Washington — Since he was first elected to represent a Hartford-based congressional district in 1998, Rep. John Larson has not had a serious challenge from a GOP opponent and – if fundraising and history are any measures – it looks like his winning record will continue this year.
Yet Matthew Corey, a business owner from Manchester, hopes his third try at unseating Larson is a charm.
To Corey, 52, Larson has failed in a key mission – stopping the bleeding of jobs in the 1st District.
“Nobody denies he’s nice, but his policies suck,” Corey said.
To Corey, the traditional Democratic policy of providing a safety net, in the form of government assistance to the poor and disadvantaged, “keeps people down.”
And Democrats hurt job creators like him with too many taxes and regulations. The challenger owns a bar in Hartford and a window cleaning company and often hangs on scaffolds many stories up washing the windows of commercial buildings.
“I am part of the economy,” he said.
Corey also said he’s received a lot of his political education tending his bar and listening to patrons discuss the impact of a precarious economy on their jobs.
“A lot of politics are talked in a bar,” he said.
Larson agrees that the health of the local economy is paramount.
“The number one issue in our district is the need to have jobs,” he said.
Like Corey, who calls himself a “blue-collar small businessman,” Larson, 68, is the product of a working-class background. His father was a fireman for Pratt & Whitney and his mother had a job in the state Capitol and served on the East Hartford town council.
A graduate of Central Connecticut State University, Larson taught high school history classes and worked for a time as an insurance agent before he was elected to the state Senate at the age of 34. After leading an effort to regain a Democratic majority in the state Senate, Larson was quickly promoted to Senate president pro tem.
When Democratic U.S. Rep. Barbara Kennelly gave up the 1st District seat in 1998, Larson easily won it against Republican Kevin O’Connor, a Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer.
He’s never had a serious challenge since.
University of Connecticut political science professor Ron Schurin said Larson has a lock on the job, as long as he wants it.
“This is the most Democratic district in Connecticut, and Larson has the support of organization Democrats as well as ideological Democrats,” Schurin said. “So it would be hopeless for a serious Republican candidate to challenge him and pointless for a Democrat to challenge him in a primary. He’s got the seat for as long as he wants it. ”
But Corey, who ran against Larson two years ago as a Republican and as a petitioning candidate in 2012, said he has a chance to win the seat if he can raise $100,000 to $200,000.
“That would be enough to beat this guy,” Corey said.
Corey reported raising $8,632 by June 30, the end of the last Federal Elections Commission reporting period, while Larson raised more than $1.1 million. Two years ago, Corey raised $32,000 and Larson raised $1.6 million for their campaigns.
From back bench to spotlight
Corey is passionate about what he sees as the need to replace Larson with a more business-friendly politician.
A Navy veteran who was stationed off the coast of Beirut for six and a half months during the conflict in the 1980s, Corey also has worked as an actor, in theater and films, and still holds a Screen Actors Guild card.
He has adopted standard GOP positions on the Affordable Care Act – Corey says it’s a job killer that must go – and on gun control. Corey backs a GOP measure that would bar people on the terrorist watch list from purchasing a gun – but only if the FBI gets a warrant to do so within three days, something Democrats like Larson reject as unworkable.
Larson says he’s not taking Corey’s challenge for granted.
“I take every race seriously,” he said.
He said he’s running for re-election because he feels there is still work that’s undone, including securing federal funding to improve the local infrastructure, including “reconnecting Hartford to East Hartford,” and fixing a glitch in federal legislation that will turn Hartford’s Coltsville neighborhood into a national park.
He says the secret to his political longevity lies in the many face-to-face forums he holds in the district with voters.
“They see me as someone who is accessible because of the number of events I hold each year,” Larson said.
When Congress isn’t in session, voters can also find Larson at his favorite hangout, Augie & Ray’s, an East Hartford diner.
From his seat on the House Ways and Means Committee, Larson has pressed for Social Security reform and breaks on import tariffs for U.S. businesses.
A loyal Democrat who was once promoted to his party’s congressional leadership, Larson has also worked with GOP members of the Ways and Means Committee on key legislation, including making permanent a research and development tax credit, allowing people to get back the balance in their medical savings accounts at the end of the year, and improving Medicare reimbursement rates for ambulatory surgical centers.
But it was his recent teamwork with another Democrat on the panel, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, that captured national attention.
With Lewis, Larson masterminded a Democratic sit-in on the House floor aimed at pressuring GOP leaders to allow votes on gun control measures.
“There have been more than 1,000 mass shootings since Sandy Hook,” he said. “There is so much pent-up, palpable anger.”
Larson came up with the idea of seizing the floor, and for 15 hours managed dozens of House Democrats as they gave speeches urging votes on “No Fly, No Buy” legislation that would bar those on the terrorist watch list from purchasing a gun and a bill that would expand FBI background checks of gun buyers.
Larson said he kept plans of the takeover of the House floor from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders to shield them from any repercussions from the protest that broke several House rules.
“Lawmakers should not break laws,” Corey said of Larson’s actions.
Larson’s high profile role in the rebellion spurred speculation that he would try for a leadership role in the next Congress – or in a Hillary Clinton administration – if he wins re-election.
“When I saw him on television, I thought it was clear he set his sights on a national audience,” said Gary Rose, head of the political science department at Sacred Heart University. “I felt that his agenda included a new role for himself in Congress or in the Clinton administration. It was quite obvious he had something big in mind.”
Schurin said Larson was the perfect Democrat to lead the rebellion with Lewis, a civil rights icon.
“He goes back to the Democrats’ labor roots and makes it seem like this effort is not a liberal limousine-rider type thing,” Schurin said.
He also said speculation about Larson’s ambitions is well rooted.
“I am assuming that someone who was in leadership in the Connecticut Senate and in leadership in the U.S. House feels like leadership is a good place to be,” he said.
In 2008, Larson was backed by Pelosi and won a leadership election for chairman of the Democratic Caucus. But Democrats lost their majority, and when Larson was term-limited and had to step down as head of the Democratic Caucus in 2012, there was no other leadership post he could move to.
Since then, Larson has been a mentor to younger and less senior House Democrats and helped dozens of colleagues by giving generously from his own campaign funds and from his Synergy PAC to help their re-election.
Meanwhile, Larson’s own re-election campaign may be low key, as the last few were.
He has opened campaign offices and plans to canvass every town in the district.
Larson says he has “a lot of run left in me,” but also said “someday I hope to return to teaching.”
Corey, meanwhile is depending on the help of volunteers to wage his challenge and hoping for the best.
“If you took away (heavily Democratic) Hartford, I could beat that guy,” he said.