No Weinergate here: State delegation plays it safe on Twitter

WASHINGTON–Here’s a tweet, the likes of which you will almost certainly never read from anyone in Connecticut’s congressional delegation: “Sorry for all the unwanted attention on #WeinerYes follows. I didn’t mean to make you famous. #CollateralDamage.”

Sure, the younger Connecticut lawmakers, like Reps. Jim Himes and Chris Murphy, try to be edgy and real with their 140 character instant messages to the world. And they are funny on occasion. But for the most part, tweets from the lawmakers representing the Land of Steady Habits read like any old congressional press release. Only shorter.

“GOP holding our economy hostage in order to pass their Medicare privatization scheme,” Murphy, D-5th District, tweeted on Monday.


“Just back from meeting with president. Encouraged to hear his strong commitment to protecting seniors and Medicare’s guaranteed benefit,” Rep. Joe Courtney reported breathlessly on Thursday afternoon.

This week in Washington, Murphy, Courtney and others cast dead-serious votes on everything from raising the debt ceiling to funding for homeland security. But the story that has transfixed many reporters–along with more than a few congressional aides, lawmakers, and political junkies–was that of Rep. Anthony Weiner’s Twitter flap, in which a suggestive photo of a man’s crotch was sent out via Weiner’s Twitter account to a female college student in Seattle.

The short version: Weiner, a New York Democrat, said his account was hacked and that he did not send the photo. But he has refused to directly address the question of whether the lewd photo was of him, saying he couldn’t say “with certitude” whether it was or not. His hedging has spurred more questions-and a media frenzy.

“Would you be willing to do an on-camera interview to talk on this?” a CNN reporter asked Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, on Thursday after peppering him with questions on what’s become known as “Weinergate.”

“If I go on, we’re just feeding the fire,” Larson responded.

“Has it become a distraction for Democrats?” another reporter asked Larson.

“No… ’cause we’re focused on Medicare, we’re focused on putting people back to work. So it’s not a distraction at all for us.”

That was after Larson has spent more than half of an eight-minute gab-session with reporters talking about Twitter and Weiner. He seemed relieved when a reporter asked him about conservative attacks on his natural gas legislation.

But back to Twitter. And those riveting messages sent out by Connecticut lawmakers. All seven of Connecticut’s House and Senate members have Twitter accounts. But their use of the social media tool varies dramatically. Some are more daring and have fully embraced the technology. Others seem more wary, and leave it to their younger, tech-savvy aides to handle.

“To be honest with you, I kind of let Josh quarterback it,” Courtney, D-2nd District, said about his Twitter account. He was referring to Josh Zembik, his communications director, a 30-year-old former sports reporter who definitely plays it safe when Tweeting.

“Congratulations to my new colleague @KathyHochul (maiden name: Courtney!) on her swearing in today,” Courtney (aka Zembik) tweeted when the newly-elected Democrat took the oath of office earlier this week.

Asked how he makes sure no Tweets get him in hot water, Courtney said he and Zembik talk about what to say and how to say it. It’s mostly informational, Courney said–“what committee I’m at, what event I’m at.” And the tone? “Very, you know, Joe Friday–‘Just the facts, Ma’am.'”

Maybe it’s a generational thing. But the two youngest members of the delegation–Murphy and Rep. Jim Himes–were the only ones to say they craft their own tweets.

“I write all of my own tweets and my staff does not have access to my Twitter account,” said Himes. But, he added, “I’m not as advanced a user as Anthony [Weiner].”  For one thing, he said, he doesn’t know how to store photos on Twitter.

Also, his staff made him agree to two tweeting rules: “No tweeting after more than two drinks and no mention of any body parts.”

The second rule, he said, went on the books after he was at a chili-eating contest and he ate some very hot stuff. “In the car on the way back, I put up a tweet that said ‘My head is sweating’,” Himes recalled. “That’s when the body part rule was implemented.”

On a more serious note, both Himes and Murphy said they see Twitter as a great way to communicate directly with constituents and to make themselves more “real” to voters.

“Folks want to know that congressmen are real people,” Murphy said, explaining why he writes all his own Tweets and most of his own Facebook posts. “I think it’s a nice way to create a connection that seems to be vanishing between people and the folks they send into government.”

So intermixed with Murphy’s messages that throw a Democratic political jab or describe a recent House vote are missives like this: “Was wildly over-optimistic about my 2 yr old’s parade marching interest today. Lasted 30 ft at Cheshire parade.” Or this: “Chaos! Crazed abortion protester crashes my SCOTUS transparency press conf! Hard to do Q&A during handcuffing.”

“I’m certainly careful about it, but I think if you’re too careful you won’t say anything that’s interesting,” Murphy said. He said he’s just as happy to tweet about politics as he is about pop culture or sports, although he says the latter subjects have earned him some ridicule from followers.

Himes, too, said he likes Twitter because it’s a medium that lets him share “the human interest side” of what it’s like to be a member of Congress.

With tweets limited to 140 characters, Himes said, “it’s obviously not a good venue for policy” discussions. But it allows him to “just give people a little window into the day-to-day life and ironies” of Washington.

Like the weekly commute to D.C.: “Now in second hour of ground delay on @usair in perfect weather with much of NY’s delegation. #ALWAYStakethetrain,” Himes tweeted last week.

Or the prospects for his latest legislative salvo: “Just dropped a bill to eliminate 3% tariff on gallium imports. Expect to be on all the Sunday morning shows to discuss. #notsomuch.”

“I really value humor and it’s an important part of being authentic,” Himes said. “But humor can also be very dangerous, so I think hard so that my tweets don’t get misconstrued.” He noted that just this week, he used the word “minority” to describe a Democratic House member–i.e. a member of the minority party–but someone in Connecticut thought it was a reference to the lawmaker’s race.

“That made me cautious,” Himes said.

Compared to Weiner’s tweets, though, Himes’ messages are milquetoast, along with the rest of the delegation’s. The sharp-witted, hard-charging Weiner has more than 60,000 followers (granted, more than a few thousand of those signed up after the underwear photo went out). Combined, Connecticut’s seven federal lawmakers have a total of 25,225 twitter followers.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent, has the most, with more than 12,000 people tracking his dispatches bashing Syrian President Bashar al Assad or touting his partnerships with GOP lawmakers John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s Twitter feed has just 610 followers, but he is, after all, just a freshman with a relatively new account. The former state attorney general definitely isn’t looking to make a Twitter splash with his posts. “Today we commemorate and thank the courageous fallen warriors who have kept us free” he tweeted on Memorial Day.

Maybe Blumenthal just wants to avoid the Tweeting missteps of his predecessor. A couple months before his retirement, then-Sen. Chris Dodd’s office inadvertently sent out a tweet that included a profanity. “U love torturing me w this s—,” the message said. Dodd’s staff quickly apologized for what they said was a “technical mistake” and not a missive from Dodd.

Among the many Twitter questions that reporters asked Larson this week was whether, as the head of the House Democratic Caucus, he had cautioned lawmakers about their embrace of such social media tools.

Larson called himself “digitally homeless,” and said that for many members, “this is not a medium they’re used to.” He said the Weiner incident, if nothing else, has offered a lesson about “how quickly this can spin and turn” and “all come back at you.”

And how does he make sure his own tweets don’t get him in trouble? Larson turned to his press secretary, Ellis Brachman. “What do we do, Ellis?”