Courant: At Mansfield Forum, 3 Democrats Vying For U.S. Senate Strive To Set Themselves Apart

February 24 2012

For the original article, please visit the Hartford Courant.

MANSFIELD — On the issues, there is not a lot of ideological distance between Susan Bysiewicz, Chris Murphy and William Tong. All three are mainstream Democrats who emphasize middle class values and pledge to help rebuild the nation's economy.

But at a candidates forum Thursday night, each presented a different image to voters.

Bysiewicz, the former secretary of the state, portrayed herself as a populist, a scrappy fighter, unafraid to do battle with special interests to get the job done. "I want to go to Washington to stand up to Wall Street interests that have caused a financial collapse in this country,'' Bysiewicz said. "I plan to go to Washington to hold Wall Street accountable and make them pay for the harm that they've done to our country."

Murphy, a three-term congressman who has spent most of his life in politics, says he's the guy with the experience to take on the Republicans in Washington — and to work across the aisle with them as well. "Over the last 14 years, I have been in public service for that long, but I think that I've been at the center of virtually every public policy fight that's mattered to middle class families, whether it's in Hartford or in Washington,'' said Murphy, who currently represents Connecticut's 5th District in Congress.

Tong, the son of Chinese immigrants, seized the mantle of the hardworking underdog who might be outspent but won't be out-hustled.

"I know I'm an underdog in this race,'' said Tong, a state representative from Stamford who lacks Murphy's campaign war chest and Bysiewicz's name recognition. "But I think in this economy, middle class, working people, seniors, we're all underdogs right now. This is not a moment for frontrunners. We need to reclaim the American dream. ... It's an underdog's dream. ... I'm ready to go to Washington to fight for underdogs."

The three Democrats are vying for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Joseph Lieberman, who is retiring after 24 years.

At least five Republicans, including wrestling entertainment magnate Linda McMahon, former Congressman Chris Shays and attorney Brian K. Hill among them, are also seeking the seat.

The forum, held in the auditorium of Mansfield Middle School, was organized by the Quiet Corner Democrats, a group of activists from throughout northeastern Connecticut. It wasn't a debate; instead, each candidate was asked to respond to the questions of the moderator.

Given Mansfield's rural nature, it's no surprise that there was a question about farm policy (all three agreed that family farms need support.) And being close to the University of Connecticut, the topic of college costs came up as well, with each candidate saying costs need to be reined in and aid to those who cannot afford an education needs to be made available.

But the economy dominated the night. At the outset, each of the three were asked to define the term "middle class" and explain what they would do to protect it.

Tong spoke of middle class in terms of its hopes and fears.

"We're not just a constituency to be polled and tested,'' he said. "We're not just a group to be talked to in an election season. We're people, trying to hold onto a quality of life, trying, and hoping to do better."

Tong invoked his own story of ascending into the middle class, from his days working at his parents' Chinese restaurant to a candidate for U.S. Senate. He joked that he probably knows how to make every dish on a standard Chinese menu.

Murphy, whose mother grew up in a New Britain housing project, said the middle class is measured more by mindset than household income. "I don't think that the definition of the middle class is a number,'' he said. "If you worry about what would happen to you if you lost your next paycheck, if you aren't really sure how you're going to get your kids through college, if you contemplate what it would be like if one of your family members got sick, you're a member of the middle class. If you don't worry about those things, you're probably not."

Bysiewicz defined the middle class "as just about everybody except for the wealthiest among us." She favors repealing the Bush-era tax cuts for those in top tax brackets, and raise taxes for "people like Mitt Romney and Warren Buffet" while providing tax relief to those earning more moderate wages.

The three Democratic candidates are scheduled to meet again on March 3 at a debate in Norwich hosted by the The Bulletin.