Blumenthal as outsider: Running away from Obama, congressional Democrats

Richard Blumenthal distanced himself Monday from the Obama administration and the state’s Democratic congressional delegation with a forceful denunciation of Washington in a speech to the Connecticut AFL-CIO in Hartford.

The Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate was cheered as he arrived, but his anti-Washington theme drew little applause from a labor audience that had warmly greeted the man Blumenthal hopes to succeed, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd.

“People just think Washington isn’t working for them,” Blumenthal said. “It’s preoccupied with the special interests. It’s gridlocked by partisan acrimony. Washington isn’t listening, and Washington isn’t working for ordinary people.”

Blumenthal at AFL-CIO

Richard Blumenthal warmly received by AFL-CIO. (Mark Pazniokas)

In January, Blumenthal entered the Senate race hours after Dodd’s retirement announcement by offering a testimonial to the five-term senator. But on Monday he did not mention Dodd, who spoke to the AFL-CIO delegates earlier in the day.

“If there were awards for being duplicitous, Dick Blumenthal would be a gold medalist,” said Chris Healy, the GOP state chairman, who says Dodd has “afforded Blumenthal every courtesy and political consideration.”

Blumenthal’s remarks were a continuation of a theme he’s been sounding in recent days.

Dodd said he wasn’t bothered by Blumenthal’s criticism of Washington and, by implication, of him as the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee and a key player in helping pass President Obama’s legislative agenda.

“No, I understand politics,” Dodd said. “I just think there is a danger in all of that, because you’ve got to get a vote out. You’ve got to get your base out.”

Dodd said Obama gets too little credit for the passage of landmark legislation, such as the health-care and financial-services reform bills, or helping stabilize the economy with stimulus spending that helped Connecticut balance its budget.

“An awful lot of worthwhile things have happened in the past 20 months, and I’m not sure anybody knows about it,” Dodd said. “And if you don’t talk about it, don’t count of the other side talking about it.”

Dodd said that Democrats in this year’s mid-term election cannot count on anything close to the turnout that Obama generated in 2008, when Democrats won all five U.S. House seats in Connecticut.

Blumenthal did not soften his rhetoric when told of Dodd’s cautionary remarks.

“Sen. Dodd and I agree on many things, but we also disagree on many things,” Blumenthal told reporters. “I’m not reluctant to say that I’ve never been a part of Washington. I’ve never been an insider. And I’m happy to be running to stand up for ordinary people.”

Blumenthal is trying to follow Joseph I. Lieberman’s example of using a record as an activist attorney general as a springboard to the U.S. Senate.

Lieberman served six years as the state’s first full-time attorney general before ousting Lowell P. Weicker Jr. from the Senate in 1988.

Blumenthal was elected as attorney general in 1990, ramping up the profile of the office with an aggressive approach to class-action lawsuits and public relations.

“Connecticut is a small state, but we’ve led national battles, because I’ve boxed above my weight by reaching out to members of other parties and to independents, as well as to Democrats,” Blumenthal said. “That is my persona. That’s in my DNA. And I m going to remain a fighter for the people of Connecticut, first, last and always.”

He is opposed by Republican Linda McMahon, whose $22 million budget to win the GOP nomination was more than Dodd has spent on campaigns in his Senate career. McMahon did not speak to the AFL-CIO, whose leaders say they invited her by letter and email. McMahon’s staff say they could not find an invitation.

Ed Patru, the communication director for McMahon, said even before Blumenthal’s AFL-CIO speech that he was pandering by casting himself as a political outsider.

“Ever get the sense that Dick Blumenthal is willing to say just about anything to get elected – no matter how absurd and unbelievable?” Patru said in an email to reporters, calling him a “big-government liberal” suddenly trying to sound like a conservative Republican.

Healy was sharper in his criticism after reading of Blumenthal’s remarks.

“Dick Blumenthal believes if he just counts to three and says, ‘I am not a career politician, I am not a career politician, I am not a career politician,’ he will be delivered as a freshly scrubbed populist who is fed up with the partisan politics and grid-lock of Washington, D.C.,” Healy said.

Blumenthal says he would have opposed the Trouble Asset Relief Program that bailed out Wall Street. He also objects to the stimulus package as doing too little to help the middle-class.

“I believe that the stimulus was wrongly structured, because it failed to provide jobs and paychecks to ordinary Americans. It unfortunately was inadequately designed to invest in infrastructure, in roads and bridges and schools,” Blumenthal said.

Asked how the state could have balanced its budget given the influx of stimulus money for Medicaid, education and other programs, Blumenthal said, “That’s an entirely separate question. I would have opposed the stimulus as it was structured.”