Freilich faces uphill battle against Leahy

Tuesday August 17, 2010

RUTLAND -- Wherever he goes on the campaign trail, U.S. Senate candidate Daniel Freilich takes a familiar-looking companion.

He’s bald on top, with white hair on the sides. He wears eyeglasses, a suit and a lapel button that reads "Have you seen me?" He looks a lot like Sen. Patrick Leahy, except that he’s made of cardboard.

The ersatz Leahy can’t talk, but his silence is symbolic: Freilich, who squares off against the liberal lion in a Democratic primary election Aug. 24, says Leahy is afraid to debate him.

It’s just one of the criticisms leveled by Freilich, a 47-year-old U.S. Naval Reserve physician waging a David-and-Goliath challenge to the Senate’s second-longest-serving member. He calls Leahy out of touch, compromised by his acceptance of special interest money and too entrenched to serve effectively.

Leahy, whose advantages include incumbency, name recognition and a $3.2 million campaign war chest, won’t answer the criticisms specifically. It may be that he doesn’t have to.

"I’m not going to respond that way," he said in an interview last week. "I don’t use negative attacks. I let the kind of work I do speak for itself."

First elected in 1974, Leahy has evolved into a fixture of the left on Capitol Hill and a popular Democrat at home in left-leaning Vermont. He says he has brought home pork, fought for federal subsidies for the state’s beleaguered dairy industry and carried the left’s standard during the eight-year tenure of Republican President George W. Bush.

Now the chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, the 70-year-old former prosecutor proudly points to his efforts to bring federal largesse to Vermont, saying the state has secured $1 billion in grants to create jobs and help small businesses in the past 10 years.

He also takes pride in having been one of about two dozen senators to vote against going to war in Iraq.

Leahy says he takes all his opponents seriously -- all seven of them, including GOP candidate Len Britton and five other minor party or independent challengers in the Nov. 2 general election.

He’s not worried about the anti-incumbent sentiment that has sprung up along with the tea party movement.

"We have a long history of ticket-splitting in Vermont. People pick the person. The kind of support I’ve been getting -- letters, the thousands of voters who have contributed to me -- it gives me a good feeling. People are waving with all their fingers," he said.

Some don’t think he has much to worry about.

"The challenge Pat Leahy is far more concerned about is neither Freilich nor Britton, but whether enough Democratic senators win in other states that he’ll still be in the majority come November," said Eric Davis, a retired political science professor at Middlebury College.

Freilich, who has never run for office before, has been a game candidate. He has traversed the state to meet voters, challenged his blog critics to meet with him in person (they didn’t show) and confronted Leahy over his reluctance to debate.

At a Democratic Party event in Rutland that Freilich crashed, both camps were accused of tearing down the opponents’ signs from walls in the office.

Freilich calls himself the first serious challenger Leahy has ever had, and has filed to run in the general election as an independent, in case he loses in the primary.

He says he’ll serve only two terms if elected.

The two participated in a forum on Vermont Public Radio this month, with Freilich in the Vermont studio and Leahy speaking from Washington. Leahy has said he will debate his challengers before the general election, but Freilich has tried to make hay out of his reluctance to have a face-to-face debate in the meantime.

An advocate of single-payer health care, he says Leahy and other Democrats were wrong to accept something less in the federal health bill.

Freilich, who says he won’t accept campaign contributions from special-interest groups, says Leahy is "conflicted" by them. Leahy’s camp says that his only special interest is Vermont, and that thousands of Vermonters have contributed to his campaign, giving an average of under $100 each.

Freilich has raised only $66,047, and had only $522 on hand at the end of the most recent reporting period.

He has also been criticized as not being a true Democrat, in part because he signed a petition to help Republican congressional candidate Paul Beaudry get on the ballot.

"I signed Paul’s petition because I supported getting him on the ballot, not because I agreed with many of his policy and governance issues. My signing was in the spirit of bipartisanship, not an affirmation of his policy choices," Freilich said.

Beaudry also signed Freilich’s petition.

"Neither one of us would vote for the other," Beaudry said. "This was about being on the ballot."

In a whimsical Web ad released over the weekend, Freilich assumes the role of the "Old Spice Man" featured in TV commercials, swigging maple syrup, "riding" a cow and offering voters a change.

"Anything is possible when your senator votes with his conscience and not his pocketbook," he says in it.


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