Politics & Poker: Are Sins of His Father Being Visited on Dodd?

Posted April 20, 2009 at 6:28pm

Psychologists and political historians should be having a field day in Connecticut right now.

[IMGCAP(1)]After all, aren’t the troubles engulfing Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) vaguely reminiscent of those that ended the political career of his father, the late Sen. Thomas Dodd (D-Conn.)?

The senior Dodd was fingered by former aides — one of whom, Michael O’Hare, died last week at age 73 — for pocketing $116,000 in campaign cash for personal use. In 1967, Thomas Dodd became the first Senator censured by his colleagues under what were then new ethics laws. He lost a bid for a third term in 1970 and died just months later, when he was only 64.

No one has yet suggested that Chris Dodd committed any crime. He’s accused of getting a sweetheart deal on his mortgages, of cozying up to the financial industry and of being asleep at the switch, both at home and in his oversight role as chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee as he ran for president in 2008 while the nation’s economic crisis mushroomed.

Still, a whiff of scandal is a whiff of scandal, and recent polls have shown Dodd to be in a politically precarious position as he prepares for his re-election campaign in 2010.

“It’s going to be a steep uphill climb for him,— said Douglas Schwartz, director of the Quinnipiac University Poll in Hamden, Conn. “I wouldn’t say it’s irreversible. But it’s tough to bring down negatives that are so high.—

This has got to be troubling to Dodd, not just as he wonders whether there’s anything he can do to secure a sixth term, but for his ongoing crusade to restore his father’s good name.

One question that needs to be asked: Are the sins of the father being visited on the son, 40 years later?

“This is eerily similar to what happened to his father,— one leading Connecticut Democrat mused in a recent conversation.

The Dodd name didn’t hurt the son as he launched his own political career, first as a candidate for the House in 1974, then in his first Senate bid in 1980. He has always won his elections fairly easily, and his long and distinguished record in Congress — one that’s clearly separate and distinct from the one that his father built — suggests he was no ordinary Congressional legacy.

Of course, Thomas Dodd had a pretty strong record — both in Congress and before he got there — before he was done in by scandal. He was part of the prosecutorial team at the Nuremberg trials, convicting Nazis for war crimes after World War II. He was a key American adviser to Carlos Castillo Armas, who took power in Guatemala after a military coup in the 1950s. (Chris Dodd shares his father’s interest in Latin America, though his politics on hemispheric affairs are considerably to the left — possibly owing to his time in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic.)

In Congress, Thomas Dodd was an early advocate for gun control. And as he has worked through the years on his own political career, Chris Dodd has operated on a parallel track to try to restore his father’s reputation. At home, at least, it appears to have worked, insofar as there is now a Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, which emphasizes foreign policy and human rights, at the the University of Connecticut and a Thomas J. Dodd Memorial Stadium in Norwich, home of the Connecticut Defenders AA baseball team.

“Hardly a day goes by,— the current Sen. Dodd told the New York Times in 2007, “when someone doesn’t come up and talk about a relationship they had with my father.—

But have things come full circle now? Does hearing about the ethical scrapes of their senior Senator remind them about his father’s misdeeds? Does Chris Dodd basically pay twice now, for his own troubles and his father’s?

Opinions differ.

The Democratic insider notes that most voters are way too young to remember Thomas Dodd. “It’s a generational thing,— the Democrat says, arguing that it’s the ethical troubles of recent Connecticut governors and mayors, as well as the bruising Democratic Senate primary of 2006 between Sen. Joe Lieberman and businessman Ned Lamont that have soured voters on political insiders like Chris Dodd.

A Capitol Hill veteran who has followed Connecticut politics closely for a quarter-century said the current Sen. Dodd does not believe he has done anything wrong, while his father conceded his mistakes. But this person said that Thomas Dodd’s censure by the Senate “has always hung over— his son.

In their dual political careers, the Dodds have touched — and occasionally overlapped with — some of the biggest names in modern Connecticut history. After four years in the House, Thomas Dodd lost a Senate bid to the Republican incumbent, Prescott Bush. Two years later, he won an open seat and eventually served in the Senate alongside Abraham Ribicoff (D), a former governor who succeeded Bush in 1962.

Despite his Senate censure (Chris Dodd, incidentally, was in the Peace Corps when it happened), Thomas Dodd fully intended to seek re-election in 1970. But beset by health problems, he briefly dropped out of the race.

By the time he changed his mind, there was already a Democratic primary under way to succeed him, and he did not have the political juice — or a close enough relationship with the state party boss, the legendary John Bailey — to get back in the game. So he decided to run as an Independent.

The Democratic nominee that year was Joseph Duffey, an anti-war minister whose campaign volunteers included a couple of Yale University law students named Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham, as well as an aspiring Connecticut pol named Joe Lieberman. The Republican nominee was Lowell Weicker, a liberal first-term Congressman and the heir to the Bristol-Myers Squibb fortune who wound up winning with 42 percent of the vote to Duffey’s 34 percent and Dodd’s 24 percent.

In 1980, Chris Dodd, after six years in the House, was elected to succeed Ribicoff, whom his father had succeeded in the House. Chris Dodd backed Lieberman for president in 2004 and in his unsuccessful bid for renomination in the Democratic Senate primary. When Lieberman lost the primary, Dodd switched allegiances, backing Lamont in the general election. But Lieberman prevailed that November, running as an Independent.

When Chris Dodd ran for president in 2008, Lieberman did not return the favor with an endorsement. But since Dodd has become mired in difficulty, his fellow Nutmeg State Senator has been one of his chief defenders, predicting that he’ll be re-elected and reminding Connecticut voters how important Dodd is to the state.

Looking ahead to 2010, Republicans think they have a top-notch recruit in former Rep. Rob Simmons, who compiled a center-right record during his six years in Congress before being narrowly ousted in the Democratic wave of 2006. But Simmons faces at least one GOP primary opponent in state Sen. Sam Caligiuri, and even in a state that has had Republican governors for 16 years, it is hard to imagine a Republican prevailing in the Senate election.

Chris Dodd has handed the GOP that opportunity. Can he get himself out of the quagmire? If things don’t get worse for him, he’s skillful enough of a politician to know that several well-chosen mea culpas can’t hurt.

But here’s one harbinger that he can’t possibly like: The Connecticut Defenders baseball team was sold earlier this month to a group of investors in Richmond, Va. This is almost certainly the team’s last season at Thomas J. Dodd Memorial Stadium.