Richard Blumenthal, long known as one of the nation’s most active state attorney generals, stands a good shot of becoming the Senate’s 14th Jewish member with the surprise announcement by Connecticut Democrat Chris Dodd not to run for re-election this year.
Blumenthal, 63, declared his intent to run for the seat January 6, the same day Dodd announced his retirement. Public opinion polls indicate he is currently the leading candidate.
Known as an activist attorney general, Blumenthal has been a scourge of corporate America, pursuing abuses from Microsoft to tobacco companies to credit card conglomerates. It is a posture his critics see as grandstanding.
To his fellow Jews in Connecticut, Blumenthal is also known as a devoted member of the community, an eager participant in communal events, and a strong supporter of Israel.
Dodd’s retirement announcement came on the heels of South Dakota Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan’s decision to retire at the end of his term this year and Democratic Governor Bill Ritter of Colorado to do so, as well. Jewish political activists joined with others in debating the significance of the multiple departures.
“Democrat incumbents are abandoning a sinking ship,” declared Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, while Jewish Democrats stressed that in fact more Republicans than Democrats have decided not to seek re-election. Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said Dodd’s departure could actually ensure an easy victory for the party. Forman said that in contrast to Dodd, who faced a tough race, “Blumenthal will win this thing going away.”
A poll conducted January 4 and 5 by Public Policy Polling found that 59% of Connecticut voters view Blumenthal favorably, while 19% hold an unfavorable view of him. Blumenthal also enjoys, according to the poll, a comfortable 3-to-1 margin over each of his potential Republican opponents.
Blumenthal’s name has been mentioned in the past decade every time a congressional vacancy in the state came up. Before Dodd’s announcement, he was widely seen as a possible challenger to Independent Senator Joseph Lieberman in 2012. He was also seen as a potential candidate in Connecticut’s gubernatorial race.
But Blumenthal seems to have made the most out of his five terms as the state’s attorney general. He focused his work on matters of consumer advocacy, reaching beyond the limits of local issues to go after any company whose actions he believed affected the citizens of Connecticut. Blumenthal sued tire makers for failing to ensure auto safety; he accused power companies in the Midwest of polluting his state’s air, and he even moved to stop auctions of Bernard Madoff’s jewelry, claiming that the items were not authenticated. In nearly two decades, he brought to court or threatened to sue local HMOs, insurance giants and even the MySpace social network.
His zeal to sue, coupled with a fondness for TV interviews and press conferences, has moved critics to accuse him of litigating to advance his political aspirations and his liberal corporate-busting agenda. Blumenthal’s repeated response to these allegations was that the numbers prove him right: Most cases were won in court.
“He is a moderate progressive,” said Sam Gejdenson, a former Connecticut congressman who worked with Blumenthal. “He is someone who believes deeply in the role of government in protecting the citizens.”
Blumenthal also wins praise from leaders of the Connecticut Jewish community. Robert Fishman, executive director of the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut, said the attorney general is “very devoted to the Jewish community” and that he was “here for us on many issues.”
As a senior state official, Blumenthal has appeared at numerous Jewish community events in Connecticut, including all three rallies organized by the community in late 2008 and early 2009 to support Israel’s military operation in Gaza. “Although he is very busy, he is always happy to attend our events. We joke that there are three of him, because he is all over the place,” said Laura Zimmerman, associate vice president for public affairs at the Hartford Jewish Community Relations Council.
He also faithfully attends Connecticut’s yearly Holocaust commemoration, held in the state capital, and is a frequent speaker at events organized by federations, national organizations and religious groups.
Blumenthal, whose father immigrated to the United States from Germany, is a strong advocate of refugee and immigrant rights and speaks frequently to Jewish audiences about his family’s experience. In the past, Blumenthal was also active in the campaign for Soviet Jewry. He grew up in Brooklyn, received his bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and a law degree from Yale Law School.
Blumenthal and his wife are members of Greenwich Reform Synagogue, where he is an “extremely visible” member of the community, according to its spiritual leader, Rabbi Andrew Sklarz. The synagogue, in one of the state’s most affluent towns, is described by its rabbi as “diverse, open” and as a “very progressive congregation.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman