Simmons Readies For More Battles: Congressman Upbeat After Election Defeat

The Hartford Courant

He sits on a wicker chair in a small, messy studio apartment. The Venetian blinds rattle and the smell of Mexican spices from the restaurant across the street flavors the air.

This is Rob Simmons' home for one more day.

Simmons still looks like a congressman, wearing a nicely fitting gray suit, his tie perfectly knotted as he relaxes in the wicker chair.

He still sounds like a congressman, in that frank, determined way he has of making his points. ``I'm an optimist,'' he declares, his eyes staring straight into yours as he smiles.

And although the shabby apartment is a long way, in a sense, from his office in the opulent Cannon House Office Building, where the state's 2nd District Republican representative has worked for six years, Simmons seems not in the least disturbed by his pared-down circumstances.

In fact, he might be the most upbeat beaten candidate in Washington.

All this despite his loss, by less than 100 votes, to Democrat Joe Courtney last month.

Simmons makes it clear, above all, that he is ready for more political combat. Unlike most of his soon-to-be-former colleagues, he's not complaining. The Vietnam veteran and former CIA operations officer has been schooled to absorb the blows. He understands you suck it up when you're down and get ready for the next mission.

``This is my office this week,'' he says, almost shouting in that animated way he has. His long arms sweep to indicate the small apartment.

Probe a little, it doesn't take much, and he explains just why he's feeling pretty good. Six years ago, he won his seat in a district that George W. Bush lost, a district that had elected Democrat Sam Gejdenson to Congress 10 times between 1980 and 1998. Connecticut's 2nd is a place where, as political analyst Amy Walter put it, Republicans begin a race ``with 20 pound weights around their legs.''

``I didn't get the feeling there was dissatisfaction with me personally,'' he explains. He will make the same point over and over during an hourlong conversation: ``I was operating in a hostile environment.''

Simmons won't rule out another run in 2008; nor will he reject the idea that he could be Connecticut's Republican chairman, as was raised as a possibility last week. He'll continue to live in Stonington, hoping to find work ``in the industry,'' meaning something to do with veterans' affairs, military strategy or intelligence work.

Old soldiers never die, and they fight like crazy not to fade away.

What Went Wrong?

Was Simmons a victim of the times, or was he fortunate to have won three times in such a Democratic district?

``On issue after issue, especially on the war in Iraq, the Republican majority and Rob Simmons supported the Bush agenda,'' says Brian Farber, Courtney's spokesman. Courtney himself declined to comment.

On 46 key votes tracked by Congressional Quarterly, Simmons backed Bush 65 percent of the time, well below the 81 percent average for House Republicans.

That was enough to help Simmons fall like a domino last month. Three other New England GOP incumbents lost, leaving Rep. Christopher Shays, R-4th District, as the region's only Republican House member.

The party's future in New England, says Simmons, ``is not a promising picture. It looks bad on any criteria you use to measure the party's strength.''

Too often, he explains, Republicans have been identified as the party that's socially rigid, intolerant of support for abortion rights, spending precious legislative time on flag-burning and gay marriage and demanding blind loyalty to toppled House leader Tom DeLay.

Simmons leans toward the bed to grab his briefcase and pulls out some perfectly folded old newspapers. Articles accuse him of using harsh interrogation tactics, and worse, during his Southeast Asia days. They cite the help Simmons got from DeLay's political committee, help DeLay gave to dozens of Republicans.

``This kind of stuff motivates me to stay involved,'' he said.

But why? He's 63 years old, with a supportive wife and their two children living nearby. He served for 37 years, seven months and 24 days in the military, retiring as a colonel, and he believes he lost a close re-election race largely because of circumstances he couldn't control.

He looks even more spirited and leans forward. ``I'm a patriot. I want to be of service.''

He points to one newspaper article that has objectionable sentences outlined in yellow marker.

Why would he want to endure this kind of withering criticism?

Because it's part of the deal you make when you decide to have a life in public service, he says. ``These are reminders of how bad it can get,'' he smiles and adds, ``You know what? Nobody died.''

The Fighter

He fought hard to preserve the Naval Submarine Base at Groton. He helped rally support to save the base long before the Pentagon even threatened to close it, and kept a daily log of his activities.

``He told us in the summer of '03 this was going to happen, and told us to get the sub base coalition together, '' says John Markowicz, executive director of the SouthEastern Connecticut Enterprise Region.

Simmons pulls another newspaper out of his briefcase, from May 14, 2005, after the Defense Department announced that it wanted to close the base. This one features a big picture of Simmons hugging a base supporter. The headline: ``State Ready to Fight.''

From his perch at the House Armed Services Committee, Simmons got influential lawmakers on his side. He had known base closing commission Chairman Anthony J. Principi for a long time. Markowicz, who became coalition chairman, and Simmons defense aide Justin Bernier exchanged e-mails regularly, day and night and weekends, about strategy.

Simmons not only relished the Groton fight; he loved being on Armed Services. Its Rayburn Building rooms were comfortable gathering places for military folk, where the jargon of combat and tactics was understood and welcomed.

Simmons could fight for more attention to the future of military submarines and open source intelligence (gathering data from overt sources), and everyone knew what he was talking about. He could champion veterans' causes, which analysts say he did with great success, and as one of two former CIA officers in the House, he was sought by the media and colleagues for advice on clandestine activities.

But he and others warn against seeing the fall of Simmons as a terrible blow.

``Simmons came up during the Cold War,'' said Bates, formerly a policy adviser to the House Homeland Security Committee, ``and new members are going to take a new view of the world, a view that's needed.''

Democrats say they're confident that Courtney, who will not say whether he will seek a position on the Armed Services Committee, will be a strong advocate for Connecticut defense interests.

And, said Connecticut's senior senator, Democrat Christopher J. Dodd, ``We still have strong people in key places.'' Among them are Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee; and Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-3rd District, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Mission Accomplished?

But they're not Simmons. They're not one of the boys.

He pulls out a picture of the House committee. He points to the top row.

``If I had been re-elected,'' he says, ``I would have moved up to that row.''

The words convey disappointment, but there's no sense of melancholy.

If anything, there's a last-day-of-school mood surrounding Simmons in this little apartment, where that dense taco smell is becoming overwhelming.

Look closely, and the place is vintage Simmons. There's a portrait of his great-grandfather, Antes Ruhl, who ran away from home at 12, got a job at an Illinois knitting company and later ended up running the company. On another wall is a picture of Simmons and his wife, skiing.

But there are also the telltale reminders that the congressman is not all spit and polish and service.

A pet green frog puppet from his wife (with a note saying, ``you are missed'') lies on the double bed. The 13-inch TV set is crammed into a corner, dust on its picture tube. Books are piled on the window sill. He has trouble shutting the window.

He has a few projects planned, he says. He's part of a veterans' affairs commission that will help find ways to aid current and retired military personnel. He will participate in several national conferences on open source intelligence.

In these final congressional days, his mood never shifts. He got to preside over the House for an hour Friday afternoon. He thought he'd be gone by evening, so the furniture was gone by Friday. But the House kept going, so he slept Friday on an air mattress in the apartment.

Yet he remains upbeat, ready for more action.

``If I had failed, if I had lost the base, maybe I'd feel regret,'' he says. ``But we were successful. We did our best.''

In other words, mission accomplished. On to the next one.

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