East Hartford — William Tong’s exit from the U.S. Senate race Tuesday was gracious and timely, calculated to keep him in good standing with a Democratic establishment that the transparently ambitious Tong intends to court again.
“This was my first statewide campaign,” said Tong, a three-term state legislator from Stamford, whose effort introduced him to 90 Democratic town committees and gave him a taste of national media exposure. “I do not expect it will be my last.”
By endorsing U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy for the Democratic nomination as he ended his own campaign, Tong is joining the man he calls his mentor, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, in backing the front-runner before the first delegate’s vote is cast at a nominating convention May 12.
Perhaps more importantly, Tong leaves the race in time to reclaim the nomination for a state House seat he won in 2006 in a GOP district, the same year Murphy unseated Republican Nancy Johnson for Congress.
His reward for the tone and timing of his exit was a press conference at which he was lavishly praised by Malloy and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman and thanked by Murphy, who now faces a head-to-head Democratic contest with Susan Bysiewicz.
“We had two very, very powerful men who I think are so qualified to take this position as U.S. senator,” Wyman said. “This is, I think, just another beginning for him. This is not the end, just a different beginning.”
Malloy paid Tong the compliment of holding off his endorsement of Murphy until Tong’s exit, something the governor saw as inevitable, given the polls and fundraising.
“He is a friend. He is a great human being,” Malloy said. “He has a very fine mind, a good public-service instinct. When he told me he wanted to take this run at the Senate, I certainly understood. I gave him some words of advice.”
The governor paused a beat, then added, “He listened to some of them.”
Connecticut is a small state, but it is divided between two television markets: Hartford-New Haven and New York. As the mayor of downstate Stamford, Malloy knows well the challenge of building statewide name recognition.
Malloy narrowly lost the Democratic primary for governor in 2006, a losing effort that positioned him for a successful run in 2010. Malloy said that Tong’s campaign earned some political equity.
“I haven’t met a person from a Democratic town committee who heard William speak about issues, speak about his family, speak about the history of that family, that was not extremely impressed,” Malloy said.
Tong was educated at Brown and the University of Chicago, where he had a law professor named Barack Obama, but his stump speech was about being the son of a struggling Chinese immigrant.
“Thousands across Connecticut now know the story of Ady Tong, how he came to Bloomfield, Conn., with 57 cents in his pocket to cook Chinese food,” Tong said Tuesday. At the mention of his parents, Ady and Nancy, Tong’s voice broke. “I wasn’t going to do this.”
“It’s all right,” said Rep. Tim Larson, D-East Hartford, an early backer.
Tong’s wife, Liz, and their three children, Eleanor, Penelope and Alexander, joined him at the lectern in a community room at Goodwin College. As he focused on his prepared remarks, he didn’t notice Malloy pick up his fussing son, who is known as Sasha.
When it came time to thank Malloy, Tong did a double-take, seeing his son in the governor’s arms.
Tong said an upside of his departure from the Senate race was more family time this summer. To his children, he said, “I look forward to teaching you to fish this summer in the Mianus River.”
“Can we go now?” Penelope asked.
It was almost time. Tong first had to shift the spotlight away from himself to Murphy, who stood to the side, waiting to accept Tong’s endorsement.
“Today, I am proud to announce that Team Tong is merging with Team Murphy,” Tong said. “I am proud to endorse Chris Murphy for the United States Senate and join his team.
Tong had joined Bysiewicz, 50, the former secretary of the state, in criticizing Murphy during debates for what he called a lackluster record in Congress, but the gibes were never too much to shrug off as an attempt to gain ground on a front-runner.
He indicated common cause with the 38-year-old Murphy — like Tong the father of young children, married to an attorney — was generational, as well as pragmatic.
“We were born the same year. We are both sons of Connecticut who love our home state. And I have learned that he has the same fight, the same grit, the same commitment to working people like my parents,” Tong said. “Every time I see him at a debate or a campaign event, I have the chance to look him in the eye and to take his measure. And I know he has the heart, the backbone and the integrity we need in the United States Senate.”
Tong enjoyed his time in the spotlight. He won overheated press attention from MSNBC and other outlets that dubbed him the “Asian Obama,” without mentioning his poor standing in the polls and relatively anemic fundraising.
He is intent on running again, but that will require luck, as well as ambition. If Murphy is elected to the Senate, all eight statewide offices will be held by Democrats, meaning that Tong would mostly likely have to wait for one of them to retire.
Richard Blumenthal was attorney general for 20 years, waiting for either Chris Dodd or Joe Lieberman to give up a Senate seat. George Jepsen, a former state representative and state senator from Stamford, waited 20 years for Blumenthal to move on.
For now, Tong will work on re-election to a fourth term in the state House, where he is the co-chairman of the Banks Committee, marked as a politician waiting to move up.