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The Contender

Ned Lamont strolls into the Branford Common Room. Robust and confident, he seems a bit too polished for the casual space. His smile is self-satisfied without being smug. The boyish 52-year old businessman-turned-politician is the first challenger to Senator Joe Lieberman since the latter’s election in 19th. Lamont projects the image of the spirited politician who captures both the support of both the old and young in one fell swoop—a would-be JFK of Connecticut’s Democrats.

“Who am I?” Lamont asks the crowd minutes after arriving at Yale. “I’m an entrepreneur… and if you’re an entrepreneur in business, I think you’re a progressive in government.” Lamont says he is peddling innovation—whether in politics or his digital cable business. The audience nods like a litter of obedient puppy dogs awaiting a treat. Lamont hits all of the major left-wing sore spots: Iraq was a mistake and “those who got us into this war should be held accountable”; universal affordable healthcare needs to be “a part of the solution”; we’re currently paying for “tax cuts we can’t afford”; our moral authority has been degraded by “the outsourcing of torture and Abu Ghraib”; and our president “thinks he’s above the law.”

And then the clincher. With increasing urgency, Lamont asks the crowd, “On all of these issues, where was Joe?” Tense silence. He continues. “Senator Lieberman cheered on the President every step of the way. And that is why I think Joe should go. I’d like to say to Lieberman, ‘If you’re not going to stand up to this president for his failed policies, then I will.’” The audience bursts into applause. They’ve come expecting this meat—the scathing criticism of Lieberman and the status quo—and it is fed to them with impressive fluidity. Lamont exhales, wrings his hands nervously behind his back, then nods appreciatively.

Lamont hopes to revive Connecticut’s tradition of progressive politics and, as he told his eager audience in Branford, to “show people that you can be a real Democrat and win.” Over the coming months, he will pit his formidable vision against Lieberman’s formidable résumé. With 18 years in the Senate, a run for Vice President of the U.S., and a bid for the Presidency, Lieberman has the name, the war chest (five million dollars as of the end of 2005), and the connections that makes young politicians salivate. In his campaign to replace him, Ned Lamont is also endeavoring to replace a legacy.

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In a midnight blue suit, his complexion artificially matte, Lamont looks like a member of the New England Brahmin. He also bears the résumé points of the well-groomed political elite: He can wax poetic about his years spent at Philips Exeter Academy and Harvard College, and boasts a degree from Yale School of Management, which he hangs proudly in his otherwise nondescript office.

Yet, time and time again, Lamont tries to distance himself from this image, claiming that he is “true to his roots.” In the public domain, he takes pains to stress his role as a family man (he has three children, the oldest of whom followed her father to Harvard). An entrepreneur by trade—he founded LDS in 1980—the Greenwich native divides his free time between his family, teaching a business class in one of Bridgeport’s inner-city schools, and chairing various local boards. Lamont wants Connecticut to see him as an active member of the community-not just another smartly dressed politician.

To illustrate this point, Lamont loves to describe how, between his years at Harvard and Yale, he turned away from lofty Ivy pretension. A summer job with The Black River Tribune drew him from the pristine rooms of Harvard’s “Lamont Library” (named after a great-grandfather) to the sleepy streets of Ludlow, Vermont.

Lamont says that this “real world experience” afforded him the chance to travel to small towns, meet local leaders, and chat with the citizens. “I came away with an appreciation for what a difference good government can make,” he says wistfully. “And it just seems to me, looking at Washington D.C., that they’re not even trying to make a difference anymore.”

* * *

Lamont may think Washington is getting lazy, but for the purpose of his campaign, it’s more important that Joe Lieberman is getting particularly slovenly. Lamont is banking on support from Democrats who agree Lieberman has overstayed his welcome in the Senate. Comparing his foe to the elderly housekeeper of a wealthy estate, whose workmanship declines, unnoticed and unchallenged over the years, Lamont says that Lieberman is no longer a Democrat but “half of one.” Lieberman’s conservative stances on the war, abortion, and civil liberties issues—coupled with his support for conservative Justice Samuel Alito LAW ’75—have earned him a reputation as Fox News’ favorite Democrat. Liberal backlash has been quiet thus far, limited to a few websites calling Lieberman a “DINO”—or a “Democrat In Name Only.”

His chances of success depend on whether he can paint himself as a truer Democrat, and whether voters will trust those claims coming from the mouth of one with so little experience. Lamont’s current task is to play the role of the anti-Joe. In spite of his “rescuer-of-the-Democratic-Party” appeal, Lamont is, by any standards, a political novice and has a long way to go if he hopes to become a household name. Before January, Lamont was virtually unknown outside of the Greenwich community, and even today, a Google Image search for “Ned Lamont” yields just nine results, only six of which are actually pictures of Ned Lamont— three are pictures of Lieberman. As he speaks from the Branford Common Room, Lamont lags behind in the polls by an estimated margin of 55%.

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To his most fervent supporters, he is not just another aspiring politician—he’s the superhero waiting in the wings. The man who could potentially reenergize and reunify the Democratic party, the liberal who just might re-liberalize Connecticut politics. With this campaign, Lamont has set himself a daunting task: A battle against one very wealthy and experienced foe. Nevertheless, with each stump speech, it seems more believable that Ned Lamont could be the one to dethrone the incumbent, to topple the mighty “Republocrat” Joseph Lieberman at long last.

By the end of the night, fatigue has cast deep shadows across Lamont’s face; inhaling, he summons the energy to repeat one final time what has become his slogan: “The bottom line is I think our candidacy is going to be the best thing for the Democrats in this state… Some have said, ‘Ned, I don’t want you to jeopardize the Democrats’ hold on Connecticut,’ and my response is, ‘This is a blue state. You’re not going to lose a senator, you’re going to gain a Democrat.’”

On his way out the door, Lamont shakes the hands of eager students and tries his best to look like a beacon of hope.

Lauren Harrison, a freshman in Ezra Stiles, is Circulations Manager for TNJ

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