WASHINGTON – As a Vietnam veteran who served 37 years in the Army reserves, Rep. Rob Simmons (search) says he knows enough about the military to argue with some certainty that political wrangling at home does nothing for troop morale on the battlefield.
“I am very sensitive to the fact that our men and women don’t need Congress quibbling over our involvement in what is a difficult and dangerous task,” the Connecticut Republican told Foxnews.com. “There is nothing more demoralizing to our soldiers in the field.”
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the two-term lawmaker has been called upon for his expertise in military intelligence. He said he has no taste for charges that the Bush administration, eager to wage war in Iraq, ignored faulty intelligence or spun it to its benefit.
“I’ve met with Dr. Kay in Baghdad and I've had substantial conversations with him. I find him a competent and fair individual,” said Simmons, of the former chief weapons inspector, David Kay, who testified last week in the Senate Armed Services Committee that faulty intelligence led to inaccurate information about the level of weapons of mass destruction (search) held by Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Kay said that while Saddam was in violation of United Nations' resolutions and posed a very real threat, it is unlikely inspectors will find the large stockpiles of weapons reported to exist by intelligence sources before Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“He hasn’t observed any distortion of the intelligence. I don’t see a distortion of the intelligence. What I see is a weakness of the intelligence process,” Simmons said of Kay's conclusions.
Simmons knows the intelligence process well. After serving 19 months and earning two Bronze Stars in the Vietnam War, he joined the Central Intelligence Agency in 1969 and worked as an operations officer for 10 years. Following that, he served as staff director for the Senate Intelligence Committee, earned a master's degree from Harvard and taught military intelligence at Yale’s Berkeley College.
He got into politics as a five-term state legislator representing the towns of Stonington and North Stonington in a Democratic-leaning district. In 2000, he beat Democratic U.S. Rep. Sam Gejdenson 51 percent to 49 percent for the 2nd District seat. He fought equally hard getting re-elected in 2002, and given the Democratic-leaning nature of his district, Simmons doesn’t expect anything different in 2004.
“I represent a wonderful district,” Simmons said. “But no matter how hard I work, or how much I do or how many people know my record … I will always have a hard race and I will always plan for that.”
Democrats are already lining up to make sure of it. Shaun McNally, a former state legislator from Norwich, and Jim Sullivan, financial advisor and former Norwich councilman, have filed to run in the Sept. 19 primary. Both men think Simmons is out of step with the district, which is about 30 percent Democrat, 24 percent Republican and 46 percent unaffiliated.
“It’s a district where the independent view matters,” said McNally, who recently quit his job as public affairs director for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association (search) to run for office.
In 2000, the 2nd Congressional District voted for Democrat Al Gore over George W. Bush 54 percent to 40 percent and gave Ralph Nader 6 percent. It also voted heavily for independent Ross Perot in the 1992 elections.
McNally said the biggest issue facing the district — which encompasses 65 towns in eastern Connecticut as well as the Electric Boat submarine shipyard, the Coast Guard Academy and the massive Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun tribal casino resorts — is finding well-paying jobs.
“I see jobs moving away, not only manufacturing jobs, but white collar jobs," McNally said. "Take that and then lay over it enormous budget deficits and crushing national debt, unfair trade deficits … Rob Simmons, through his voting record, is no longer one of us. He’s become one of them.”
Greg Speed, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, took it a step further, calling Simmons, a “rubber stamp for [House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay and the special interests running Washington."
Speed said Simmons "is certainly vulnerable," but the Main Street Partnership (search), a coalition of moderate GOP House members, has announced that it will fight for Simmons' re-election.
“He’s very independent, far from a DeLay conservative,” said Main Street Executive Director Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, who called Simmons one of the most moderate, independent-minded Republicans in Congress.
Resnick pointed to a number of non-defense issues where Simmons broke away from the GOP pack. He voted against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (search) in Alaska, against the partial-birth abortion ban and for campaign finance reform.
For Simmons, his pet issue of veterans' health care has brought him esteem from colleagues on the Armed Services Committee and the Veterans' Affairs Committee, on which he chairs the Health Subcommittee. He has also fought hard to keep in operation the Naval Submarine Base in New London, which has been on and off the federal chopping block for years.
“He’s a bright, perceptive guy,” Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., who serves with Simmons on the Armed Services Committee, told Foxnews.com. “We don’t want to lose Rob. I’m there if he needs me to campaign for him.”
Republican Rep. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut concurred.
“In a short period of time, Rob has risen to become a very effective congressman for his district and for Connecticut,” she said, praising his work on military issues.
But Sullivan, who appears at this point to be the Democratic Party favorite for the nomination, said there is a disconnect with the constituency, and his job is to put Simmons' record to the test.
"I will be the underdog every step of the way," Sullivan said. "It is important for me, however, to educate people on the issues that confront the district and the country, to have a debate worthy of the people of the district and to give them a choice."