“I don’t think I have ever been popular or a favorite with the party insiders because I fight for the people, even when it’s not always on issues the party wants me to take,” Susan Bysiewicz said recently during her travels around the state from one DTC to another.
It’s a weird, head-scratching kind of thing to say for someone who had seemed, for a decade and more, to be one of Hartford’s most visible and entrenched Democrats. But this has not been a normal year for Susan Bysiewicz, who is trying to ride a wave of anti-corporate rage past U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy to capture the Democratic nomination for Joe Lieberman’s Senate seat. Bysiewicz, who this week released a plan to “hold Wall Street accountable” for the financial crisis, seems to be hoping running to the left of Murphy and appealing directly to the people will be enough to carry her back to elected office, and undo the damage of a disastrous 2010. She may even be right.
Bysiewicz, long a favorite among Democrats in Hartford, was Secretary of the State from 1999 through 2011. During those years she always seemed more like an insider waiting to be tapped for higher office than a crusading populist. She made two abortive runs for governor in the 2006 and 2010 elections, dropping out of the 2006 race to seek another term as Secretary of the State, and switching to the attorney general’s race in 2010. Her platforms in those races were largely uninspiring, and she put forward few ideas to separate herself from the pack. Her campaigns in the 2000s seemed more like Democratic boilerplate than the work of a political outsider.
Her new campaign, though, has tried to be populist right from the start. Bysiewicz embraced an immediate total pullout from Afghanistan and Iraq and slammed Murphy as a pro-corporate Washington insider who supported renewal of the Patriot Act. The attacks are a bit of a stretch, but they’re emblematic of the new, tough, outspoken, aggressive Susan Bysiewicz. The “Plan to Hold Wall Street Accountable” she released this week strikes a similar tone: the surprisingly gripping accompanying video of Bysiewicz driving from Middletown to Wall Street while reeling off grievances ends with her saying “Unlike most politicians, I didn’t come [to Wall St.] for a fundraiser.” It’s an evocative and attention-grabbing close, and echoes a slam David Cappiello used against Chris Murphy in 2008. The ad also echoes the concerns of the Occupy Wall Street movement; when asked about the occupiers, Bysiewicz’s campaign said, “Susan thinks that the Occupy Wall Street protests are an outgrowth of the frustration that so many Americans are feeling about both the wealth divide and lost opportunities in this country.”
At first glance, Bysiewicz’s outspoken populism may seem like a rather obvious political ploy to grab some attention in a sleepy race so far dominated by Chris Murphy and the looming specter of Linda McMahon. But maybe this is something deeper. To find the outsider candidate, we have to go back to 1998 and the primary she ran against Ellen Scaletter for the Secretary of the State nomination. Scaletter won the endorsement of the party at the convention, but an unfazed Bysiewicz came after her hard during the primary season. Bysiewicz attributed her loss at the convention to her support of then-unpopular campaign finance and ethics reform: “Those are issues that don’t win you the support of party insiders, because it lessens their control over the process and changes the balance of power,” she said. Her opponent was a fellow member of the legislature, and both of them agreed on the vast majority of issues, but a combination of attack ads and Bysiewicz’s outsider claims vaulted her to victory.
History has a way of repeating itself. Once again Bysiewicz isn’t the party favorite, and once again she’s running a bare-knuckles campaign from the outside. Bysiewicz’s campaign manager dismissed strong DSCC and national Democratic Party support for Chris Murphy by saying “She’s taken on some tough fights [and] doing those types of things—standing up to the insiders—doesn’t necessarily make you popular.’’ Bysiewicz’s populism is certainly resonating with some Democrats; she’s already earned endorsements from some Democratic Town Committees.
Whether this populism is the whole truth of Susan Bysiewicz is another issue. I’d have to wonder where it’s has been for most of the past decade, for one thing. Also, outspoken, political outsider Bysiewicz doesn’t sound like the same woman whose office kept a huge, fishy database of Connecticut voters, many of which had annotations about personal preferences from clothes to political candidates. Her statement on Occupy Wall Street is still somewhat cautious, and when asked if she thinks the Obama administration should have taken a tougher stance on Wall St., she expressed support for Dodd/Frank and the Volcker rules, though she did add that, “We need to do a lot more.”
So is this honest populism, crass political opportunism, or a mix of both? Whatever is driving Susan Bysiewicz, expect her to fight hard for the nomination all the way through next August. Chris Murphy should consider himself warned.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of CTLocalPolitics and an author. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.