Dodd’s HELP panel role helps his money raising

Despite highlighting his independence from K Street, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) is accepting campaign cash from lobbyists and political action committees (PACs), leaving himself vulnerable to criticism.

Dodd, the acting chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, has branched out his fundraising operation by tapping healthcare-related companies for more than $112,000 in the second quarter of 2009. The sum represents a good chunk of the more than $450,000 Dodd accumulated from PACs in the second quarter.

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In addition, fundraising records reviewed by The Hill show that Dodd accepted contributions from 32 lobbyists representing healthcare interests between April 1 and June 30, the weeks preceding Dodd’s markup of legislation overhauling the nation’s healthcare system.

Dodd needs the money to wage a difficult fight for reelection next year. A Quinnipiac University poll in May showed Dodd trailing former Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) 45 percent to 39 in a hypothetical match-up.

Dodd raised $1.2 million during the second quarter, bringing his 2009 total to $2.2 million.

When contacted for comment, Dodd’s office referred The Hill to Colleen Flanagan, communications director of the Connecticut Democratic Party — and a former Dodd aide. She said lobbyists are genuinely angry with Dodd, noting their gripes in various press reports, and that he has accepted the campaign money without letting them influence his policymaking.

“If they aren’t upset with him, they have a funny way of showing it,” she said.

But Dodd’s reliance on political contributions from companies in a sector he is tasked with regulating could give his opponent fodder for campaign mailers. Political experts attribute Dodd’s poor standing in the polls to voters’ perception that he became too cozy with financial-services and mortgage companies.

Republicans have delighted in taking jabs at Dodd, who at one moment slaps K Street and the next can be found mingling with lobbyists. Dodd and several high-powered lobbyists attended the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) annual retreat at Martha’s Vineyard this past weekend.

Dodd’s appearance at the event sparked criticism, as he attended after his campaign released two Internet videos in July proclaiming his independence from lobbyists.

“You almost have to feel sorry for the poor lobbyists. They just can’t get Chris Dodd to listen to them,” says Dodd’s campaign website introducing one of the videos, which quotes lobbyists complaining about Dodd’s lack of sympathy in various press reports.

Dodd also recently sent out a fundraising e-mail titled “Those poor lobbyists!” which quoted anonymous lobbyists complaining about not getting face-time with the lawmaker.

But these efforts to cast Dodd as a populist have been undercut by his reliance on lobbyists and special interests funding his campaign coffers.

For example, on June 17, in between a HELP Committee meeting and a meeting with President Obama, Dodd stopped by a $1,500-a-plate fundraising lunch for his campaign sponsored by two lobbyists working for U.S. Oncology, a group that has a significant stake in healthcare reform.

The balancing of policymaking and fundraising has opened Dodd to attacks.

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“Either this is the world’s most serious case of Stockholm Syndrome, or Sen. Dodd is not being honest about his relationship with the D.C. lobbying community,” said Jim Barnett, who is managing Simmons’s run for Senate.

Flanagan disputed that characterization. She said the contributions from healthcare companies and health insurance companies did not influence Dodd’s policymaking decisions.

“They don’t and never have influenced Sen. Dodd’s agenda and priorities,” Flanagan said, noting that Dodd has championed a robust government-run insurance program, also known as the public option, despite opposition from various healthcare and insurance companies.

“To imply that his work on the healthcare committee somehow is tainted is to ignore the incredible feat that he accomplished last week in passing the major healthcare reform legislation with the public option intact,” she said.
(Under Dodd’s leadership, the HELP panel last week passed legislation that would significantly reform the nation’s healthcare system and create a strong public health insurance program.)

But Ronald Schurin, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut, said contributions from lobbyists will help critics paint Dodd as too close to the industries he regulates.

“It’s all going to blend into the narrative the Republicans will run about Dodd: that he’s a captive of the special interests,” said Schurin.

Schurin said the contributions will have less of an impact if the Senate passes healthcare reform that voters and liberal advocacy groups consider meaningful.

Flanagan said her review of Dodd’s fundraising during the second quarter of 2009 showed that he received $85,000 from healthcare companies. But she did not include in her tally contributions from health insurance companies, which have a big stake in the health reform debate.

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Dodd has taken thousands of dollars from lobbyists with a variety of healthcare industry clients.

For example, he accepted $3,000 in contributions from Richard Sullivan of Capitol Counsel, who represents Astrazeneca Pharmaceuticals, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, Healthcare Service Corp., Cardinal Health Inc. and Aveta Inc., according to public records.

He also accepted $4,000 from Susan Brophy, a lobbyist with Glover Park Group who represents Pfizer Inc., Prime Therapeutics and WellPoint Inc.

Dodd also reported $3,000 in contributions from James Free, of the Smith-Free Group, which represents HCA, a company seeking a ban on the practice of physicians referring patients to hospitals in which they have an ownership stake.

And Dodd has made an effort to raise more money from the state of Connecticut after Republicans blasted him for reporting only $4,250 in contributions from five Connecticut residents in the first quarter of 2009.

A review of his fundraising records by The Hill showed that Dodd received contributions from 113 Connecticut residents, as well as from six Connecticut-based PACs.

Flanagan said Dodd received 491 contributions from donors living in Connecticut, explaining that most of the gifts were under $200 and thus not listed on his quarterly report.

The Hill’s tally showed Dodd accepted 111 contributions from individuals and PACs based in D.C.