Dodd Foe: Senator Violated Public's Trust

Cites Ties to AIG, Countrywide in Attack on Dodd

March 31, 2009 -- Former Republican congressman Rob Simmons says he voted for Sen. Chris Dodd, a Democrat, in the 1980s.

But now that Dodd finds himself caught up in a string of controversies, Simmons is itching to take him on in 2010, arguing that Dodd has violated Connecticut's public trust.

"Chris Dodd has gone Washington and the people back home are upset by that," Simmons told ABC News Monday during a wide-ranging interview at the network's Washington bureau.

Twenty-eight-year Senate veterans do not typically find themselves battling for their political lives. But Dodd's re-election has been rated a toss-up by nonpartisan handicappers because of a string of controversies: as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Dodd has been caught up in the fury surrounding bonuses for AIG executives; he received favorable treatment on two mortgages from Countrywide Financial; he got an eyebrow-raising deal on a house in Ireland; and, most galling to Simmons, he moved his family to Iowa in 2007 in furtherance of his presidential ambitions.

"How can you have confidence in your leadership when your leadership is feathering its own nest with cottages and sweetheart mortgages deals and trips off to Iowa to run for president?" said Simmons. "Look, I can't fix the whole thing, but I'll tell you what I can fix. I can try to fix the fact that the senior senator of the state of Connecticut lost touch with the people and is at the heart of the storm."

"People in Connecticut are upset because they feel that Sen. Dodd has vacated his office," he said. "In 2007, after assuming the chair of the Banking Committee and taking the gavel, he moved to Iowa. That really was a benchmark when the mood began to change."

The last time Simmons ran for office was in 2006 when he was defeated for re-election by Democrat Joe Courtney by 83 votes. Although Simmons, 66, has never walked lock-step with the Republican Party, his 2006 electoral chances were undermined by the intense anti-Bush sentiment in his eastern Connecticut district.

As he looks ahead to 2010, he is delighted that Bush is no longer dominating the headlines. Simmons knows that he cannot get elected if the generic anti-Republican vote is as high in Connecticut as it was in 2008 when then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., carried the state over Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., by 23 points and the state's five-member House delegation became 100 percent Democratic.

"When George Bush goes on a speaking tour in Alaska, I think that's a good thing," said Simmons. "Maybe he can learn how to field dress a moose."

"That wasn't nice," he said, quickly turning to Amber Wilkerson, the press secretary for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who accompanied him to the interview. "I'm sorry, don't report me to the bosses."

Simmons is to the left of some Republicans on a handful of hot-button issues: he supports abortion rights, steps to combat climate change, and leaving the definition of marriage up to individual states.

"I think my party makes a mistake by not discussing issues involving global warming or gay marriage or abortion," said Simmons.

Simmons shied away from assessing the performance of the current Republican leadership and said he is "not looking" for his party to regain the majority in 2010.

At the same time, he argued that he could provide better oversight than the Democratic incumbent.

"People are beginning to realize that it's the debate that makes our democracy what it is," said Simmons. "It's not everybody speaking with one voice. It's people speaking with multiple voices to try to get at the truth. And if you have a one-party system, then welcome to Cuba, welcome to North Korea, welcome to the former Soviet Union."

While he would have opposed the economic stimulus package signed into law by President Obama, he also would have opposed the Wall Street bailout bill approved by President Bush in September.

"I think the TARP was the wrong thing to do and I don't know why they went along with it," said Simmons.

Asked whether it is time to get rid of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that prohibits gays and lesbians from serving openly, Simmons said, "Yes. I served for 37 years. There were gay people in my military unit. They performed their duties. They met the standards. So what's with this don't ask, don't tell?"'

Simmons served in the Army from 1965 to 1968 and spent 31 years in the Army Reserves.

"Barry Goldwater had it right. He said, 'When it comes to the military, I don't care whether you're gay or straight, just as long as you can shoot straight."

He is more reserved when asked whether he thinks last year's decision by the Connecticut Supreme Court that legalized same-sex marriage was rightly decided.

"I'm not going to say. I'm not an attorney," said Simmons.

Simmons clashed with Bush on the former president's plan to divert some of the taxes that fund Social Security into private retirement accounts.

"I was quoted on the front page of the Washington Post as disagreeing with it, which resulted in one of my few invitations to the White House," said Simmons. "You can imagine how congenial that was."

Simmons supports protecting the current Social Security system's minimum guaranteed benefit while giving Americans the option of making additional contributions to a low, moderate or high-risk private retirement account that would be managed by the government but owned by the individual.

Democrats sizing up the Connecticut race argue that Simmons is going to find it hard to present himself as the face of change. As they did in 2006, Democrats plan to tie him to Bush's economic policies because of his support for the former president's tax cuts.

"I supported them, absolutely. I supported the Bush tax cuts. I think the Bush tax cuts were responsible for some of the economic growth we encountered," said Simmons. "I thought that that package of tax cuts was good to stimulate the economy and I think it did."

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is trying to blunt the attacks leveled at Dodd by chiding Simmons for holding a Tuesday event at the National Republican Senatorial Committee that will be attended by lobbyists with ties to the banking and real estate sectors.

"In commencing his campaign, Rob Simmons is being true to himself: hobnobbing at Republican headquarters with lobbyists who represent Washington special interests," said committee spokesman Eric Schultz. "The people of Connecticut are looking for a new direction for this economy, and Rob Simmons is a former congressman addicted to the old ways of Washington."

Eric Janney, the chair of Simmons for Senate, responded to the attack, saying, "We have never said that we won't be taking contributions from political action committees. It is the height of hypocrisy for the Washington, D.C., Democrats to raise this issue when their candidate has taken millions in donations from financial firms that his own committee oversees and took over $100,000 in contributions from AIG executives for whom Dodd inserted a bonus protection provision in the stimulus bill. If that's the conversation they want to have with the people of Connecticut, we're all for it."

Simmons, who was appointed business advocate for the state of Connecticut after his 2006 defeat, says he is running for the U.S. Senate rather than trying to recapture his House seat because of differences between the two legislative chambers.

In the House, the majority rules. In the Senate, a determined minority can block the majority.

So is he running to gum up the Senate?

"I will gum it up for things I don't believe in, yes, absolutely, because I think that we're at a very significant point in the history of this country where it seems to me that the government's grab for power is almost unprecedented," said Simmons.

While he was confident that he wanted Bush to stay away from Connecticut, he was less sure when asked whether he would like Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to campaign for him.

"I'll think about that," said Simmons.

"I was at the convention and her speech was a knockout," he said.

Simmons then added, however, that he is not going to make it to the Senate "by having VIP visitors, either from Hollywood or Alaska."

The former GOP congressman thinks he has a better chance of making it to the Senate against Dodd than he would if the incumbent decided not to seek re-election. But he says he is seeking the Republican Senate nomination regardless of what Dodd ultimately does, adding that he and his family know full well what his opponents are likely to throw at him.

"I've been accused of poisoning children and I've been accused of putting a nuclear waste dump next to a playground and all the kiddies -- the swings have happy children, and then I put the dump in and next the swing is empty. The children are all dead," he said, mocking attacks that have been leveled against him. "And I was accused of being a war criminal because I served in Vietnam and I worked for the CIA. So we know what it's all about and the family has to make that commitment."

"We have to believe in what we are doing," he said. "But I'm in it and I think I'm in it for the right reasons."

ABC News' Tahman Bradley, David Chalian and Rick Klein contributed to this report.