U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, nicknamed “Gentleman Joe,” announced today that he won’t primary his Democratic colleague for U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s Senate seat.
Courtney, the Democrat from the state’s 2nd Congressional District who is currently serving his third-term, was forced by Lieberman’s early retirement decision to speed up his decision about whether to seek the seat. The same seat his Democratic colleague, U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5, wants.
Some in the Democratic party were anxious about pitting two sitting Congressman against one another in a primary for the seat, while others believe primaries make the candidate who emerges stronger.
Courtney said that wasn’t what was weighing on his mind as he made his decision not to run.
Courtney said Senate seats don’t become vacant all that often, so with the help his family and a group of close supporters, he’d been “running the traps” for the past seven weeks to determine if he should run a Senate campaign.
Despite encouragement from folks around the state, the congressman said his district is just facing too many challenges right now for him to try to balance a statewide campaign with those needs.
“At the end of the day, the district sort of won out,” he said.
And with the new Republican majority in control the U.S. House of Representatives, Courtney said he feels he has more influence in his current role than he would as a freshman senator.
Over the course of his time in the House, Courtney said he’s climbed the ranks in his various committee assignments and he’s hesitant to leave those assignments behind. He used the Armed Services Committee, where he has been successful in winning a new submarine contract critical to Electric Boat and the Groton Submarine Base, as an example.
“I’ve had an opportunity now to be much more involved in issues before that committee. When you’re a freshman or a new member, you’re kind of way down on the pecking order. You don’t even get a chance to ask a question half the time. So I really felt like I’ve contributed to Connecticut’s cause there,” he said.
He’s also been assigned to the Agriculture Committee, he said, making him the first member of Connecticut’s delegation to serve there for a hundred years. And that’s a good thing as the committee prepares a new farm bill, he said.
“Frankly there’s a huge feeling amongst organic farmers and specialty crop farms in Connecticut, dairy farms, that New England kind of gets left out in the farm bill, which kind of focuses on the large commodity crops. So I think it’s a district that’s very demanding of your time and effort and I’m glad to provide it because I really enjoy representing this part of the state,” he said.
Despite some victories, Courtney said that lately the House has become a forum for some rushed and heated debates. And with the federal budget debate unfolding in Washington D.C., lawmakers are running up against a fast-approaching deadline. Last week the House stayed in session until at least 4 a.m. for three days in row, Courtney said.
That’s because the federal government is currently operating on an emergency extension of the fiscal year 2010 budget. That extension expires on March 4 and last week the new majority put forth a budget bill to complete the current fiscal year.
That bill would cut funding below last year’s levels. Courtney admitted that the federal government has a deficit issue it needs to address but said the bill he saw last week was a rush job.
“This measure was put together literally in a matter of hours,” he told a group of New London fire fighters Monday afternoon. “Frankly this is not how decisions should be made in terms of critical programs.”
The first iteration of the bill was proposed Thursday but rejected by many in the majority, he said. Hours later a second proposal was released, which “doubled-down on all of the cuts in the first” bill, he said.
Among the cuts— the Assistance to Firefighters Grants, which has helped to provide up-to-date equipment for departments, would have been cut by 20 to 25 percent. SAFER, another grant program for fire departments, would have been zeroed out completely, he said.
Last year’s SAFER grant enabled the New London Fire Department to hire seven new people, according to Lt. Jonathon Paige.
Courtney said that Democratic lawmakers were able to restore funding to SAFER and AFG in the House bill but it came at the cost of other programs and accounts in the Department of Homeland Security. It’s not a sustainable way to do business, he said, because it amounts to “cannibalizing” other parts of the department.
Ultimately the House bill passed in the early hours of Saturday morning without Courtney’s vote, he said. The congressman said he couldn’t support the measure due to a number of damaging cuts to other important programs.
While the Senate must now adopt its own budget proposal that’s unlikely to look much like the House version, Courtney said he’s unhappy with how the process was handled in his institution.
“It was incredible to watch this document sort of emerge with no hearings, no notice, no solicitation for input from anybody. It would have wiped out the SAFER program… It was just sort of this mad scramble by a bunch of us to keep it from going through,” he told the fire fighters, adding that he’d keep them posted as the issue develops.
But as Courtney continues to battle what he called “bar fights” in the House, his decision not to run for Senate leaves the door wide open for Murphy and former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, who announced her campaign before Lieberman announced his retirement.
On Monday both candidates lauded his announcement.
“My friend Joe Courtney has been a great congressman and represents the people of the 2nd congressional district well. I’m looking forward to working with him in Washington to create jobs and expand opportunities that keep our children right here in Connecticut,” Bysiewicz said.
Murphy released a similar statement saying that Courtney would have been a terrific candidate for Senate.
“Since Joe and I came into Congress together in 2006, we’ve developed a close friendship through long nights on the House floor and countless legislative fights on behalf of Connecticut,” he said. “His guidance and friendship are incredibly important to me, and I respect the decision he has made. The people of the 2nd district are incredibly lucky to have him tirelessly serving them day in and day out.”
Edward ‘Ted’ Kennedy Jr. told reporters last week in Bridgeport that he wasn’t considering a run for office at the moment.
So far several Republicans, such as Linda McMahon who spent close to $50 million on a failed 2010 bid for the U.S. Senate, have been mentioned as possible contenders, but none have officially announced.