‘Two Sub Joe’ looks to secure ninth term
In his first successful race for Congress, Joe Courtney won by 83 votes against Stonington Republican Rob Simmons in 2006. Two years ago, he was reelected to his eighth term with nearly 60% of the vote.
The Democratic incumbent has far outpaced his Republican opponent, state Rep. Mike France, R-Ledyard, in campaign fundraising, and has been deemed “very likely” to win the 2nd Congressional District again by national pollsters.
The chairman of the House Armed Services’ Seapower subcommittee, Courtney, has established himself as a stalwart of submarine contracts for Electric Boat in Groton. But France called Courtney’s reputation as “Two Sub Joe” into question in late September on a conservative talk radio show, saying Simmons doesn’t get enough credit for his efforts while in office. He repeated the critique during an interview with The Day soon after.
“Joe Courtney runs around with this title of ‘Two Sub Joe,’ and that’s great, but that announcement was made about five months after he was sworn in. I don’t know what he did to make that happen,” France told The Day.
Courtney’s campaign sent out a slew of news reports confirming the congressman as a freshman did what Simmons “fought hard to achieve but failed to deliver,” according to a December 2007 story from The Hill. Simmons had secured authorization for a second submarine, but the funds were not appropriated.
Courtney said his nickname is “accurate to the extent that you’re talking about annual procurement,” but, “when Congress is authorizing and appropriating two subs per year, that doesn’t mean there’s only two submarines under construction at any given time in Groton.”
“There’s a growing backlog of work. Today, there’s five Virginia-class submarines in Groton. Add to that the new program, Columbia, those submarines are two-and-a-half times the size of Virginia’s,” Courtney said, adding that there is a “demand signal for workers and suppliers that is vastly different from when I first came into Congress.”
In response to France trying to “pooh pooh” his work, Courtney explained the process that led to the authorization and appropriation of a $588 billion advanced procurement in 2007, which started the two-per-year production. Courtney credited Simmons for efforts to stop the Navy from closing the Groton base in 2005.
Courtney said his record, which includes helping stop President Barack Obama in 2013 and President Donald Trump in 2020 from cutting a submarine, backs his reputation.
“Republicans have been very frustrated that I didn’t fall flat on my face,” Courtney said. “I respect Mike’s military service, but the fact is, this record is in black and white.”
Courtney has been criticized for being a rubber stamp on military budgets, including by Second District Green Party candidate Kevin Blacker.
“The Green Party’s national platform is to cut defense spending in half, they’ve been very critical of NATO, personally I know their agenda is not the right one, not just for the district but for the country,” Courtney said. He acknowledged that some military programs “have shown their value is more than questionable,” and in those cases, he has advocated for eliminating such programs. But, Courtney said, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine necessitated the military budget continue to grow.
“I think the world right now is in a place where even Democrats are taking a new look at where our defense budget fits in,” Courtney said. “February 24th changed the view of a lot of progressives and Democrats in terms of, ‘how do we protect our allies?’”
Submarine procurement and his work in the defense realm, Courtney points out, are examples of his bipartisanship. He has presented himself as a moderate Democrat in debates, interviews and campaign ads. He sought to depict France as too conservative for the moderate district.
“If you look at his record in Hartford, he’s somebody who is on the far right of his caucus,” Courtney said.
He brought up France’s opposition to a 2019 bill, now law, that would expand insurance for breast cancer screenings, opposition to a 2021 bill, Jennifer’s law, that extends criminal jurisdiction over cyberstalking, and France’s record on abortion.
France voted against a 2022 law that protects out-of-state women from prosecution for getting an abortion in Connecticut and state medical providers from legal actions taken against by other states. Courtney pointed out that France, during a recent interview on Channel 3, said he would have voted for Sen. Lindsey Graham’s proposal to ban abortions after 15 weeks.
“I give him credit for having the frankness to share that because a lot of Republicans avoid that question,” Courtney said, who was in the state legislature when it passed a law codifying Roe v. Wade. “I think that bipartisan bill got it right, and I don’t think we should send anyone to Washington who is going to vote for a law that would override Connecticut’s balanced approach.”
Courtney said the government spends too little money on job training, and should focus on worker shortages in major industries.
“Electric Boat has 572 job openings right now, it’s rampant, it’s everywhere,” Courtney said. “We passed a bill to enlarge funding for more spots for pre-apprenticeship accelerated programs and to extend that to a wider group of sectors… Employer groups around the country are frantic to get people, but there’s a skills gap we have to close.”
The government has spent too much money on prescription drugs for Medicare and Medicaid, Courtney said.
“The Inflation Reduction Act took a major step in allowing government to negotiate for lower prices,” he said. The Congressional Budget Office noted that the bill would cut the deficit by $300 billion. “Aside from the fact that it created a high cost for patients, it also created a high cost for taxpayers.”
Courtney supported increasing the top marginal tax rate from 36% to 39% when it was raised under Obama for income above $400,000. Trump rolled the rate back when in office; Courtney opposed Trump’s reversal.
“The tax was not impinging on economic growth,” Courtney said of the 39% rate. “It was there under Clinton, which still stands as the most sustained period of economic growth in the modern era.”
Courtney supported the recent passage of gun safety legislation by Congress, which included gun control initiatives as well as billions of dollars to enhance mental health and school security throughout the country. He highlighted “red flag laws,” which are meant to keep weapons away from people who’ve been determined by a court to be a danger to themselves or others.
“I do believe people have a right to have a firearm in their home,” Courtney said. “I think Connecticut’s response to Sandy Hook ... is the model we should be looking to.”
Courtney spoke to the importance of nuclear power in addressing climate change and how Millstone Power Station in Waterford fits in.
“There’s no scenario that you can get to a reduction in emissions close to the Paris Agreement or the climate change bill we just passed without having nuclear as part of the portfolio,” Courtney said. He has been advocating to re-site spent fuel rods to a federal nuclear waste repository, though a location has not been designated.
The Inflation Reduction Act, Courtney said, invests in solar and offshore wind energy and “turbo charges the goal of decarbonizing energy, transportation, home ownership, home construction and commercial construction.” He is a proponent of making electric vehicles more affordable and converting large vehicles to electric.
Courtney said he will not trade, and has never personally traded, stocks if reelected. He and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, along with 97 other members of Congress, were named in a New York Times story saying they or their families bought or sold stock that could represent a conflict of interest for them. Courtney’s office said at the time that the securities in question were part of a rollover from his wife’s 401K plan when she changed jobs, and that the account was managed by an investment adviser who chose the assets.
Courtney said he co-sponsored a bill that would stop members of Congress from trading individual stocks. The bill ultimately failed.
“People could still have retirement accounts and IRAs, but it would have to be mutual funds where they don’t have control over the investments, which is exactly what Audrey and I have had for the past three years,” he said.
Courtney said election denial and the insurrection attempt on Jan. 6, 2021, is “a profoundly important issue” and “a serious warning to the country that we have to pay attention to protect our democracy. There’s no question Joe Biden won the election fair and square. Election officials, particularly in Connecticut, who do their jobs so diligently and passionately, are now being questioned.”
Courtney’s 2006 election was subject to re-canvassing, and though he only beat Simmons by 83 votes, Simmons “very graciously conceded. … He followed the tradition that we have in this country. We settle our political disputes at the ballot box.”
Asked whether he believes in term limits, Courtney, who is 69 years old, said, “We have term limits right now: Voters impose them.”
Though he recognizes the advantages of incumbency, “I think a constitutional amendment to change that one aspect misses the target in terms of gerrymandering, access to voting and more important issues that would break a lot of bottlenecks down here.”
In his closing statement, Courtney again emphasized his bipartisanship. He responded to a frequent attack of France’s — that Courtney votes lockstep with his party leadership. Courtney said he’s voted with House Minority Leader, Republican Kevin McCarthy, more than 340 times.
“As somebody who was voted ‘Democrat most admired by Republicans’ when I was in the General Assembly, I think I’m the same guy,” Courtney said. “I make a point of trying to work with other people. I don’t think my opponent has a similar record to that. I can’t remember a Mike France bill that landed on Ned Lamont’s desk, like my bill landed on Donald Trump’s desk.”
Editor’s note: This version updates the first paragraph to reflect that Joe Courtney’s first successful race for Congress was in 2006. Courtney had challenged Simmons in 2002 and lost.