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BEACON FALLS — Recent poll numbers indicate that whoever secures the GOP nomination to run for U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd’s available seat in Congress this year will fight an uphill battle against Democratic contender Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut’s popular attorney general.
Republican Rob Simmons, a Vietnam veteran and former CIA intelligence officer and U.S. Representative, lags Blumenthal by 19 points, 54 to 35 percent, as of a Feb. 1 Rasmussen Reports survey of 500 likely Connecticut voters.
Linda McMahon, Simmons’ closest contender for the GOP nomination and the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, trailed Blumenthal by 20 points, 56 to 36 percent, in the same survey.
Democrats’ popularity at the state level is reflected in some municipalities throughout the state, not least among them Beacon Falls, where Democrats control the majority of the town’s elected offices.
About 30 residents and members of the Beacon Falls Republican Town Committee made it out to the senior center on North Main Street last Wednesday to hear what Simmons and McMahon had to say at a casual meet-and-greet event. Both candidates gave opening remarks and fielded questions from attendees about what they would do to alter the trajectory of the Democrat-laden federal government, if nominated and elected in November.
RTC Chairman John Blesse said the committee hasn’t yet selected a candidate for endorsement because it’s waiting to hear from Peter Schiff, a GOP candidate who will visit the RTC March 10.
He said job creation would be the biggest issue in the mid-term elections, and both Simmons and McMahon would promote policies which would encourage and incentivize business.
“For me personally, the individual who gets my vote will be the individual who presents the greatest opportunity to bring jobs back to Connecticut,” he said. “That’s part of the Republican platform … I think it’s not so much a Democratic non-platform, but it’s not Dick Blumenthal’s platform. You have to have a balance” between representing employers’ and employees’ interests. “When we look back at Dick’s record, it certainly doesn’t insinuate pro-business.”
Blesse thinks voters might be colorblind this election season when it comes to the economy.
“It doesn’t have so much to do with blue and red as the neutral color,” he said. “In Beacon Falls, we have more unaffiliated voters than registered Republicans or Democrats … At the end of the day, people need to get back to work in our country. I think people are looking for whoever can bring real jobs back to our country, real sustainable jobs. I think that’s what this election is going to come down to.”
He thinks both Simmons and McMahon are viable GOP candidates and “qualified to go to Washington and do a good job for the state of Connecticut.”
Simmons addressed a wide berth of issues, many of them conservative talking points—free enterprise, national security and immigration reform, for example.
“I’m running for the U.S. Senate because I want to make sure the next senator elected in the state of Connecticut is a Republican!” Simmons said emphatically in opening, offering a high-five to a front-row attendee. “Hey, wait a minute—Massachusetts: If they can do it, so can we,” he said, referencing Sen. Scott Brown’s (R-Mass.) recent victory in a special election to fill the late Edward “Ted” Kennedy’s vacant seat.
He told the story of his father, who took over the family business in Brooklyn, N.Y. at 38 and had expanded his personal holdings to five small businesses by the time he died.
“You see, he came here for the American dream,” Simmons said. “Not the American handout, not the American government program, but the dream, that free enterprise, and opportunity, and entrepreneurship, and hard work would allow him to achieve his life’s dream … and it’s that dream that I worry about,” in light of a record national budget deficit and allegedly wasteful stimulus spending.
He related his experience as an infantry officer in Vietnam, where he said he first learned the meaning of public service.
“My tactical training officer said … ‘Public office is a public trust. It’s not about you, candidate Simmons, it’s about the soldiers you lead’ … That public trust carried me through 22 months in Vietnam, through the Tet Offensive, through things that I hope nobody would ever have to see.”
McMahon, on the other hand, has never served in the military or held elected office, but she said her business acumen and her disconnection from partisan politics on Capitol Hill—not to mention her freedom from special interest money in her largely self-financed campaign—provide her with a fresh perspective and would put her in a place to get things done in Congress. She stuck to that theme throughout her talk.
“I am not a career politician,” she said. “What [many people] are telling me now is that they’re looking for outsiders. You don’t want career politicians in Washington who do the same things and play the same politics … I’ve spent my professional life in the business world, growing a business from, my husband and I starting, sharing a desk in our basement—and by the way, going bankrupt at first because we overextended ourselves … we learned quickly in the school of hard knocks.”
Blesse shared McMahon’s sentiment.
“I think what Linda lacks in being a professional politician of sorts … is made up through qualities she has from a business perspective. My thought is we need to run more like a business and less like what appears to be the out-of-control reign we’ve seen is recent years.”
But while he agrees McMahon’s outsider status could be a good sell to voters, Blesse didn’t want to cast Simmons as more of the same, simply because he has political experience.
“Rob brings a common sense approach to government,” Blesse said. “I think it’s a cardinal mistake to deem someone who’s dedicated his entire life to public service as the ‘same old.’”
Blesse asked McMahon up front whether she’d be able to break into the Congressional establishment as a political newcomer.
“Obviously, in the House of Representatives, we’re reelecting every seat in the House,” Blesse said. “In the Senate, however, we’re only turning over a third of the problem. … It’s a daunting task when two-thirds of what’s left there is the same old club. And I think in the Senate we can roughly say ‘the good old boys’ club.’ How do you attack two-thirds of an interest of, ‘We’ve done it this way forever’? How do you address that as a senator?”
“My business, if you want to talk about a ‘good old boys club’,” McMahon answered, “You couldn’t have a bigger good old boys club than World Wrestling Entertainment. … I am really accustomed to dealing with the good old boys. I think what you have to do is maintain who you are, and I’m pretty scrappy. I don’t yield to status quo, and I don’t yield to that kind of external pressure.”
McMahon echoed Simmons’ concern that the “American dream,” the foundation of her wealth and success, is being lost, and said that concern is what motivated her to run for office.
Both candidates said easing the tax burden on small businesses and doing away with stimulus spending are fundamental steps toward spurring job creation and healing the national economy.
McMahon specifically mentioned cutting payroll taxes for employers but acknowledged cuts would need to be offset by reigned-in spending. She offered no clear targets for slashing expenditures, but said the 2.1 million-employee federal government workforce is a major source of waste. Details about her campaign platform are available at linda2010.com.
Simmons said his plan for the economy is a “five-point plan broken up into 25 discrete projects,” which are “based on the idea … of small business. Seventy percent of the jobs created in America today are created by small business. In Connecticut, 53 percent of all businesses are four or less employees. … In the nation today, 97 percent of all businesses are 20 or less employees. That’s small business. That’s where the economy is.” Simmons’ plan can be examined at joinrobsimmons.com.
Though McMahon enjoyed a relatively placid question and answer session from the Beacon Falls RTC, Simmons was pressed about his past support of card check legislation and his pro-choice ideology.
Simmons said he co-sponsored a card-check bill in committee five years ago but that it never left the committee. He acknowledged that in retrospect, his support of the legislation, which encourages unionization, was a mistake.
“One of the things that happened between then and now, which I think is important, is I did have the opportunity, for two years, to serve as business advocate for the state of Connecticut.”
In that capacity, Simmons said, he learned that one of the biggest problems small business owners face is high costs of labor, and that “if you contribute to unionization, you may be contributing to higher labor costs. … That’s a reality that I learned, and I’ll be the first to admit it.”
He said he would not support card check legislation again if elected to Congress.
As far as abortion goes, Simmons said, he believes the issue should be relegated to individual states’ discretion.
“I’ve been pro-choice my whole career,” he said. “But I believe in states’ rights. … Whatever powers that are not expressly taken by the federal government are reserved to the states and the people.” As far as partial birth abortion goes, he said, “No one cares for it, but I’ll let the doctor decide.”
McMahon was not pressed on abortion, but according to her Web site, she is also pro-choice. She qualifies that designation by writing, “I oppose partial-birth abortion and federal funding of abortion unless the life of the mother is at stake. I’m in favor of parental notification/parental consent legislation.”
The Connecticut Republican Convention will be held May 21 and 22 to nominate candidates for November’s election. The Beacon Falls RTC will nominate four delegates March 10 to represent the town at the state convention.