Sen. Dodd A Victim Of Anger Over Ethics

Sen. Christopher Dodd leaves Congress as a casualty of rising public anger over politicians' sketchy ethics — in his case, an insider's break on a mortgage. A clean bill from the Senate ethics committee was of no consequence. Dodd got that mortgage not long after Connecticut voters suffered through a series of corruption cases that sent the governor to prison.

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Turning to politics and the U.S. Senate race in Connecticut: It got a big shuffle this week, as five-term Democrat Christopher Dodd announced he won't run again. His poll numbers sank all through 2009, fueled by a drawn-out ethics scandal. In the end, the scandal didn't amount to much, but as NPR's Peter Overby reports, the taint was enough to push the senator out the door.

PETER OVERBY: At first glance, the case fits the formula for a Capitol Hill scandal. The lawmaker chairs a committee overseeing the financial industry. He also has a loan from a controversial finance company. Documents say he was in the company's VIP program - for customers who would get special treatment. News reports called the loan a sweetheart deal.

That's the outline of Senator Dodd's relationship with Countrywide Financial. It was one of the mortgage lenders that inflated America's housing bubble. Of course, Dodd said he didn't get anything special from Countrywide. This interview is from last summer.

Senator CHRISTOPHER DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): Never offered, never accepted, rates were standard market rates, no change in that, and this is just untrue.

OVERBY: But also, of course, his say-so wasn't enough. House Republicans called for an investigation. Here's Jeb Hensarling, of Texas, in 2008, talking with Sean Hannity on Fox News.

(Soundbite of "The Sean Hannity Show")

Representative JEB HENSARLING (Republican, Texas): What we appear to know is that the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee knew he was on a VIP list - and I don't know if he doesn't know what I in VIP means...

Mr. SEAN HANNITY (Host): The friends of Angelo list. Let me ask you ...

OVERBY: The Senate Ethics Committee investigated, going through 14 months and 18,000 pages of documents. Its conclusion: no credible evidence that Dodd violated the rules. No other authorities looked into the case. But that scandal, such as it turned out to be, played badly in a state where in recent years, prosecutors have nailed a governor, state treasurer and three mayors -just to name a few.

Dodd himself had alienated some constituents in 2007. He ran for president - as an incredible long shot - literally moving his family to Iowa, where he finished sixth in the Democratic caucuses. Combine that embarrassment and the Countrywide problem and by the end of '09, Dodd's approval rating in the polls had dropped to 33 percent. That's according to the Web site pollster.com.

Dodd was unable to raise those numbers. Countrywide had tarnished his image. He'd stopped being a powerful senator that Connecticut could be proud of. Now, he was cast as a Washington insider - too distant to from home state, too close to special interests.

In another era, the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid, would have come to Dodd's defense. Other senators would have, too, maybe - thanks to Dodd's skills at working across the aisle - even some Republicans.

Mr. KEN FELDMAN (Lobbyist): I'm sure that members of the Senate - Democrats and Republicans - didn't think that Dodd deserved this.

OVERBY: But Ken Feldman, a veteran lobbyist and consultant, says the Senate's not that kind of place anymore.

Mr. FELDMAN: There aren't strong members of the Senate who can pick him up and run interference for him. With all due respect, Harry Reid is not going to run interference for anybody. He's got to worry about himself.

OVERBY: Dodd also lost the support of longtime liberal allies back home, activists who'd worked with him on progressive legislation. Just recently: tobacco regulation, credit card reform, the health-care bill, and re-regulation of financial services. After the scandal hit, those activists took a walk.

Tom Swan is director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group.

Mr. TOM SWAN (Connecticut Citizen Action Group): We probably should've tried to work with him earlier to figure out a better strategy for addressing the ethical concerns.

OVERBY: But they didn't, a sign that in politics today, it doesn't take much of a scandal to scuttle a 30-year career in the Senate.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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