Longtime Lieberman Aide Has Joe Punching Back in Connecticut Race

By Jennifer Siegel

Published August 18, 2006, issue of August 18, 2006.
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If Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman pulls out a win in November’s general election, the turning point of his campaign may well have been July 31 — the day Dan Gerstein showed up to volunteer in Hartford.

In the days before Lieberman lost in the Democratic primary last week, Gerstein, age 39, emerged as one of the senator’s most effective defenders. He offered up verbal punches: “‘There’s a small but vocal pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel and perhaps antisemitic faction of the Democratic Party.” He offered up warm-and-fuzzy Lieberman anecdotes: “One of the best moments [the senator] had during the vice presidential run was singing ‘My Way’ on the Conan O’Brien show.’” And he offered up the big-picture framing message: “This is a real test of our party, of whether we an be inclusive, or if our candidates have to be 100% pure.”

Now, in the aftermath of Lieberman’s bruising primary defeat, Gerstein has been tapped as the communications director for the senator’s independent general election bid — a hire, some insiders say, that likely signals a more hard-hitting strategy.

“No one has ever accused Dan of being a shrinking violet, and I have to think that his aggressive approach is well-suited to what will surely be a closely fought campaign,” former Lieberman spokesman Adam Kovacevich wrote in an email to the Forward. Kovacevich, who worked with Gerstein both in Lieberman’s Senate office and on the 2004 presidential campaign, added that “near the end of the primary campaign you started to see a more aggressive posture on the part of the Lieberman campaign, in terms of confronting criticism head-on, and I think you’ll probably see more of that in the weeks ahead.”

Lieberman lost the August 8 primary with 48% of the vote to challenger Ned Lamont’s 52%, a margin that was much closer than several pre-election polls had found, leading some observers to suggest that Gerstein’s arrival had paid immediate dividends.

After his primary defeat, Lieberman told the Associated Press that he felt his campaign “did not… adequately answer the distortions” of his record, and he asked for the resignations of members of his campaign team. In addition to hiring Gerstein, Lieberman brought on his longtime state director, Sherry Brown, to replace campaign manager Sean Smith. Lieberman’s consultant, Carter Eskew, also left the campaign, reportedly because he did not want to work officially for an independent campaign.

Several Democratic insiders said they believed that, barring a serious Republican challenge, Lieberman is poised to do well in the general election, a setting that tends to draw more moderate voters than party primaries do. A Rasmussen Reports poll conducted last week after the primary showed Lieberman leading Lamont 46% to 41%, with 6% going to Republican Alan Schlesinger. The margin of error was 4%.

“The environment in the primary put Lieberman on the defensive, while the environment in the general puts Lamont on the defensive,” said Jano Cabrera, a political consultant who served as the spokesperson on Lieberman’s 2004 presidential campaign. He added that “not many people know who Ned Lamont is, so there … are blanks waiting to be filled.”

Late in the primary race, Gerstein — who previously worked as Lieberman’s Senate spokesman but left to start his own consulting firm, and was, until last week, a spokesman for Nassau County executive Tom Suozzi’s gubenatorial campaign — was out front in raising questions with journalists about Lamont. He was particularly outspoken in calling on Lamont to distance himself from blogger Jane Hamsher, who posted a doctored photograph of Lieberman in blackface on her Web site, Firedoglake.com, and in criticizing Lamont’s decision to campaign with Reps. Maxine Waters and Marcy Kaptur, neither of whom voted in favor of a recent resolution in support of Israel.

Gerstein, who grew up in West Hartford and attended Harvard University, was at the forefront of the Lieberman campaign’s overall efforts to paint some Lamont supporters as anti-Israel and even antisemitic. He also defended efforts to portray Lamont as weak on civil rights, despite securing the support of several black leaders, including Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

When Lieberman’s campaign Web site crashed on Election Day, it was Gerstein who accused Lamont supporters of sabotage. The Lamont campaign is calling for an apology, but Gerstein says that he stands by the accusation.

Lieberman himself has also taken a harder edge in recent days. At a campaign stop in Waterbury on August 10, he argued that if Lamont’s troops-out stance prevails, “it will be taken as a tremendous victory by the same people who wanted to blow up these planes in this plot hatched in England.”

In an interview with the Forward, Gerstein suggested that Lieberman’s more aggressive approach was here to stay. “There are some things that happened during the primary that barely got the attention they deserved and are not going to go away,” Gerstein said.

Lamont spokesperson Liz Dupont-Diehl criticized the Lieberman campaign for what she called personal attacks. She added: “We don’t anticipate any major change in strategy…but we will defend ourselves.”

Gerstein countered: “Joe Lieberman has never questioned Ned Lamont’s patriotism…[But] the action he’s advocating, an immediate withdrawal of our troops from Iraq, would be a disaster.”

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