Sen. Dodd now in nation’s hot seat; some hope for his speedy retirement

HARTFORD, Conn. – Howard Rosenblatt voted for U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd five years ago. He won’t do that again. ‘It’s time for Chris to resign,’ said the 62-year-old owner of Rosenblatt’s department store in Naugatuck, Conn., a working-class borough of more than 30,000. ‘He sits on the Senate banking commission, and he had his hands on funny money loans.’ Earl Reilly, a 59-year-old factory worker from Naugatuck, shares Rosenblatt’s anger with the state’s senior senator. ‘Don’t get me started on Dodd,’ he said. ‘He’s been doing the job too long, and he’s got a hole in his canoe and it’s sinking.’ While Dodd, 64, has only recently found himself in the nation’s political hot seat because of his role in the AIG bonus debacle, it has become clear that his issues with voters back home have been festering for two years. The AIG controversy appears to have exacerbated his popularity problems. ‘His numbers started to fall two years ago, and it had nothing to do with the economy,’ said Quinnipiac University Poll Director Douglas Schwartz. ‘It’s been a cumulative effect that has brought him down.’ Dodd’s decision to move his family to Iowa, his initial refusal to release documents of his two controversial mortgages with Countrywide, criticism of how he financed a vacation cottage in Ireland, and now his involvement as Senate Banking Committee chairman in the bill that ultimately protected bonuses for executives at insurance giant AIG have all taken their toll. ‘I think Chris has made a couple of mistakes,’ said Bill Stanley, a retired stockbroker and longtime Democrat from Norwich who has known Dodd since he was a child. ‘I think when he moved out west, a lot of people who were not politically tuned in … felt he had abandoned Connecticut for personal gain.’ Joyce Moore of Colchester, loading groceries into her car outside the Whole Foods supermarket in Glastonbury, said she still likes Dodd and questions the motivations of Dodd’s critics. ‘I kind of think the other side is making a big deal out it to make him look bad, to set it up for the next campaign. I think they’re making more out of it than it needs to be,’ Moore said of the controversies dogging Dodd. ‘I’m suspicious of it. I think that the Republicans are desperate to get a senator in there from Connecticut.’ In his hometown of East Haddam, many fellow Democrats who have known Dodd for years are keeping an open mind. ‘I think people here have a good sense of what kind of person he is, having a close-up view of seeing him at local restaurants, talking with him at local Christmas parties and events. We have a good sense of who he is and his record of accomplishment over many decades,’ said Matt Budzik, chairman of East Haddam’s Democratic Town Committee. Dodd tried to blunt the effects of this latest AIG bonus controversy by speaking with Connecticut reporters last week. While he’s released the details of his Countrywide mortgages and refinanced them, and explained that U.S. Treasury officials had asked for the language that ultimately protected the AIG bonuses, Dodd acknowledged that voters back home aren’t particularly happy. ‘Anytime you have to explain things, that’s an issue,’ he said. But Dodd tried to downplay the effects on his chances for re-election in 2010. ‘That’s so far away,’ he said. ‘I can’t sit here every day and wonder about the political ramifications.’ Dodd’s job approval numbers in this traditionally Democratic-leaning state of 3.5 million people have been dropping consistently, poll after poll. His rating dropped from 60 percent job approval on May 10, 2007, to 41 percent approval on Feb. 10, 2009. His numbers jumped to 49 percent in a March 10 poll, but that was conducted before the AIG controversy surfaced in the news. That same March 10 poll showed if the election were held today, he’d face a neck-and-neck matchup with former Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons – an extraordinary position for Dodd considering he has not been in a close race since 1980 when the former U.S. House member first ran for the Senate. Nancy DiNardo, chairwoman of the Connecticut Democrats, said she believes the poor economy is partially to blame for Dodd’s woes back home. She said once he begins his re-election campaign, voters will remember the good he has done for the state. DiNardo said while there’s some anger among Democrats, she doesn’t sense the same level as what Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman experienced two years ago when he lost the Democratic primary, mostly because of his strong support for the Iraq war. Lieberman later won the general election as an independent – winning over unaffiliated and Republican voters, two groups from which Dodd is losing support. Simmons, who plans to officially announce his candidacy early next month, said he is hearing from voters firsthand that Dodd’s support is weakening in the state. ‘The move to Iowa resonates, the cottage resonates, the idea that Senator Dodd has been out of town and become part of the Washington establishment, that he’s been there for too long – these are things that I hear from Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters,’ he said. ‘Even today, in the legislative office building, Democrats have come up to me and said, ‘It’s time for a change.”