Published August 10. 2012 4:00AM Updated August 10. 2012 2:19PM
Middletown - Susan Bysiewicz, the former secretary of the state and current candidate for U.S. Senate, didn't win the Democratic party's endorsement this spring and is trailing Congressman Chris Murphy in the polls with four days to go until Tuesday's primary.
Those are hardly encouraging signs. But Bysiewicz has pulled off unlikely wins before in Connecticut primaries, and she believes she can do that again.
"I have a record of fighting and winning in very tough elections that insiders thought I wouldn't win," Bysiewicz, 50, said in an interview in a downtown Middletown café near her campaign headquarters.
Indeed, Bysiewicz failed to get the convention endorsement in her two previous runs for a new elected office. Yet through shoe leather and hard-edge campaigning, she ultimately triumphed.
That was the scenario in 1992, when she first ran for a seat in the state House of Representatives. She lost the convention endorsement to former Middletown Mayor Anthony Marino but managed enough delegates for a primary challenge.
"The party insiders never thought I'd win," Bysiewicz recalled. "But I knocked on 5,000 doors and won the primary by 73 percent of the vote."
In 1998 she lost the party endorsement for secretary of the state to then-state Rep. Ellen Scalettar. Yet the primary voters supported her over Scalettar, and she went on to beat Republican Ben Andrews that November.
One of Bysiewicz's attack ads that year prompted an editorial in the Hartford Courant crowning her "the queen of mean."
"In both instances, if you had said to some of the party insiders, 'Does she have a chance?' They would have been like, 'No, forget it,'" Bysiewicz said. "So here we are - same situation."
In this primary for the Senate seat, however, Bysiewicz is facing even tougher odds against a popular opponent who has managed to brush off her strongest attacks.
And Bysiewicz is still coping with the fallout of 2010, when she jumped from the governor's race to the attorney general's race before ultimately being disqualified by the state Supreme Court. She also was found that summer to have misused an office database for her own political purposes, and that fall faced criticism for a ballot shortage in Bridgeport, as local poll workers underestimated voter turnout in the election.
A Quinnipiac University poll this June had Bysiewicz a full 30 points behind Murphy, the 5th District Congressman. A more recent survey by Public Policy Polling showed Bysiewicz with lower favorable ratings than Murphy (27 percent vs. 38 percent) and higher unfavorable ratings (42 percent vs. 31 percent).
She also lags Murphy in fundraising ($2.3 million to his $5.5 million) and total endorsements by unions, political groups, newspapers and elected officials.
"It's not a mistake or a coincidence that almost every elected official who served with both Susan Bysiewicz and I has endorsed me in this race," Murphy told The Day.
The pro-Murphy crowd includes state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington.
"I don't have bad things to say about Susan, I just think Chris would be a better senator," Urban said. "It pulls me a little bit because she's a woman, and I'd like to see more women in the Senate. But knowing Chris the way I do, I'll go with Chris."
Bysiewicz and Murphy have similar ideological views, with both in favor of keeping the Affordable Care Act and allowing Bush-era tax cuts to expire for couples making $250,000 or more.
However, Bysiewicz's desire to impose a small transaction tax on financial securities and reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act that once separated commercial and investment banking puts her to the left of Murphy on financial regulation.
"I'm someone who will stand up to Wall Street," she said.
Bysiewicz considers her election resume an advantage: "I'm the only candidate in the race, Democrat or Republican, who has not only won a statewide primary before but has won statewide elections by very large margins."
Whichever Democrat survives past Tuesday will battle a Republican in November for the seat of Sen. Joe Lieberman, who is retiring. Vying to be that candidate are professional wrestling magnate Linda McMahon and former Fairfield County Congressman Christopher Shays.
Joe Jaskiewicz, former mayor of Montville, said he is voting for Bysiewicz in the primary because she knows southeastern Connecticut and will work hard in Washington. He also thinks she can win.
"Chris is a popular guy amongst the Democrats in the party, but Susan's a scrapper," he said. "She's done it before, and she may do it again."
Bysiewicz is the eldest of four children and was born and raised in Middletown. Her father was a farmer and owner of a small insurance company. Her mother was the first woman to obtain tenure at the University of Connecticut School of Law.
Bysiewicz graduated from Middletown High School and went on to Yale. Wandering a university library for a paper topic, Bysiewicz recalled, she spotted a copy of "The Power Broker," a biography that Lieberman wrote in the mid-1960s about former Connecticut Democratic Party boss John Bailey.
She opened the book to a photograph of Bailey with future Gov. Ella Grasso, and decided to write her senior thesis on Grasso's political career. Later, while studying at Duke Law School, Bysiewicz expanded her thesis into a full Grasso biography.
At Duke, Bysiewicz met her future husband, David Donaldson, and went to work as a corporate lawyer in New York City. She later returned to Connecticut and practiced at Robinson & Cole in Hartford and then as in-house counsel for Aetna. She has three children, two attending Wesleyan University and one about to be a senior at Middletown High School.
Bysiewicz was known as a hard-charging reformer during her six years as a state legislator and pushed legislation to ban lobbyist gifts and end "drive-through mastectomies" by requiring insurance companies to cover at least a 48-hour hospital stay. She also helped lead an early effort to introduce public financing for state campaigns.
As secretary of the state from 1999 through 2010, Bysiewicz implemented the CONCORD online business registry and an updated voter registration system. She took a lead in a national campaign against a Department of Veterans Affairs' policy - since rescinded - that banned voter registration drives at VA hospitals.
She also traveled the state putting on ceremonies to honor World War II and Korean War veterans.
Bysiewicz explored running for governor in 2006 and more seriously in 2010, when she was considered the frontrunner. But she abruptly pulled out of the governor's race in January to run instead for state attorney general, a post that Democrat Richard Blumenthal would vacate after his successful run for the Senate.
"I'd always thought that (attorney general) was the best job in state government," Bysiewicz explained last week. "I just never figured that there would be an opening."
But her attorney general dreams were thwarted by the state Supreme Court, which ruled that she lacked the required 10 years of active legal practice. That qualification, set into Connecticut law in 1897, was first brought to light by a blogger.
Since the court's ruling, a past president of the Connecticut Bar Association has asserted openly that Lieberman, who served as state attorney general from 1983 to 1989 before his election to the Senate, also failed to meet that requirement.
Bysiewicz sat out the 2010 elections and watched her secretary of the state term expire. In January 2011, she became the first candidate to declare for Lieberman's seat.
An attack ad recently generated some bad publicity for her campaign. In the TV spot last month, Bysiewicz claimed that Murphy "has taken more hedge fund money than any other Democrat in Congress."
Her campaign spokesman later admitted to a "research error" in the ad: Murphy rather was the fourth-largest recipient of hedge fund money in 2008.
But Bysiewicz continued to air the ad for a week and a half.
"Frankly, I think she's done more damage to herself than to me," Murphy said.
Nevertheless, Bysiewicz said, she stands by the ad's main point: Murphy is too cozy with the financial industry.
She regularly refers to the congressman's May 28, 2010, nay vote on a bill that would have ended the so-called "carried interest" benefit that allows hedge fund managers to pay a low, 15 percent tax on earnings. The measure was part of a broader tax bill, known as "The American Jobs and Closing Tax Loopholes Act."
Murphy and U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th, were among the 34 House Democrats who joined Republicans that day in opposing the bill. The state's other three representatives - Joe Courtney, D-2nd, John Larson, D-1st, and Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd, voted for it.
"It was a really clear moment - who do you stand with? Do you stand with middle-class families who are struggling … or do you stand with Wall Street?" Bysiewicz said. "Chris Murphy stood with Wall Street."
The legislation passed the House 215 to 204, but the version of the bill that would have ended the carried interest benefit, which Bysiewicz calls the "hedge fund loophole," eventually died in the Senate.
Murphy disputes the notion that he sides with financiers. He notes that he has three times voted to end the carried interest benefit.
"The bill that Bysiewicz keeps bringing up didn't close enough loopholes to pay for itself, and would have ballooned the deficit by $50 billion," Ben Marter, Murphy's campaign spokesman, said this week.
Bysiewicz dismisses those three votes as just for show, and contends that in a tight vote Murphy will side again with Wall Street interests.
"I think the voters should have a very clear idea of what each candidate's priorities will be when they go to Washington," she said. "I have a long-standing record of fighting big, powerful corporations, powerful people and getting things done when it's hard."