As Sen. Chris Dodd gears up for a grueling re-election fight, he has tried to distance himself from K Street by taking an increasingly pro-consumer, anti-industry tack, according to many lobbyists who work closely with the Connecticut Democrat.
The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs chairman has been vulnerable to critics who charge that he was too close to financial services lobbyists and executives, many of whom helped fund his long-shot presidential ambitions.
He has also come under fire for taking a plum mortgage from Countrywide Financial, moving his family to Iowa during the primary and being out of touch with his Nutmeg State constituents.
Dodd, a key player on financial services and health care reform efforts this year, has K Streeters worried that his re-election contest will interfere with the policies that he pushes from his powerful perches.
“He always had a pro-consumer bent, but you felt like you got a fair hearing with him privately,— said one financial industry lobbyist, who would only speak about the Senator on the condition of anonymity. “This year, you get the sense that there’s not even that opportunity.—
But a Dodd spokeswoman said the Senator has not changed his positions.
“Dodd’s background is as a consumer advocate,— said Kirstin Brost, spokeswoman for the Banking Committee.
In addition to heading the Banking panel, Dodd is shepherding the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s health care reform bill while Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) receives treatment for cancer.
Lobbyists say the HELP panel’s bill is more liberal than one the Senate Finance Committee is putting together.
“He is taking positions to prove that he’s not bought and paid for, almost to prove to voters in Connecticut that he has not lost his way,— said another financial industry lobbyist, who noted that Dodd also recently came out in favor of gay marriage.
“If he’d won his election and he was looking at these issues with a full six-year term in front of him, he’d be taking different positions,— the financial industry lobbyist said. “It’s a scary thing for lobbyists and for the industry in general.—
Of course, not everyone on K Street sees any changes in Dodd’s rapport with the industry.
Lobbyist Richard Tarplin, who runs his own health care lobby shop, spent eight years working for Dodd.
[IMGCAP(1)]“People on K Street view him as someone who’s always willing to listen,— Tarplin said. “He doesn’t always agree with what you say. He makes his own judgment. But people appreciate that he will look you in the eye and hear what you have to say.—
Tarplin added that no matter Dodd’s reelection situation, “he puts policy first and politics second.—
Dodd has long been considered close with the insurance industry, and his home state is a hub for the sector.
An insurance industry source gives Dodd’s office high marks but said it still remains to be seen where Dodd comes down on certain health care reform policies such as a public plan option, which insurance companies oppose.
“He’s got to balance two things out — his views and getting something through as vice chair— of HELP, this insurance source said.
A third financial industry lobbyist said there is resentment in the industry among lobbyists and executives who ponied up donations for the Senator. “Everyone knows he’s moved hard left to help his reelection,— said this lobbyist, speaking on background. “When he was running for president, he courted the industry heavily for donations.—
Indeed, in 2007, when Dodd was running for president, his campaign received more than $2 million from the financial sector in the first quarter of that year alone.
And, according to a July 2007 report by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, he was the third most popular candidate among K Street’s hired gun lobbyists, raking in nearly $200,000; the other two candidates who received more from K Street were Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner at the time, and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who became the Republican nominee in 2008.
Dodd has pledged not to accept campaign donations from the political action committees of recipients of the government bailout, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, but he will accept donations from lobbyists.
And one Democratic lobbyist said that despite any troubles in the Dodd-K Street rapport, he will have little trouble raising money because of his committee assignments.
“He’ll be able to raise money from the traditional donors because he’s chairman of the Banking Committee,— this lobbyist said.
Financial industry lobbyists point to a credit card bill that Dodd championed earlier this year and his calls for a consumer financial protection agency. “He certainly isn’t doing things to cater to the K Street crowd,— this Democratic lobbyist said. “He made that fairly clear with the recent credit card bill and this financial consumer protection agency that he’s championing. Those are two bones in the throat of that very constituency.—
But while many lobbyists viewed that bill as a political calculation given Dodd’s reelection fight, others said it was merely a reflection of Dodd’s long-expressed positions.
“Based on his long-standing views, the credit card bill was no surprise,— said Nick Calio, head of global government affairs for Citigroup. “He just never had the votes to do it before.—