Is Rowland Infectious?

Democrats Think Shays, Simmons May Be at Risk

Posted March 24, 2004 at 6:25pm

Long vexed by their inability to win seats that by the numbers favor their party, Connecticut Democrats are hoping that the ongoing problems surrounding Gov. John Rowland (R) will weaken the re-election chances of two Republican House incumbents.

Democrats believe that in Rep. Rob Simmons’ 2nd district and Rep. Christopher Shays’ 4th district, Rowland’s struggles — coupled with the likelihood that Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) will carry both districts in the presidential race — could create a charged climate to defeat the two House Members.

“You have a governor who at worst might be impeached but at best has some serious ethical problems, and it is fair to say that those kind of circumstances cause problems for the party that person is in,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Communications Director Kori Bernards.

She argued that Democrats lost the 3rd district race in Kentucky in 2002 and the governorship a year later due to a personal scandal surrounding then-Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton (D).

National Republican Congressional Committee Communications Director Carl Forti rejected the comparison.

“There is a much different dynamic in a federal race versus a state race,” he said.

State Republicans note that both Simmons and Shays have been vocal critics of Rowland for months and are known for their independence from their party.

“It would be a real issue if we relied on the state party a lot,” said Shays campaign manager Michael Sohn. “He has never campaigned hard with the governor.”

And, added Connecticut Republican Party Chairman Herb Shepardson, the presidential race — not Rowland — will be on the ballot in the fall.

“If I were running for office with a ‘D’ after my name I would be worried about the person leading the helm for Democrats,” he said.

Regardless of the ultimate impact of Rowland’s problems in November, for now they are overshadowing all other political activity in the state.

A bipartisan committee of state legislators is examining allegations that Rowland accepted gifts and free labor at a vacation home on Bantam Lake in Litchfield.

He initially denied receiving the gifts, but then later admitted he did, and went on live television to apologize for his actions.

In the interim, an antiques dealer has pleaded guilty to filing a false tax return relating to his purchase of an apartment owned by Rowland and others have come forward alleging that they provided the governor with gifts ranging from Cuban cigars to champagne in return for political favors.

The legislative committee has set April 14 as a tentative date for the release of its findings. At that time lawmakers will also decide whether to bring impeachment charges against Rowland.

Despite his insistence that he will not resign, recent polls suggest that Rowland has lost the trust of Connecticut voters.

Sixty-one percent of voters in a poll conducted by the University of Connecticut in late February said Rowland should resign; only 33 percent said he should remain in office.

With those albatross-like numbers hanging over Rowland, both Simmons and Shays have been quick to distance themselves from the governor.

Shays was among the first public officials to call into question Rowland’s ability to serve in mid-December, while Simmons was the first Member of the state’s three-person House GOP delegation to call for the governor to resign in January.

Shays made the same request days later, while Rep. Nancy Johnson (R) told the Hartford Courant last weekend that “if the accusations are proven true, he will have to resign — and should resign promptly.”

Both Shays and Johnson served with Rowland, who held the 5th district from 1984 to 1990.

Of the three Republican Members, Simmons is in by far the most precarious political position.

His eastern Connecticut 2nd district has a decided Democratic tilt, having given Al Gore a 14-point margin in the 2000 presidential race.

In spite of Gore’s performance, however, Simmons ousted 10-term Democratic Rep. Sam Gejdenson that same cycle, painting the incumbent as out of touch with the district’s voters — a detachment symbolized by the fact that Gejdenson actually lived in the 3rd district.

Democrats heavily targeted Simmons in 2002 but he won with surprising ease — 54 percent to 46 percent.

This time Democratic leaders have rallied around former Norwich City Councilman Jim Sullivan, although former state Rep. Shaun McNally is also competing for the party’s nomination.

Sullivan admitted that “there is some possibility” that Rowland’s struggles could impact the race but quickly pivoted to focus on “Rob Simmons’ misdeeds in Washington.”

“The race for Congress in the 2nd district is going to be about Rob Simmons and his record,” Sullivan added.

Simmons, a strong fundraiser with a generally centrist voting record, does not present an easy target.

First lady Laura Bush appeared in the district on Simmons’ behalf Wednesday, raising $100,000 in the process. At the end of 2003, Simmons had $518,000 in the bank.

Simmons did not return a call seeking comment.

Down the coast in Shays’ 4th district, Democrats lured Westport First Selectwoman Diane Farrell (D) into the contest with the clear — though not publicly stated — intention of capitalizing on a potential backlash against Republicans in the Constitution State.

First elected to the 4th district in a 1987 special election, Shays has not received less than 60 percent of the vote in his eight re-election bids.

The closest Democrats came was in 1996, when Shays’ opponent attacked him for supporting then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

On its face, the 4th district seems ripe ground for a Democratic takeover. Gore won a 53 percent to 43 percent victory over George W. Bush there in 2000, fueled in part by the fact that Sen. Joe Lieberman (D), who was born within the district’s lines, was Gore’s vice presidential nominee.