The staid Capitol Hill Club dining room was quiet. Except for Rob Simmons.
Perched at a table at the popular Republican hangout blocks from the Capitol, Simmons waved a sheaf of newspaper clippings about Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and his cozy Wall Street fundraising ties, his role in the economic crisis and the billions of taxpayer dollars spent to bail out banks.
"That's why the people are out with the pitchforks," Simmons said loudly, jabbing the air with a finger. "People are upset."
When his raised voice turned a few heads at nearby tables, Simmons caught himself and shrugged apologetically.
"I get a little excited," Simmons said, chuckling.
"What I see is a sweetheart deal, a sweetheart relationship between the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee and the people he oversees."
Lost his House seat by just 83 votes
Two years after losing his House seat by just 83 votes, a feisty Simmons is back in Washington and taking aim at Dodd amid the financial tumult. Dodd's re-election promises to be a marquee race next year, and taking down a major Democrat like Dodd could be a coup for the Republicans.
Dodd, a five-term incumbent, has soured many voters and found himself vulnerable for several reasons: his role in writing a bill that protected bonuses for executives at bailed-out insurer American International Group Inc; his initial refusal to release documents about his two controversial mortgages with Countrywide Financial Corp.; and his financing of a vacation cottage in Ireland.
"I'm going to do my job," Dodd has said. "Politics will take care of itself, one way or the other in the final analysis. And I'll either once again earn the respect and confidence of the people of this state, or I won't."
Simmons bucks the trend in a congressional climate flush with lawyers and other buttoned-down business types. The lanky former three-term GOP congressman is an ex-spy with a quirky, self-effacing side. As a photographer in the club clicks away, Simmons jokingly asks if there's a way to add "a little more hair" and make his ears look thinner in the pictures.
An uphill battle against Dodd
Simmons, 66, pounced when polls showed Dodd, 64, could be vulnerable. Simmons believes he faces an uphill fight against Dodd, despite a recent Quinnipiac University poll that showed the senator's popularity at 33 percent, a career low. Simmons is bracing for a primary fight as well against state Sen. Sam Caligiuri.
"Simmons is a goofy, awkward guy who comes across as being affable enough," said Roy Occhiogrosso, a veteran Democratic strategist and Dodd supporter. But, Occhiogrosso said, Simmons' aw-shucks personality belies the hardball campaigning that tended to surface in the closing days of his congressional races.
Occhiogrosso noted there were mailings and recorded telephone messages to voters making "ridiculous" charges against Simmons' foes, but Simmons "would disavow any knowledge of it or refuse to talk about it."
'He's like the Energizer Bunny'
"He's like the Energizer Bunny," said a longtime friend, GOP state Sen. Tony Guglielmo. "He's a guy that is passionate about what he does."
"I've always been an underdog," Simmons said. "I was a Republican in the most Democrat district in America held by a Republican. So, I'm accustomed to fighting my way to victory."
Moderate Republicans are a vanishing breed in New England, hurt by the national party's socially conservative bent. Simmons is a fiscal conservative who split with the GOP on issues such as abortion rights and the environment. He narrowly lost to Democrat Joe Courtney in 2006.
Simmons comes from newspaper family
Simmons comes from a newspaper family. He spent three years as a young man working on the Medford Mail Tribune in Oregon. He said he cherishes the Pulitzer Prize that his grandfather, Robert W. Ruhl, won for public service journalism in the 1930s.
Simmons planned to be an investigative reporter, but joined the Army in 1965 instead. He served in Vietnam before going to work in 1969 for the Central Intelligence Agency.
"The techniques that you use as an intelligence officer are not at all unlike those that you use as an investigative reporter," Simmons said. He said he was under diplomatic cover in Taiwan to keep an eye on whether the government was diverting nuclear resources and technologies to make nuclear weapons.
He later worked for the late Rhode Island Sen. John Chafee before becoming staff director for the Senate Intelligence Committee for four years beginning in 1981.
Simmons beat 20-year incumbent Democratic Rep. Sam Gejdenson in 2000 to win the first of his three House terms in a Democratic-leaning district that includes much of eastern Connecticut. Simmons cast Gejdenson as out of touch with his district, a line of attack he is pursuing against Dodd as well.
"One thing about Rob is that he's bold," said Guglielmo. "He will got out there and take his shot. Gejdenson looked unbeatable."
Democrats are already slamming Simmons as a clone of former President George W. Bush, who is unpopular in the state.
"Rob Simmons is an out-of-work former congressman for a reason," said Occhiogrosso. "The reason is that when he was in office he supported most of the policies that put us in the mess we are in."
Simmons scoffed at the charge. "I just want to see Chris Dodd held accountable," he said.