Richard Blumenthal

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Sept. 15 2000 8:30 PM

Richard Blumenthal

He was supposed to be president. So why is he only Connecticut's attorney general?

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal—catalyst of state lawsuits against Microsoft, Big Tobacco, and now HMOs—is inspiring an emotion that he surely has never inspired before: sympathy. Blumenthal, after all, is the perennial golden boy of New England politics. He's smart, handsome, and rich. He has a great job suing the bejesus out of nefarious corporations. He's nicknamed "Mr. Perfect." Why would anyone feel sorry for him?

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

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Blumenthal, once one of the most promising young Democratic pols in the nation, is languishing. He saw his bid for a federal appeals court judgeship collapse this summer, as the Clinton administration decided he couldn't win Senate approval before Clinton's term ends. Then, when Al Gore named Joe Lieberman as his running mate, Blumenthal seemed to have a free pass to Lieberman's Senate seat. If Lieberman decided to drop his Senate campaign, Blumenthal would have replaced him on the November ballot and waltzed to victory. (There is only token GOP opposition.) But Lieberman is continuing his Senate campaign, so if Gore loses the presidential race, Lieberman will remain in the Senate. And if Gore wins, GOP Gov. John Rowland will appoint a Republican to replace Lieberman. To move up to Washington, Blumenthal would have to wage a tough fight against the GOP incumbent in 2002. (It's also possible that the legislature could call a special election for 2001.) Blumenthal was supposed to be "the Jewish Kennedy." Now the 54-year-old finds himself in the autumn of his career fighting for Joe Lieberman's sloppy seconds.

Blumenthal is blessed with every political virtue except recklessness and luck. His résumé makes Gore's look like a high-school dropout's. Son of a wealthy German immigrant, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard and was editorial chairman of the Harvard Crimson. * He interned a year at the Washington Post, where he became publisher Katharine Graham's aide-de-camp (an early sign of his talent for befriending the rich and powerful).

Pat Moynihan liked Blumenthal's senior thesis on the failure of poverty programs so much that he incorporated much of it into his own book and recruited Blumenthal to work for him in the Nixon White House. At 24, Blumenthal turned down the directorship of VISTA. He served in the Marine Reserves after receiving several Vietnam draft deferments. * Then he went to Yale Law School, where he edited the Yale Law Journal, of course. He followed that by clerking for Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, then serving as right-hand man to Sen. Abe Ribicoff. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed him U.S. attorney for Connecticut, making him, at 31, the youngest U.S. attorney ever. He climbed ever upward in the '80s, winning election to the state House and Senate, marrying a rich and beautiful woman, fathering four kids, and still finding time to save an innocent man on death row.

In 1990, Blumenthal was elected to succeed Lieberman as attorney general. AG—a k a "Aspiring Governor"—was supposed to be a transitional job on the way to senator or governor, as it had been for Lieberman. Lieberman had transformed the Connecticut AG's job from part-time backwater into full-time consumer advocacy. What Lieberman had begun, Blumenthal perfected. He turned consumer advocacy into high art and helped lead the nationwide trend of AG activism. According to Yale legal scholar Akhil Reed Amar, Reagan-era deregulation and congressional gridlock left a power vacuum, especially in antitrust law and consumer protection. AGs, always trolling for power and press, rushed to fill it.

Blumenthal proved a master. Ambitious, independent, and fiercely committed to progressive activism, he was creative in finding causes related (however tenuously) to the well-being of Connecticut. He joined the anti-tobacco posse early then led the AGs as they piled on the Justice Department's Microsoft suit. Blumenthal spearheaded the national campaign against deceptive sweepstakes mailings and has taken a prominent role in negotiating with gun manufacturers. (For Jacob Weisberg's analysis of what's wrong with all this AG activism, read " Microsuits.")

Blumenthal attached himself to any popular local crusade he could find. He almost single-handedly banned ATM fees in Connecticut, sued Midwestern power plants for polluting Connecticut air, investigated possible conspiracies to deprive Connecticut of pro sports teams, warred against telephone companies for the practice of "slamming," and pioneered the distribution of "Wanted" posters for deadbeat dads.

He rapidly made himself the state's most popular politician—"a secular saint," as his 1998 GOP opponent Santa Mendoza calls him, sarcastically—because he combined his populist causes with masterful PR and relentless campaigning. His critics smack him with the old line, "The most dangerous place in Connecticut is between Dick Blumenthal and a TV camera." He virtually moved into the CNN studio during the Microsoft proceedings. And Blumenthal is a Terminator on the campaign trail: He attends every funeral and gala and works rope lines as though his life depends on it. Blumenthal isn't a natural glad-hander or even a good one—he's stiff and chilly—but he works like the devil at it.

His endless labor has gone unrewarded because he had nowhere to climb. Fellow Democrats Lieberman and Chris Dodd locked down the two Senate seats, the jobs he most wanted. Blumenthal could have run for governor in 1994, but he didn't want to risk losing in that Republican year. In 1998, he blanched at the prospect of challenging popular incumbent Gov. Rowland. Instead, he ran again for attorney general. Blumenthal is the kind of meritocratic pol who would have done better in a time when politics was more hierarchical. A generation or two ago, a politician with Blumenthal's brains and drive would have been reserved a Senate seat because Democratic Party elders would have ensured it. But in today's more chaotic politics, the prudent Blumenthal has kept waiting and waiting and waiting for his turn. "He's intelligent. He's a decent guy. He just doesn't have the fire for a tough run," says New Haven Advocate political columnist Paul Bass. "He wants it to be handed to him, and it never was."

Unlike most politicians, who become more restrained the longer they serve, Blumenthal has responded to his years of frustration by becoming ever more feisty as attorney general. He pushed the Microsoft suit even as he was passing on the 1998 governor's race. He joined the AGs' assault on gun manufacturers as his potential appeals court seat was slipping away. Last week, as it became clear that Lieberman wouldn't step aside for him, Blumenthal filed the first major class-action lawsuits against HMOs, demanding that four Connecticut insurers improve their patient appeal process, pay doctors promptly, and provide better information about prescription drug coverage. It is just the kind of nasty, fun, popular, and questionable legal battle Blumenthal relishes, and just what he would miss if he ever does make it to the Senate.

Correction, May 18, 2010: This article originally stated that Blumenthal enlisted in the Marines, rather than ducking the Vietnam draft, and that he was captain of the Harvard swim team. According to an investigation by the New York Times, Blumenthal joined the Marine Reserves after receiving numerous draft deferments, and never saw combat in Vietnam. The Times also found that Blumenthal was not a member of the Harvard swim team, much less its captain. (Return to the corrected sentences.)