File photo of U.S. Rep. John B. Larson Credit: Christine Stuart / CTNewsJunkie.com
SUSAN BIGELOW

Connecticut’s deep-blue 1st Congressional District could be about to experience something it hasn’t seen in over two decades: a Democratic primary. Rep. John Larson, who has held the seat since he won the election to replace Barbara Kennelly in 1998, is being challenged by young progressive Muad Hrezi of Hartford, who is the son of Libyan immigrants, a track coach and former staffer for U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy. 

Hrezi will be trying to follow the playbook set by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018, when she unseated her district’s perpetual incumbent in a stunning upset that made her a national star. Hrezi and his backers are hopeful that there’s a similar untapped undercurrent of progressive discontent in central Connecticut.

Hrezi has so far raised a very respectable $132,000. That’s enough money to make people sit up and take notice. Sure, it’s not the $640,000 Larson has raised, but it’s also not the three bucks and a fistful of pocket lint most longshot challengers put together, either.

And yet, Larson is deeply embedded in Greater Hartford’s politics, and his re-election has been a foregone conclusion for over two decades. He may not get anybody excited, and he hasn’t done a lot to stand out from the crowd in Congress since his run as caucus chair ended in 2013, but he’s been a consistent liberal voice on all the issues Democrats in the region care about. 

For instance, Larson co-sponsored the Green New Deal, and has a 100% rating from the American Civil Liberties Union and the League of Conservation Voters. He has a 97% rating from the NAACP, a 100% rating from Planned Parenthood, and a 100% rating from the Human Rights Campaign. He even voted against the Iraq War in 2002! Those seem to be some pretty impressive progressive bona fides. 

In short, John Larson is no Joe Lieberman.

The reason Lieberman was the target of so much progressive disgust was because he was the Joe Manchin of his time, a very loud and media-savvy centrist who often seemed to delight in taking positions the left hated. By the time a much younger Ned Lamont stepped up to challenge him in 2006, that simmering anger had been forced to the boiling point over Lieberman’s support for the Iraq War. Larson isn’t the target of that kind of ire.

But sometimes, even solid Democrats can come under fire. A good example can be found one district north, in Massachusetts’ 1st District. Rep. Richard Neal, the chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee and a three-decade incumbent, faced primaries from the left in 2018 and 2020. Neal was able to survive both primaries fairly easily, but one of the charges leveled against him was that he had been in Washington too long and was out of touch with the district.

Greater Hartford has changed since 1998, to be sure. The district is more diverse, and it’s definitely more progressive. Its people could be hungry for some kind of change. After all, Larson has held the 1st District seat longer than anybody in our history. Since 1959, only four people have represented the district: Emilio Daddario (1959-1971), William R. Cotter (1971-1981), Barbara Kennelly (1981-1999), and Larson (1999-now). That’s a suffocating lack of political change.

The other major charge against Larson is that he’s way too beholden to corporate interests. A quick scan of his campaign finance reports does nothing to dispel that. He’s taken money from the PACs of Morgan Stanley, Wal-Mart, AT&T, Comcast, Google, CVS Health, CIGNA, Travelers and Toyota, to name a few. It’s the same old cesspit of corporate dollars that every other “serious” candidate swims in. 

So is there hope for Hrezi?

Probably not. Incumbents, sadly, are almost impossible to beat unless they do something really stupid. And a study of Hrezi’s impressive financial haul finds that of 242 individual donations, only 72 came from Connecticut. There is national interest among progressives in electing a slate of young, diverse candidates to Congress, but that interest may not be shared by people here.

Still, though, Hrezi has money to play with and a compelling story. He has youth and a year of frustrated and demoralized Democrats looking for something to believe in on his side. Depending on how the congressional map shakes out, he may also have a district that is even more urban and diverse than it is now, too.

But most importantly, the very fact of his candidacy may force Hartford-area Democrats to look at Larson and wonder: after all this time, why is he still here?

Susan Bigelow

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com or any of the author's other employers.