At the close of a regular Democratic Town Committee meeting in Manchester, Conn., in December, 79-year-old Joe Rafala, a World War II veteran and party worker for more than 60 years, decided he had had enough with the state's junior senator, Joe Lieberman.
Rafala, like many in Connecticut, had voted for Lieberman in the past but is troubled by Lieberman's continued public support for the Iraq war. Before the meeting adjourned, Rafala presented a surprise motion proposing that the committee reproach the senator by sending him a letter criticizing his stance on Iraq.
"I was upset about our boys and girls in the armed forces getting killed, coming home in body bags," Rafala says. On January 3, the committee overwhelmingly passed the resolution. Rafala, who considers himself a moderate Democrat, speaks for many in the state who have tired of Lieberman's constant cheerleading for the war and for President Bush. "This man has gone too far," he says.
It's pretty unusual for a Democratic Town Committee to formally criticize its Democratic senator. Lieberman appears to be taking the action seriously, as he has offered to meet with Rafala and others from the committee early next week. But the senator's office did not respond to requests to comment for this article.
Lieberman has been a fixture in Connecticut politics since 1970, when he served in the State Senate. He was a popular state attorney general in the 1980s, and voters catapulted him to the U.S. Senate in a stunning upset in 1988 against incumbent Lowell Weicker. Though liberals griped at Lieberman's frequent backbends toward the center, support for him remained strong. In 1994 Lieberman won the largest landslide victory ever in a Connecticut Senate race against Republican Gerald Labriola. Six years later, when he simultaneously ran for re-election and stood as Al Gore's vice presidential running mate, Connecticut voters sent him to the Senate again, apparently untroubled that his ambitions appeared to lie elsewhere.
But Lieberman's support for the war has alienated many of his constituents who are frustrated with an occupation that seems to have no end in sight.
Just as a political moderate like Joe Rafala is an unlikely figure to emerge as a critic of Lieberman's stance on the war, Manchester is an unlikely town to play host to any kind of protest. Democrats have dominated local politics for 33 of the past 35 years, and registered Democrats far outnumber registered Republicans. A former mill town in central Connecticut with a population of 55,000, Manchester sits just east of Hartford. The median household income is $49,000, which is a little above the national average but below the state average. "These aren't some guys sitting around on their yachts," notes Tom Breen, a reporter at Manchester's Journal Inquirer.
The chairman of the Manchester Democratic Town Committee, 82-year-old Ted Cummings, is also a veteran of World War II; he has led the party there for 44 years -- longer than any other chairman in the state. Manchester's Democrats have traditionally been moderate, he says, but lately they've been critical of the Patriot Act and of the Bush Administration's failed attempt to privatize Social Security. Like Rafala, Cummings once supported Lieberman, but now he is fed up.
"Lieberman doesn't speak about the fundamental and most critical problems in nation-building," Cummings says. "People are asking, 'What side is he on?'"
Others in Connecticut are asking the same questions.
Myrna Watanabe, chair of the Harwinton, Conn., Democrats, is planning to propose a similar resolution to the committee in her northwest Connecticut town. She has been publicly critical of Lieberman recently and is hoping the other committee members will agree to admonish him in a letter. "They are disgusted with Joe," she says, "and pretty disgusted with the war."
Even longtime political allies of Lieberman are speaking out. Toby Moffett, a Democratic U.S. congressman who represented parts of northwest Connecticut from 1975 to 1983, overcame his reluctance to criticize Lieberman because he felt he couldn't remain silent about the war, which he calls "a gigantic, horrendous mistake."
"There's not a nicer person in politics -- he's genuinely nice," Moffett says of Lieberman. "But his support for this outrageous war far outweighs that he's likable. It's pretty serious for someone representing the state to take exactly the opposite position."
Keith Crane, a member of the Branford, Conn., Democratic Town Committee, was so infuriated with Lieberman that he founded DumpJoe.com. He started the group in February 2005, the day after Lieberman voted to confirm Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and built the organization -- which has attracted more than 300 members so far -- using connections and skills he gained participating in meetups for the Howard Dean presidential campaign. At a recent state Democratic fundraiser, Crane and some others handed out buttons that featured a picture of Lieberman kissing the president, an act that got them thrown out of the event. "Most people agree with us that he's a crummy senator and an even crummier Democrat," he says.
But are Connecticut voters really ready to dump Joe? Recent polls suggest that Democrats, at least, are starting to consider it. Remarkably, Lieberman's approval ratings are higher among Republicans and Independents than among members of his own party. Among Connecticut liberals, Lieberman is essentially tied with a potential challenger in the 2006 election, the maverick Republican Lowell Weicker.
It was only in December that Weicker raised the possibility of a run against Lieberman, but Connecticut has been swept up with Lieberman-Weicker fever ever since. Weicker was a Connecticut senator from 1971 until Lieberman defeated him by a slim margin in 1988. Weicker, by then an Independent, went on to become governor of the state in 1990. He has reluctantly offered himself as a Lieberman opponent this time around because, as he has told reporters, "I'm not going to give Joe Lieberman a free pass on the war."
Howard Reiter, chair of the University of Connecticut's political science department, notes the twist involved if the two decide to face off again. "When Lieberman defeated Weicker Weicker would consistently get higher ratings in the other party than in his own," Reiter says. "It's ironic that Lieberman is in the same situation now."