A month later, candidate Blumenthal finds his voice

Richard Blumenthal showed signs of finding his voice Thursday as a candidate for U.S. Senate by answering the question that flummoxed him a month ago:

As a crusading attorney general for nearly 20 years, has he been bad for business, discouraging investment and fueling unemployment?

Standing at a forum sponsored by some of the companies and industries he has sued, Blumenthal came prepared with an answer and an attitude missing in last month’s debate with his aggressive challenger for the Democratic nomination, Merrick Alpert.

“To blame law enforcement for unemployment is beyond wrong, it’s silly and shouldn’t be given any credibility. In fact it is a disservice to public service itself and to the law-abiding, hard-working business people” in the state, said Blumenthal, who later reported raising $1.87 million since January.

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Richard Blumenthal prepares for Thursday’s U.S. Senate forum (Mark Pazniokas)

At their debate in March, Blumenthal answered Alpert’s criticism with an awkward claim that his lawsuits actually created jobs. His answer was ridiculed then and again Thursday.

“We’re not going to sit here and play nice this morning and pretend it didn’t happen,” Alpert said.

Alpert occasionally was joined by some of the other candidates at the event, who included Republicans Linda McMahon, Rob Simmons and Vinny Forras and independent John Mertens. This time, Blumenthal was ready, refusing to apologize for his record.

“My job has been to enforce the law. What I’m hearing from this table is a philosophy of law enforcement that Bernie Madoff would love,” Blumenthal said. “We’ve just come through a period where lack of enforcement by the federal government enabled and encouraged one of the greatest economic catastrophes in our nation’s history.”

He said almost all businesses have nothing to fear from law enforcement.

“They not only follow the law, they welcome the level playing field that strong law enforcement provides to every one of them,” Blumenthal said. “They do not want to be out-competed and underbid by law breakers who save costs on the backs of our consumers or our hard-working men and women.”

Blumenthal left the debate a month ago without taking questions from reporters. On Thursday, he lingered after the forum, telling reporters, “I’m proud of my record as attorney general.”

Still, Blumenthal can expect to have to defend that record as never before. McMahon, a World Wrestling Entertainment owner and the front-runner for the GOP nomination, has pledged to spend $50 million of her own fortune to win the seat.

Republicans say her well-funded campaign already has pored through Blumenthal’s record of lawsuits, looking for ammunition to use in the general election if she wins the nomination.

One of those cases came up Thursday: Alpert accused Blumenthal of deliberately trying to destroy a small business, Computers Plus Center, with a suit accusing the company of defrauding the state.

But the owner, Gina Malapanis, counter-sued and won $18 million in damages.

Blumenthal said the state has not paid a dime and he expects the award to be reduced or reversed on appeal.

“Very serious errors were made in that trial,” he said.

Alpert likened the state to a failing business, and said voters need to hold officials accountable.

“You don’t promote them, you replace them,” he said.

The overall tone of the forum hosted by the MetroHartford Alliance was gentle, with the candidates focusing on their views on improving the business climate.

The consistent exception was Alpert.

“It’s very clear that our reputation as a state, a reputation that harms our businesses, is that we are known as a state where the first response of the government is to sue businesses,” Alpert said. “We’re known as an anti-job state.”

In response to an audience member’s question, Blumenthal said he could fight for the insurance industry in Washington, even though he has sued insurers in all sectors of the business. He said he recognized in all his battles that the industry, overall, is responsible and reasonable.

“I have also recognized as a United States senator I would have a different role and responsibility that would be as an advocate for them and for all businesses in the state,” he said.

In contrast to the skirmishing between Blumenthal and Alpert, the two leading Republican candidates–Simmons, a former congressman, and McMahon–ignored each other, despite their increasingly bitter fight for the GOP nomination.

Simmons said after the forum that he would have been happy to compare his background with McMahon’s, but none of the questions gave him that opportunity. McMahon said that Simmons’ record in Congress is “fair game” for criticism, but she will use mailings to make those points.