Lieberman comes home to mend fences with Democrats

By Gregory B. Hladky
Globe Correspondent / November 30, 2008
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HARTFORD - US Senator Joe Lieberman made a wary return to his home state last week, his first since winning a reprieve from Senate Democrats and President-elect Barack Obama for the central role he played in John McCain's campaign.

Lieberman was grateful for being allowed to keep his Senate Homeland Security chairmanship but also painfully aware that many Connecticut Democrats aren't ready to forgive what they consider his betrayal of their party.

"I have some very-longtime friends who I understand were disappointed and/or angered by my support of John McCain," Lieberman told reporters at a news conference.

In fact, Connecticut's 72-member Democratic State Central Committee will meet a week before Christmas to consider censuring Lieberman.

"I would be very surprised if there wasn't some sort of action," state Democratic chairwoman Nancy DiNardo said in a telephone interview. "There's still a lot of anger out there."

After winning three terms as a Democrat, Lieberman lost the party primary to antiwar candidate Ned Lamont two years ago but went on to win the general election as an independent. He has since continued to caucus with Senate Democrats and has refused calls for him to resign as a member of the Connecticut Democratic Party.

Audrey J. Blondin, a Democratic state central committee member from Litchfield, said that her phone has been ringing "off the hook" since Connecticut Democrats learned that Lieberman wouldn't be punished by his Senate colleagues.

"They want something to express their displeasure with what has transpired, " said Blondin, who has proposed a resolution urging Lieberman to resign from the state party.

State House Speaker James A. Amann, a Democrat from Milford, said he wishes now that he had not supported Lieberman's run as an independent in 2006.

"If I'd had a crystal ball, I wouldn't have endorsed him," Amann said, while still insisting that Lieberman will "always be my friend."

Amann added that, in his eyes, Lieberman's actions during the campaign warranted some kind of party discipline.

"If someone did that in my Democratic House caucus, would I have reappointed him to a committee chairmanship? No," he said.

It's not just Democrat voters who are unhappy with Lieberman. Recent state polls show his popularity has sunk to the lowest point since he was first elected to the US Senate in 1988.

A Hartford Courant-University of Connecticut survey conducted in late October found that only 41 percent of those surveyed approved of the way Lieberman was doing his job.

Lieberman showed up at the Hartford news conference wearing a holiday-red sweater vest, and was accompanied by his wife, Hadassah. This was his first Connecticut news conference since the election.

"You know, I was hoping that Hadassah's presence would prevent you from asking such a question," Lieberman said when queried about how he could restore his abysmal standing with voters.

"I'm just going to do my job. What else can you do? I'm going to continue to do my job and be the best senator I can be for Connecticut," he said.

"I've been in politics long enough to know that polls go up and down. . . . You ultimately have to measure yourself and hope your constituents and history will measure you by what you did."

Lieberman's drastic decline in popularity in Connecticut was triggered by his outspoken support for President Bush on the Iraq war, which fueled Lamont's bid against him in 2006.

Last week, Lieberman said he believes the fact that American involvement in Iraq appears to be winding down will eventually remove that conflict "as a divisive issue" for people in his state.

Lieberman reiterated that he has "regrets" about some of the things he said concerning Obama during the "heat of the campaign." But he said he has no intention of resigning his Democratic Party membership.

"I think the economic crisis will overwhelm everything else," Lieberman said. And he was fulsome in his praise of Obama's performance as president-elect on economic matters.

"I think the president-elect understands that the problems we in America face are just too urgent to allow himself or anybody else the luxury of partisan division," Lieberman said. "We've got to unite."

Uniting with Lieberman isn't what's on the minds of some rank-and-file Connecticut Democrats.

"I haven't agreed with him since his choice to become an independent in 2006," Susan Arrigoni of Wallingford said while on a lunch break in downtown Hartford. "I don't think he's good for the Democratic Party."

But Arrigoni said she doesn't think Lieberman should be expelled from the party. "I think he should resign on his own."

Joe Carbone, a Democrat from Southington, recalled how enthusiastic he was about Lieberman as the party's vice presidential candidate in 2000. "But the shenanigans he's pulled since then I've not been happy with," he said.

Lieberman's maverick status continues to please some independents.

Cathi Jenssen, an unaffiliated voter of East Lyme, said she still thinks Lieberman is "a good guy."

"I think too much importance is placed on parties," she said. "One thing about Joe Lieberman, he's not wishy-washy."

Connecticut Republicans such as state Senate minority leader John McKinney of Fairfield say they are relieved Lieberman wasn't subjected to harsh partisan punishment in the US Senate.

"I think he can hopefully play an important role in the US Senate," McKinney said, adding the country needs intermediaries like Lieberman "willing to work with both parties to break impasses."

As for the future, Connecticut politicians in both parties say Lieberman has lots of time to restore his relationship with voters before 2012.

"In politics, four years is an eternity," said state Senate majority leader Martin M. Looney, a Democrat of New Haven.

Lieberman, 66, gives no indication that he's contemplating retirement when his term ends:

"I always follow the rule that if somebody is an incumbent, you have to assume they're going to run again. And that's my answer."

Democrats allowed Joe Lie- berman to keep his Senate Homeland Security chairman- ship despite anger over his support of John McCain.



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