legislation calling for the establishment of a federal Consumer Financial Protection Agency and for the consolidation of current agencies charged with overseeing the financial sector.
Blumenthal has a “dream situation” in this opportunity to run, political science professor Donald Green said: Blumenthal lucked out because he is pursuing an open seat previously filled by a Democrat in a Democratic state.
“He has carefully angled his political career for an opportunity just like this,” Green said, adding that Blumenthal has been “basically visiting every town in Connecticut for literally years.”
Blumenthal tends to agree; “now is the right time,” he says. The Senate has been a lifelong goal for him, Blumenthal said, and he had not previously sought a higher office because his children were still at home.
Even so, State Sen. Tony Guglielmo (R-Stafford) said that, given the slow economic recovery nationwide, 2010 could be a year that favors Republican candidates. Guglielmo also said Blumenthal might have fared better two or four years ago, when anti-Republican sentiment was at its peak.
If the campaign turns on national security issues, in light of the Christmas Day terrorist attempt aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253, Guglielmo said Blumenthal’s lack of experience in that area would hurt him in the race. Blumenthal responded that he is a “quick study” and that he supports President Barack Obama’s troop increase in Afghanistan.
Blumenthal has yet to publish a platform that will explain his stances on national issues. He said he would soon but declined to specify when.
“It’s only a nine-month campaign,” he quipped, sitting at the state Democratic headquarters in Hartford. He does not have his own campaign headquarters yet.
Blumenthal’s Republican opponents include former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons and Linda McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment Inc.
Correction: Jan. 15, 2009
An earlier version of this article misrepresented the occupation of Richard Blumenthal’s LAW ’73 Republican opponent, Linda McMahon. She is the former, not current, CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. It also misstated that Rob Simmons was a state representative; he is a former U.S. representative.