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Tough year was clincher for Dodd

Conn. senator won’t run for a 6th term

By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / January 7, 2010

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WASHINGTON - Christmas Eve should have been the kickoff to a victorious season for Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who had just helped broker the passage of a historic health care overhaul bill and was heading into a reelection campaign as a powerful Democrat in one of the bluest states in the nation.

Instead, the day marked the moment Dodd stood in the cold at Arlington National Cemetery, gazed at the grave of his best friend and colleague Edward M. Kennedy, and began to come to the painful realization that he would not - some said, could not - serve a sixth term.

The past year had been hard on the 65-year-old Dodd. He was dogged by ethics questions, including allegations he had benefited from a sweetheart real estate deal. His own state had turned on him, unhappy with him for moving his family to Iowa for the presidential caucuses and for getting too close to Wall Street during the financial meltdown.

On a more personal level, he had undergone prostate cancer surgery, and lost his sister and Kennedy, his closest friend, both to cancer.

As he stood in the cemetery contemplating his political future, Dodd did so with meager approval ratings, a sharp contrast to the high marks and easy reelection campaigns the veteran lawmaker once enjoyed. Facing the prospect of a nasty and bruising campaign, Dodd spent the holidays deciding to bow out of the Senate after a Washington career that began in 1974 with his first election to the House.

Republicans have been salivating at the prospect of expanding their numbers with the possible defeat of a weakened incumbent, a pillar of the New England Democratic power in the Senate. Instead, with Dodd announcing his retirement yesterday, Republicans saw their chances of flipping the seat diminish with the quick announcement by a popular Democrat, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, that he will run.

Dodd was confident he could win, associates said, despite being in what the senator yesterday acknowledged as “the toughest political shape of my career.’’ But such a campaign would be exhausting and ugly, and Dodd simply didn’t want to put himself, his family, and his state through it, they said.

“It is beyond bizarre. I think the world got turned upside down. It’s as if the people don’t know him,’’ said Representative John B. Larson, Democrat of Connecticut and a friend of Dodd’s, describing the change in the state’s political climate.

“He said very honestly, at the end of the day, do I want to go through a punishing battle so I can put another notch in the belt and say, ‘I beat this person and bested an individual by X percent?’ For what? His service and accomplishments are unimpeachable,’’ Larson said.

During the campaign, Dodd would have been hammered daily for his dealings with mortgage lender Countrywide Financial Corp. Dodd, whose committee oversees financial and banking institutions, was on Countrywide’s “VIP’’ list of mortgage borrowers critics said may have gotten him a lower rate, leading to allegations of a “sweetheart’’ mortgage deal. Dodd denied wrongdoing, and was cleared by the Senate Ethics Committee. But the issue is still politically powerful in the aftermath of the mortgage lending meltdown.

Dodd faced formidable opponents, including self-funded wrestling executive Linda McMahon and a popular former congressman, Rob Simmons, who are running in the GOP primary.

“Senator Dodd’s retirement is not surprising, considering he’s long been regarded as one of the most vulnerable Democrats in 2010,’’ said Amber Wilkerson Marchand, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, citing what she called Dodd’s “unethical indiscretions.’’

His retirement marks a looming loss of power for the New England delegation after the death of Kennedy. Since seniority largely determines committee leadership, the region will begin the next Congress with at least two fewer committee chairmen among its ranks.

Fellow Democrats were stunned. Dodd had been aggressively campaigning and fund-raising, and both President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Connecticut in recent months to help Dodd raise cash. Dodd spoke to both Obama and Vicki Kennedy, the senator’s widow, before making his announcement.

Several people close to Dodd said neither the White House nor Democratic leaders pushed Dodd to retire. “This is a totally introspective, personal decision that he made,’’ Senator Paul G. Kirk Jr. of Massachusetts said.

Supporters saw Dodd’s 2010 challenge as similar to the one Kennedy waged in 1994 against Mitt Romney, then the GOP Senate nominee. Coming off the Palm Beach rape trial of his nephew and hampered by the unpopularity of the Democrats, Kennedy faced an unexpectedly tough challenge from Romney, but campaigned hard and won reelection handily. But for Dodd, such an effort would have meant a nearly nonstop campaign this year as Dodd is anxiously trying to win approval of landmark legislative initiatives on health care and financial regulation.

The Connecticut lawmaker acknowledged yesterday that “there have been times when my positions and actions have caused some of you to question that confidence’’ in his service. “I regret that,’’ Dodd added as he announced his retirement outside his East Haddam home.

Still, the senator said there was no individual reason that prompted his retirement, but a combination of factors that caused him to “take stock of my life.’’

“In the long sweep of American history, there are moments for each elected public official to step aside and let someone else step up; this is my moment to step aside,’’ Dodd told reporters yesterday as one of his young daughters, Christina, patted him on the arm.

“I’m very proud of the job I’ve done and the results delivered. But none of us is irreplaceable. None of us are indispensable,’’ Dodd said.

Dodd is a leading authority on Latin America and was the architect of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires large employers to provide up to 12 unpaid weeks off for workers who are ill or caring for sick family members.

Republicans celebrated the downfall of a prominent Democrat, which came as two other Democrats, Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Governor Bill Ritter of Colorado, said they would not run again. “There’s a Democratic anti-incumbent sentiment’’ among voters that could slash Democratic majorities in Congress, said Ron Bonjean, a GOP consultant and former Senate staffer. Republicans are not expected to take control of the Senate in November, however.

Kirk, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, said he is not anxious about the party’s prospects. “It won’t be a banner year for Democrats,’’ he said, but “I don’t think [Dodd’s retirement] is a trend line.’’