William Tong had just finished pitching his candidacy for U.S. Senate, telling the story of growing up as the son of a Chinese cook who arrived in Bloomfield in 1971 with 57 cents and the promise of a job at the Hong Kong Kitchen.
His biography connected with the Democratic town committee in Windsor, a racially and economically mixed suburb of Hartford. One woman smiled at his mention of the long-gone Chinese eatery on Blue Hills Avenue in neighboring Bloomfield.
But then Nathan Karnes, a bearded young man sitting in front, directly, if politely got to the central challenge Tong faces: Why should anyone think that the logical next step for a little-known state legislator is the U.S. Senate?
Tong, 38, a three-term state representative from Stamford, is trying to leapfrog over two better-established politicians, U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy and former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, for the Democratic nomination.
“I know it’s not the U.S. House, and it’s not the U.S. Senate, but it is a legislative body that I’m proud to say has been pretty productive over the past six years,” Tong replied.
Tong is the first Asian Pacific American in the General Assembly and the first Democrat to represent the 147th House District of Stamford and New Canaan. In his third term, he is co-chairman of the Banks Committee.
His legislative record includes helping pass a foreclosure mediation law, and a bill requiring the reporting of lost or stolen firearms, a measure meant to take away an alibi from those who sell guns that show up in crimes.
“I am three months older, actually, than Chris Murphy. He’s had two terms in the House [three, actually], and I haven’t,” Tong said told his Windsor audience. “He was in the state legislature, Susan was in the state legislature. And all of us are going to talk about our records. My record is real.”
But he knows that Karnes’ question frames his nascent candidacy, and he will have to keep answering versions of the query as he makes the rounds of town committees, introducing himself to Democratic activists, many of whom already know his rivals.
Bysiewiecz, a former state representative, won three statewide elections, beginning in 1998. She has the best name-recognition of the three, but she is coming off a disastrous 2010, having started as a gubernatorial front-runner before jumping to the attorney general race, only to be branded as statutorily unqualified by the Connecticut Supreme Court.
Murphy spent four years in the state House of Representatives, four years in the state Senate and then won a long-shot bid in 2006 to unseat Republican Nancy Johnson, the senior member of the Connecticut House delegation.
They are competing for the seat now held by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, who is retiring after 24 years. Unlike two years ago, when Richard Blumenthal was the consensus Democratic pick to succeed Chris Dodd after 30 years, Democrats are resigned to a primary.
“Certainly, I feel like the most unlikely candidate of the three,” Tong said in an interview. “It’s not the next rung in the ladder for me.”
But Tong frames his limited political experience as an advantage at a time when anti-incumbent sentiment is rampant. Congress’s approval ratings are at record lows, and the 2012 election promises to be a volatile affair, with the sour economy likely to drive deep voter angst and anger aimed at Washington.
“I think that people are unimpressed by what is happening in our nation’s capital,” Tong said. And they’re tired of the “same old cookie-cutter career politician.”
But as Tong discovered in Windsor, activists who are an important constituency in primaries, sometimes are vested in and loyal to those career politicians.
In the case of Karnes, he told Tong he first met Murphy when they were active in the Young Democrats. Leo Canty, a labor leader who is the town chairman in Windsor, said later that Murphy’s reputation as a rising star in Washington hardly is seen as a deficit.
Tong is trying to position himself as a politician who understands business and job creation, stressing his family’s background running two small restaurants in succession and his own work as a business lawyer and co-chairman of the Banks Committee.
So while he lacks the fundraising network Murphy has as a congressman and the name recognition that Bysiewicz brings as a former statewide official, Tong said he hopes to generate buzz and win support by pitching himself as different.
“By definition, being fresh and exciting and new means you haven’t been hanging around the hoop for that long,” Tong said.
Tong is emphasizing his personal story, as the son of Chinese immigrants who started in the U.S. with little and built up a small family business, eventually owning a restaurant in Hartford and, later, in Wethersfield.
His parents met at the Hong Kong Kitchen, where his mother was a waitress. After opening his own restaurant, his father faced deportation for overstaying on a tourist visa, but he won an extension and an eventual green card after writing President Nixon.
Tong, who grew up in West Hartford, talks about working after school with his parents in both restaurants, as did his three younger sisters.
But he also is the beneficiary of elite private schools: Renbrook in West Hartford and Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. He has a bachelor’s degree from Brown University and a law degree from the University of Chicago, where Barack Obama was a professor.
He and his wife, Elizabeth, who are the parents of two young daughters, are both lawyers at Finn Dixon and Herling in downtown Stamford. She is a tax attorney. He is described in his firm’s bio as a leader of the firm’s dispute resolution and risk management team.
Tong has not been shy about linking himself to other political sensations in both parties who have taken the political establishment by surprise, including a certain former professor at Chicago and Scott Brown, the Republican who succeeded Ted Kennedy.
So even as he conceded that the U.S. Senate is “not the next natural step,” Tong quickly noted that others “have made the jump from the state legislature to the Senate–you know, Barack Obama, Scott Brown.”
Tong doesn’t drop those names lightly. It’s part of a strategic effort to frame his narrative as a potential political phenomenon–and his opponents as career politicians.
Asked if he paints Murphy and Bysiewicz with that label, Tong responded, “They are what they are.”
He noted Bysiewicz three terms as Connecticut’s secretary of the state. And as for Murphy, he said, “Chris has held office since he was 22 and has hit every rung on the ladder on his way up.”
Tong argued that Murphy was running an “inevitability campaign,” trying to portray himself as the obvious and clear choice in the three-way contest.
Murphy shrugged off that assessment and said he was hardly the face of a “career politician.”
“If I was running as a 20-year incumbent, I might be more worried. But I’ve been in Washington for five years and fought pretty hard to change the culture,” Murphy said. “Whether others want to anoint me as the frontrunner or not, it doesn’t change the way I’m going to run the race,” which he said would be as a come-from-behind challenger.
Murphy did agree with Tong on one thing: “The antipathy for Washington has never been higher and you’ve got to be able to show how you’re going to change the environment.”
For her part, Bysiewicz ignored Tong at a recent forum sponsored by the Working Families Party, focusing on Murphy.
He may prove hard to ignore.
Tong’s first fundraising report showed him raising more than $500,000 in 53 days, compared to Bysiewicz’s $427,000 take and Murphy’s $925,000 haul in the second quarter.
Tong said his surprise fundraising success just shows that even as he embraces the “underdog” label, he can’t be brushed off.
“We’ve been pretty adept at pulling a rabbit out of a hat,” he said.
The Democratic establishment will be watching in October, when the third-quarter finance report is due, to see what else is in that hat.