Sen. Joe Lieberman (I)
Elected: 1988, term expires 2012, 4th term.
Born: Feb. 24, 1942, Stamford .
Education: Yale U., B.A. 1964, LL.B. 1967.
Family: Married (Hadassah); 4 children.
Elected office: CT Senate, 1970–80, Maj. ldr., 1974–80; CT atty. gen., 1982–88.
Professional Career: Practicing atty., 1967-70, 1980-82.
Joe Lieberman, Connecticut’s junior senator, is an independent known for his troubled recent history with the Democratic Party. He was a Democrat until 2006, when he lost in the primary to an anti-war candidate but went on to be re-elected anyway as an independent. He calls himself an Independent Democrat, but the label doesn’t mean much given his estrangement from the party, especially after he campaigned for Republican presidential nominee John McCain in 2008.
|Joe Lieberman (CFL)||564,095||(50%)||($17,210,710)|
|Ned Lamont (D)||450,844||(40%)||($20,557,217)|
|Alan Schlesinger (R)||109,198||(10%)||($204,113)|
|Ned Lamont (D)||146,404||(52%)|
|Joe Lieberman (D)||136,490||(48%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2000 (63%), 1994 (67%), 1988 (50%)
Lieberman grew up in Stamford, the son of a liquor store owner, and was interested in politics early on. He remembers coming home from school at age 9 eager to watch the televised Kefauver hearings. He graduated from Yale College and Yale Law School, became chairman of the Yale Daily News, and worked summers for Sen. Abraham Ribicoff and the Democratic National Committee. Even then, his political ambitions were no secret—other students called him “the Senator.” In college he wrote an admiring yet academically solid biography of that quintessential political boss John Bailey, Connecticut Democratic chairman from 1946 to 1975. Still, he was unafraid to challenge the political establishment, founding an anti-war Caucus of Connecticut Democrats. In 1970, he ran for the state Senate in New Haven against state Senate Majority Leader Edward Marcus and won, with help from, among others, a Yale Law student volunteer named Bill Clinton. In 1980, he ran for an open U.S. House seat and lost 52%-46% in a Republican year. In 1982, he was elected Connecticut attorney general.
In 1988, Lieberman challenged Republican Sen. Lowell Weicker, another maverick but of a different sort. Weicker was well to the left of most Republicans on economic and cultural issues; Lieberman was to the right of most Democrats on cultural issues and foreign policy. He ran witty ads, one showing a bear sleeping through work—a takeoff on the growling and erratic Weicker. Lieberman won 50%-49%.
In his first years in the Senate, Lieberman made a mark in foreign policy. He was one of the leaders in favor of the Gulf War resolution in 1991, and without his earnest and vehement support, it might not have passed. Presciently, he called for “final victory” over Iraqi Leader Saddam Hussein. An Orthodox Jew, he is a strong supporter of Israel. After September 11, he avidly supported the war on terrorism in Afghanistan and in December 2001 was one of 10 members who signed a letter urging President Bush to target Iraq next. The following year, he urged the administration to move its putative allies in the Arab world toward political freedom to prevent a “theological iron curtain” behind which terrorism could build.
Lieberman played a key role on homeland security as it developed into a major issue. He initiated the call in Congress for a Department of Homeland Security with a bill in October 2001 that became one of the working documents in the debate over the creation of the department. Bush differed with Lieberman, however, on the side issue of barring unions in certain divisions of the department. Lieberman argued that his version allowed removal on a case-by-case basis if union rights were a threat to national security. But the Bush administration held out for a tougher position on unionization, and Republicans kept the bill from coming to the floor. Lieberman and the Democrats ultimately conceded on the issue.
As the ranking Democrat on Governmental Affairs in 2005 and 2006, Lieberman worked closely with Chairman Susan Collins, a Maine Republican. They threatened to launch an investigation of the base-closing process unless the Pentagon released certain documents, part of Lieberman’s successful campaign to prevent the recommended closing of the submarine base at Groton. They investigated the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina and recommended the appointment of an inspector general to monitor recovery efforts. In 2006, they called for an independent Office of Public Integrity, in which nonmembers would conduct investigations requiring final approval by the Senate Select Ethics Committee, but the plan was rejected. Lieberman was also part of the “Gang of 14” that promised to prevent the filibuster of judicial nominees except in extreme cases.
Lieberman has spoken out eloquently on moral issues, and has said, “We in government should look to religion as a partner, as I think the founders of our country did.” In highly publicized Commerce Committee hearings in September 2000, Lieberman denounced the marketing of violent movies, music, and video games to children. He refused to be a lockstep defender of President Clinton when Clinton was accused of lying about extramarital relations with a White House intern. He called Clinton’s behavior “wrong and unacceptable” and said he deserved “some measure of public rebuke and accountability.” But he stopped well short of backing impeachment or resignation. Lieberman has long believed, as he said in 2002, that “faith-based groups can help government solve pressing social problems,” but he opposed the Bush administration’s faith-based charities bill in 2001, calling instead for tax incentives for corporate giving.
Al Gore’s decision to make Lieberman his vice presidential nominee in 2000 was history-making. He was the first Jew on a major party ticket. Plus, Lieberman’s reputation for probity and his denunciation of Clinton gave the ticket some insulation from the scandals of the Clinton era. Lieberman’s moderate record on issues was an asset. He generally supported Democratic policies on economic issues but backed such measures as capital-gains tax cuts for small business. “You can’t be pro-jobs and anti-business,” he said. Another asset proved to be Lieberman’s fervent avowals that religious faith had a rightful place in politics. What might have been resented from a Christian conservative seemed attractive coming from an Orthodox Jew.
His poll ratings were high, and if there was general agreement that Dick Cheney excelled at the October 6 vice presidential debate, Lieberman also performed well. Lieberman’s Judaism seems not to have hurt the ticket anywhere, and it probably helped in crucial Florida. He made memorable campaign appearances in heavily Jewish Broward and Palm Beach counties, which together voted 65%-32% for Gore-Lieberman. But there was some tension between positions Lieberman had taken before 2000 and his campaign rhetoric. He had questioned racial quotas and preferences, but declined to say they should be curtailed. He supported publicly funded private-school vouchers for students in the failing District of Columbia schools, but he told teachers’ union leaders that overall he wanted to put money into public schools. In the later controversy over the vote count in Florida, the usually temperate Lieberman took what to some was a surprisingly sharp partisan role.
As he contemplated his own bid for the presidency four years later, Lieberman was not a clear choice for the party, especially given widespread doubts about his unswerving support of the Iraq war. He had supported Bush on going into Afghanistan and going into Iraq, not just perfunctorily or after the fact, but fervently, even as many Democrats soured on the war. He stuck to those positions in the summer of 2003, even as Vermont’s Howard Dean attracted a mass constituency over the Internet and rose in the polls in part on his stringent criticism of Bush on Iraq. In August 2003 Lieberman said, “I share the anger of my fellow Democrats with George Bush and the wrong direction he has taken our nation. But the answer to his outdated, extremist ideology is not to be found in outdated extremes of our own. That path will not solve the challenges of our time and it could well send us Democrats back to the political wilderness for a long time.” He told unions that foreign trade is good for the American economy. He cautioned Democrats not to abandon Clinton-era principles that “made our party once again fiscally responsible, pro-growth, strong on values, for middle-class tax cuts,” adding that “Howard Dean is against all of these.”
Like other hawkish candidates—Gore in 1988, McCain in 2000—Lieberman decided to avoid dovish Iowa. He was stung in December 2003 when Gore, without notice, endorsed Dean. “I don’t have anything to say today about Al Gore’s sense of loyalty, I really don’t, and I have no regrets about the loyalty that I had to him when I waited until he decided whether he would run [in 2004] to make my decision because that was the right thing to do,” he said. While Dean, Kerry, John Edwards, and Dick Gephardt were attracting attention in Iowa, Lieberman spent the month before the January 27 primary living in a basement apartment in New Hampshire, chatting with voters over coffee, speaking to groups wherever he could. But Dean was attracting far more volunteers and far larger crowds, and Kerry, after his come-from-behind victory in Iowa, was also much better organized. “We have JOE-mentum,” Lieberman would proclaim cheerfully, but it wasn’t enough. He finished fifth in New Hampshire, with 9% of the vote. For another week he persisted in campaigning for the February 3 primaries in six states, but the best he could do was a second-place finish in Delaware, with 11% of the vote, and he ended his campaign.
In 2005, after he delivered his State of the Union address, Bush embraced Lieberman as he was leaving the House floor. Many thought Bush kissed him—and “the kiss” became one of the war cries of Lieberman’s critics in the blogosphere. The Democratic leadership was not pleased when he continued to support the Iraq war, voted to confirm Alberto Gonzales as attorney general, and supported faith-based initiatives. Most Connecticut Democrats wouldn’t dream of challenging the well-financed Lieberman based on his wayward views, but money was not a problem for Ned Lamont, the great-grandson of J. P. Morgan partner Thomas Lamont and the owner of a successful cable television installation business. He had been a selectman in Greenwich in 1987-89, had lost a race for the state Senate in 1990, and had contributed to many Democratic candidates, including Lieberman in 2000. He recruited Tom Swan, head of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, to manage his campaign.
At first Lamont’s campaign seemed a long shot. To get on the primary ballot, he had to get 15% of the votes at the state party convention in May (or signatures from 2% of registered Democrats, an avenue he didn’t pursue). That was not an overwhelming obstacle, given the anti-war views of most Connecticut Democrats, but Lieberman had been deeply involved in Connecticut Democratic politics for 40 years and had built up many close personal relationships. Given his easy re-elections in 1994 and 2000, he seemed certain to keep the seat out of the hands of the Republicans. Lieberman’s work on saving the Groton base would pay dividends in eastern Connecticut, and he had support from key Democratic groups, from the state AFL-CIO to the Human Rights Campaign. Also, Lamont was an inexperienced candidate not given to easy repartee, and he made some mistakes along the way—for instance, saying that job losses from free-trade agreements were a necessary “transition cost.”
But he had enthusiastic support from Weicker, the man whom Lieberman beat in 1988 and who in 1990 was elected governor as an independent. Video clips championing Lamont’s candidacy got wide airing on YouTube, and Lieberman was booed at the state Jefferson Jackson Bailey dinner. At the May 19 state convention, Lamont won a third of the delegates. Lieberman emphasized his Democratic credentials and his votes against some of Bush’s policies, and said that he hoped troops could be pulled out by the end of the year. He also had some $4 million, which he used on television advertising. At a July debate, while Lamont attacked him on Iraq, Lieberman said, “The people of Connecticut and I have known each other for a long time. We have laughed and cried together. We prayed and dreamed together. And, most of all, we have worked together.” But Lamont was also spending liberally, both his own money—he ultimately put in $17 million—and funds raised over the Internet.
It turned out to be a close election. Lamont won 52%-48%. Lieberman won more than 60% in working-class New Haven suburbs, Waterbury, and the industrial Naugatuck Valley. Lieberman won the votes of 61% of Jews and 55% of Catholics, but still lost. John Bailey would have been amazed to learn that you could carry Catholics and Jews in a Democratic primary and still not win. Lamont carried the upscale suburbs, with 68% in Greenwich, and his network of campaigners helped him carry almost all of the small towns, with percentages ranging up to 91% in tony Cornwall.
Lieberman declared that he would run in the general on the “Connecticut for Lieberman” party line, and said he offered “a new politics of unity and purpose.” In a tough blow for him, his close friend and fellow home-state senator, Democrat Christopher Dodd, endorsed Lamont and even appeared in a TV spot for him. Most Democrats shunned Lieberman when he returned to Washington in September, and some called for him to drop out of the race. However, five Senate Democrats endorsed Lieberman: Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Tom Carper of Delaware, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Ken Salazar of Colorado. Quickly, leading Republicans sent out unmistakable signals that the White House was for Lieberman, discouraging a strong challenge from the GOP side.
Most polls from primary day through November showed Lieberman leading Lamont. Liberal bloggers speculated hopefully that the mostly ignored Republican candidate, Derby Mayor Alan Schlesinger, would surge and take votes from Lieberman, but that never happened. Lamont seemed unprepared for this second struggle, and Swan admitted that 98% of his planning was for the primary. Lieberman researchers revealed that Lamont had missed a vote on increasing property taxes on the Greenwich Board of Selectmen. He also resigned from the Round Hill Club in Greenwich, having discovered after many years that it didn’t have many black members. And Swan was quoted as saying that the industrial town of Waterbury was “where the forces of slime meet the forces of evil.” This was a reference to crooked local politicians, but it looked like a slur against a working-class, and Democratic, city.
The polls proved to be on point. Lieberman won 50%-40%, with only 10% for the hapless Schlesinger. This time it was Lieberman who carried most of the small towns and cities in the state. Lamont’s patches of support in such areas came only from the towns around the University of Connecticut in the east and the tony residences of New York expatriates in the far northwest of Litchfield County. Lamont carried Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport, where Democratic party loyalty prevailed. But Lieberman carried most of the suburbs, many by wide margins. Exit polls showed Lieberman winning 70% of Republicans, 54% of Independents, and 33% of Democrats.
Lieberman was welcomed back to the Democratic Caucus by Majority Leader-elect Harry Reid, who said, “We’re all family.” Senate Democrats—and Republicans—were very much aware that it was Lieberman’s vote alone that gave them a Senate majority and that, for all his professions of loyalty to the Democratic Party, the quick withdrawal of that vote would lead them back into the minority. But Lieberman continued his independent ways. He co-sponsored, with Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a resolution opposing the Democrats’ calls for withdrawal from Iraq, and he strongly supported President Bush’s troop “surge” to try to restore order in the country, which was on the brink of civil war.
As the new Chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Lieberman declined to initiate investigations of Bush administration policies, prompting North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan to use the Democratic Policy Committee to launch a probe of private contractors in Iraq. “We like to do legislation. We don’t like investigating,” Lieberman said. While continuing to back Democratic stands on most domestic issues, he opposed a vote of no confidence in Gonzales and in November 2007 delivered a stinging speech condemning most Democrats’ approach to national security policy.
Then, on Dec. 18, 2007, Lieberman shocked many Democrats when he endorsed McCain for president. They had worked together on many issues over the years, and had often traveled together. “When it comes to leading America to victory against the Islamist terrorists who attacked us on 9/11, there’s no one better prepared than John McCain,” Lieberman said. Moreover, he campaigned for McCain in New Hampshire, Florida, and other states. There was speculation that McCain might give him the vice presidential nomination, which Lieberman tried to parry. “Been there, done that,” Lieberman said in August 2008. But inside the McCain camp, Graham pushed hard for Lieberman, who evidently made McCain’s short list before being passed over for Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. A Lieberman nomination might have caused a nasty floor fight. On the other hand, as one adviser to Democrat Barack Obama told the newspaper Politico after the election: “It did have the potential to be a game changer.”
In any case, Lieberman, having attended eight Democratic conventions from 1976 to 2004 and having been nominated for vice president at the one in 2000, attended his first Republican National Convention and spoke at the end of Tuesday night’s proceedings. He called Obama “a gifted and eloquent young man”—which enraged many Democrats—and said, “When colleagues like Barack Obama were voting to cut off funding for our troops on the battlefield”—the audience started booing—“John McCain had the courage to stand against the tide of public opinion and support the surge. And because of that, today our troops are at last beginning to come home, and they are coming home with honor.”
After the speech, Democratic Net-roots groups launched a campaign to have his committee chairmanship stripped in 2009, when it was widely expected that he would no longer hold the 51st vote in determining party control of the Senate. A “Lieberman Must Go” online petition accumulated 47,000 signatures by July 2008. Reid said he was “disappointed” in Lieberman. But two days after the election, Reid and Lieberman conferred for an hour, at which Lieberman reportedly said losing the chairmanship was “unacceptable,” and that he might consider joining the Republican Party—a decision that, with the Georgia, Alaska, and Minnesota races then still undecided, would have made it impossible for Democrats to reach a 60-seat filibuster-proof majority. Dodd and others began lobbying colleagues to let Lieberman keep his gavel, and word leaked that the Obama transition team did not want him punished. On Nov. 18, 2008, the Senate Democratic Caucus voted 42-13 to let him remain as chairman of the Homeland Security panel. For his part, Lieberman apologized for some of the things he had said about Obama.
On the committee, Lieberman was the lead sponsor of the bill giving the District of Columbia congressional representation, which passed 61-37 in February 2009 with an amendment repealing most of the District’s gun-control laws. Lieberman also worked to gain support for Obama’s economic stimulus bill from moderate Republicans. But hard feelings in his former party remained. Democratic Rep. John Larson, who represents Connecticut’s 1st District, told the Hartford Courant, “I think Joe is on a different roster. He’s made a conscious decision to go over to the other side.”
Lieberman comes up for re-election in 2012. With most Democrats expressing negative feelings, a February 2009 poll showed him trailing Democratic Attorney General Richard Blumenthal 58%-30%. Connecticut Republicans in 2008 said they would welcome Lieberman into their party, but it was not clear whether the welcome mat might be withdrawn if he continued, as he did in early 2009, to support the Obama administration and the Democratic leadership on most issues.