At a senior living facility in West Hartford on Saturday morning, six candidates challenging U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd gave what were billed as their first stump speeches.
Hosted by the Federation of Connecticut Taxpayers five Republicans and one candidate seeking the nomination of four minor parties made their pitches, shook some hands, and met each other for the first time.
Former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons said he shook hands with Peter Schiff and said, “I recognize you from TV.” Schiff, the broker and financial pundit who entered the race a few weeks ago after receiving more than $1 million in campaign contributions, said he too recognized Simmons from television.
“He’s a very smart, capable guy with a lot to offer on economic issues,” Simmons said of Schiff.
Schiff, who was the first candidate to speak Saturday, talked about why he entered the race. Having admittedly advised his clients for years to invest their money abroad, Schiff said he’s concerned about what Washington has been doing to the American dollar.
Rather than simply observing as a spectator and trying to protect his 15,000 clients from what’s happening in Washington, Schiff said he decided maybe it was time for him to go to Washington.
“Instead of trying to protect them from the misguided policies in Washington, maybe it’s time I actually went to Washington and tried to do something about it,” Schiff said.
When speaking about the current economic crisis and the housing bubble that burst, Schiff said, “all of this is the consequence of the stimulus under Bush.” He said the only difference between President George W. Bush’s stimulus and President Barack Obama’s stimulus is that Obama’s “is bigger and is going to do more damage.”
Schiff said Bush embraced the rhetoric of a free market system, but in reality was “the Herbert Hoover of our generation.”
While Schiff played up his financial expertise and downplayed partisan politics, Simmons talked about his military experience, his opposition to taxes, and his disdain for the policies of the current administration.
“I didn’t spend 20 months in Vietnam and I didn’t spend 10 years in the CIA fighting communism during the Cold War to come back home to my country, to come back home to my home state, to see the principles and the values for which we fought now put aside,” Simmons said.
Simmons, who has embraced the tea party movement, said he added a tea bag April 15 to the copy of the U.S. Constitution he carries around in his pocket. He said one of the biggest problems the country faces is apathy and now with the tea parties and town halls people are engaged in the political process.
“I’ve have done my best to oppose higher taxes, which I say take away our freedom,” Simmons said.
John Mertens, the Trinity College engineering professor who is seeking the nomination of the Green, Libertarian, Independent and Connecticut for Lieberman Party nominations spoke about how sending candidates from the two major parties has not solved “our huge, long-term” problems.
“I offer you calm, intelligent, nonpartisan problem solving,” Mertens told the crowd. He went on to talk about his solutions for Medicare, Social Security, and the national debt.
He advocated for getting rid of the alternative minimum tax and increasing the top tax rate as the only way to deal with the national debt.
None of the first three candidates even uttered Dodd’s name until state Sen. Sam Caligiuri spoke.
Caligiuri, the youngest of the candidates and perhaps the underdog on the Republican side, received several bursts of applause during his speech.
He talked about his career in politics in Waterbury and Hartford, his family, his desire to push for Congressional term limits, and the need to defeat Dodd.
“I believe Chris Dodd has failed us by not doing his job,” Caligiuri said, adding that when Obama was asked the reason for the economic crisis during his first few weeks in office, the president cited the housing bubble and the credit crisis.
“He’s right,” Caligiuri said, “but when he said what he said, he was indicting Chris Dodd’s failed leadership as chairman of the Senate Banks Committee.”
He said Dodd stopped doing his job because “he came to take our vote for granted a long, long time ago.”
“We’re not just going to hit Chris Dodd hard and on the issues, but I’m willing to take us into the future and away from what Chris Dodd has come to represent, which is career politicians that have been in power for so long and with so little accountability that they literally think they can do and say anything they want and still get themselves re-elected,” Caligiuri said. “I’m telling you, my friends, as sure as I’m standing before you this morning, that I am committed to changing Washington in ways career politicians simply cannot do.”
Caligiuri who said he has refused to take campaign contributions from political action committees, said he knows he is looking at a huge fundraising disadvantage. However, he said the power of his message ultimately will win him the Republican nomination. He said he knows he needs money to get his message out to voters, but also that the positive response he received Saturday from the breakfast crowd was “not the exception, it was the rule” thus far in his travels across Connecticut.
Both Simmons and Caligiuri said they understand the political process better than the other GOP candidates and have been seeking delegate support to win the Republican primary, while self-funded candidates like Linda McMahon have been blanketed the state with advertising.
McMahon was accompanied Saturday by lobbyist and campaign strategist Patrick Sullivan of Sullivan and LeShane.
McMahon spoke mostly about what motivated her to get into the race and she didn’t appear to stray far from the dialogue in her campaign commercials where she talks about going through a bankruptcy and rebuilding her company.
McMahon, the World Wrestling Entertainment CEO who stepped down from her post last week to focus on the race, said, “I’m running because I think our country is at a point of crisis.” She talked about the mounting national debt, how difficult it is for businesses to get credit, and the recent headlines about a New York terrorism plot.
“I can’t sit on the sidelines. I’ve got to jump into the fray. I’m not a career politician, I’m a business woman,” McMahon said. “I built a company from the ground up, from sharing a desk in the basement to having a company now that’s traded on the New York Stock Exchange. I know what it’s like being a young entrepreneur who can’t get credit. I’ve been there when your house gets auctioned off.”
In closing her speech Saturday, McMahon—who decided to spend her own money to fund her campaign—said she will accept donations from supporters of $100 or less, and that she will not accept money from political action committees.
The final candidate to speak Saturday was Tom Foley, the Bush administration’s former ambassador to Ireland who also was one of Bush’s top fundraisers. According to his bio, Foley also served in Iraq as director of private-sector development for the coalition provisional authority. He oversaw state-owned businesses and developed a plan to re-establish a private-sector economy.
Foley walked through the doors Saturday just in time to hear McMahon before he spoke about getting his son ready to go to college. As his son was filling out college applications last winter, Foley said it occurred to him that his son may not have the same opportunities that were available to prior generations.
“That got me thinking about making sure our government gets this right,” Foley said.
A Greenwich businessman with a degree in economics, Foley jumped into the race in June.
He said he’s not as worried that the “wheels are going to come completely off” the financial and economic system, but is more concerned that the current administration thinks last November’s election was a mandate to push through its policies.
“There’s a movement toward a Europeanization, if you will, of this country, which I don’t think the voters support and I certainly don’t support,” said Foley, who served as ambassador to Ireland from 2006 until January of this year.
He said he’s been traveling all around Connecticut this summer and believes there’s a gathering storm to make change in 2010.
As Foley left the senior living facility Saturday, he turned to Republican Party Chairman Chris Healy and asked if there were anymore candidates getting into the race.
Healy shook his head and said, “Not that I know of.”