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CT's Joe Lieberman, former US senator and VP pick with an independent streak, dead at 82

Democratic presidential candidate VP Al & Tipper Gore (R) & running mate Sen. Joseph & Hadassah Lieberman waving onstage at Democratic Natl. Convention.
Diana Walker
The Chronicle Collection / Getty Images
Running mate Senator Joseph & Hadassah Lieberman with Presidential candidate VP Al & Tipper Gore waving onstage at Democratic National Convention August 17, 2000.

Tributes from elected officials across Connecticut and the nation poured in Wednesday evening following the death of Joe Lieberman, Connecticut’s former U.S. senator who represented the state in Congress for nearly a quarter of a century.

Lieberman died in New York City on Wednesday due to complications from a fall, according to a statement issued by his family. He was 82.

"His beloved wife, Hadassah, and members of his family were with him as he passed," the family said. "Senator Lieberman's love of God, his family, and America endured throughout his life of service in the public interest.”

As a politician, the Democrat-turned-independent was never shy about veering from the party line.

He nearly won the vice presidency on the Democratic ticket with Al Gore in the disputed 2000 election and almost became Republican John McCain's running mate eight years later.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who served with Lieberman in the Senate, paid tribute to his friend of over 50 years.

“On world and national stages, he helped to define and frame an era of history," Blumenthal said in a statement. "He was a fierce advocate, a man of deep conscience and conviction, and a courageous leader who sought to bridge gaps and bring people together."

Connecticut’s junior U.S. senator, Chris Murphy, said the state was “shocked” by Lieberman’s death.

“In an era of political carbon copies, Joe Lieberman was a singularity. One of one," Murphy said on social media. "He fought and won for what he believed was right and for the state he adored.”

At an event hosted by CT Mirror Wednesday night, Murphy said the late senator’s independent streak taught him to take every idea on its own merits.

“Joe Lieberman knew what he believed to be right,” Murphy said. “He didn't care too much about whether that lined up with the Democratic Party or the Republican party. That was Lieberman from the minute he showed up in the United States Senate."

Faith and family central to Lieberman’s early life

Lieberman was born in 1942 in Stamford, Connecticut.

The son of Orthodox Jewish parents, his father owned a liquor store and his mother “ran the household and raised Joe and his two sisters,” according to a 2002 New Yorker profile.

Lieberman recalled his early life in his 2012 book, “The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath.”

“My earliest memories of Shabbat are in my grandmother’s house — where we lived until I was eight years old,” Lieberman wrote. “On Friday morning and afternoon, the house was busy with activity and cooking and cleaning, as if we were preparing for the arrival of a very honored guest.”

Lieberman would go on to graduate from Yale University and Yale Law School in New Haven.

Senator Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., is fed ice cream by his daughter on June 20, 1991.
Congressional Quarterly
Senator Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., is fed ice cream by his daughter on June 20, 1991.

“Joe was no student radical, that's for sure,” Terry Segal, a Boston lawyer who was also a classmate, told The New Yorker in 2002. “He was what was known then as a 'regular.' He was cautious. There were people who wanted the Yale Democrats to take positions on things like Vietnam, but Joe supported the Administration.”

While in law school, Liberman would marry his first wife, Betty Haas. The pair would have two children. They later divorced and Lieberman would marry his second wife, Hadassah, in 1982.

He was elected to the Connecticut Senate in 1970, after waging an aggressive door-knocking campaign that enlisted the likes of fellow Yale law student Bill Clinton, according to The New Yorker.

In Connecticut, Lieberman served in the state senate for 10 years, spending six as a majority leader.

He then was elected Connecticut’s attorney general, a position he held from 1983 to 1988. As attorney general, he was considered a strong consumer and environmental advocate.

Election to the U.S. Senate

In 1988, Lieberman vaulted into the U.S. Senate, defeating moderate Republican incumbent Lowell Weicker.

Lieberman reflected on that race in an interview last year with Connecticut Public.

"Honestly when I got into the campaign — and maybe metaphorically into the ring — with Lowell Weicker, I knew that I was in with a champion," Lieberman recalled. "He was in his way, a maverick. Without intending, I ended up being thought of somewhat the way he was by different people, particularly in my own party."

As a legislator, Lieberman carved a niche as a senator aligned with the so-called “New Democrat movement,” championing national security and economic growth.

He also became an outspoken opponent of his former Yale classmate, Bill Clinton.

Lieberman was the first national Democrat to publicly criticize President Bill Clinton for his extramarital affair with a White House intern.

In 1998, shortly before the release of the Starr Report, which detailed Clinton’s extramarital affair with a White House intern, Lieberman spoke out against Clinton on the Senate floor, chiding the president for behavior, which he called “immoral” and “harmful” for the message it sent to American families.

Yet Lieberman later voted against the impeachment of Clinton.

U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) (R) greets former U.S. President Bill Clinton (L) during a Lieberman campaign rally July 24, 2006 in Waterbury, Connecticut.
Bob Falcetti
U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) (R) greets former U.S. President Bill Clinton (L) during a Lieberman campaign rally July 24, 2006 in Waterbury, Connecticut.

Rise in national prominence

Vice President Al Gore, seeking to distance himself from Clinton, would later tap Lieberman as his running mate for president in 2000.

The pair came tantalizingly close to winning the contentious contest that was decided by a 537-vote margin victory for George W. Bush in Florida after a drawn-out recount, legal challenges and a Supreme Court decision.

Lieberman was the first Jewish candidate on a major party’s presidential ticket and would have been the first Jewish vice president.

In 2004, Lieberman sought the Democratic presidential nomination, but dropped out after a weak showing in the early primaries.

Independent streak

Lieberman’s independent streak and especially his needling of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential contest rankled many Democrats, the party he aligned with in the Senate. Yet his support for gay rights, civil rights, abortion rights and environmental causes at times won him the praise of many liberals over the years.

In 2006, Lieberman bolted his party and turned independent after a Senate primary loss in Connecticut.

Senator Joseph Lieberman (L) debates with Senate Democratic nominee Ned Lamont October 16, 2006 in Stamford, Connecticut.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
Senator Joseph Lieberman (L) debates with Senate Democratic nominee Ned Lamont October 16, 2006 in Stamford, Connecticut.

Lieberman’s strong support of the Iraq War hurt his statewide popularity. Democrats rejected Lieberman and handed the 2006 primary to a political newcomer and an anti-war candidate, Ned Lamont, who is now serving his second term as Connecticut governor.

Many of his Democratic allies and longtime friends, including former Sen. Chris Dodd, supported Lamont. But Lieberman would go on to win reelection to his seat as an independent.

Lamont alluded to Lieberman's stance on the Iraq War in a statement he issued Wednesday night.

“While the senator and I had our political differences, he was a man of integrity and conviction, so our debate about the Iraq War was serious,” Lamont said in a statement. “I believe we agreed to disagree from a position of principle."

“When the race was over, we stayed in touch as friends in the best traditions of American democracy. He will be missed," he added.

John McCain was leaning strongly toward choosing Lieberman for the ticket as the 2008 GOP convention neared, but he chose Sarah Palin at the last minute after “ferocious” blowback from conservatives over Lieberman’s liberal record, according to Steve Schmidt, who managed McCain’s campaign.

Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter (L) talks with Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) (2nd L), former Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-VT)(2nd R) and Sen Joe Manchin (D-WV)(R) after arriving at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the February 4, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. If confirmed by the full Senate, Carter will succeed Chuck Hagel as the next Secretary of Defense.
Mark Wilson
Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter (L) talks with Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) (2nd L), former Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-VT)(2nd R) and Sen Joe Manchin (D-WV)(R) after arriving at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the February 4, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Appearing on Connecticut Public’s "The Colin McEnroe Show" in 2021, Lieberman said he sought common ground on different sides of an issue.

"I don't support centrist solutions because they preserve the status quo," he said. "I support them because it's the way to get things done, and make some progress in our country; solve big problems that we have."

Lieberman’s legacy reflects his personal convictions, says Jonathan Wharton, a political science professor at Southern Connecticut State University who knew Lieberman during his time as a congressional aide.

“People are saying that he is a centrist. He really was an individualist,” Wharton said. “It's very difficult to do that in this era. Partly because we're seeing parties, both parties really going in different directions."

Lieberman continued his independent streak as founding chair of No Labels, a third-party presidential movement that he described as a centrist political organization. He spoke with Connecticut Public in 2023, saying No Labels gives Americans an alternative to Republican and Democratic Party candidates.

“The parties are failing the American people because they're rarely willing to do anything but attack for political reasons,” Lieberman told Connecticut Public. “That's what No Labels is trying to break up.”

Tributes to Lieberman pour in

Reaction to Lieberman's death poured in minutes after his family announced his passing.

Blumenthal said Lieberman was dedicated to family and faith and described him as a "role model of public service."

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal

"He never ceased listening to both friends and adversaries," Blumenthal said. "He leaves an enduring legacy as a fighter for consumers, environmental values, civil rights, and other great causes of our time and he was tireless in working for Connecticut no matter how far or high he went."

Nick Balletto, longtime friend and former chairman of the Connecticut Democratic Party, said many rank-and-file Democrats were sometimes unhappy with Lieberman, but credited the former senator for dedicating his life to public service and the state.

“He was the most genuine, honest, straightforward, politician you’d probably ever meet. What you saw is what you got,” Balletto said. “His issues were the issues of the people."

In announcing his retirement from the Senate in 2013, Lieberman acknowledged that he did “not always fit comfortably into conventional political boxes” and felt his first responsibility was to serve his constituents, state and country, not his political party. He had a tortured relationship with Democrats.

During his final Senate speech, Lieberman urged Congress to look beyond party lines and partisan rancor to break Washington gridlock.

“It requires reaching across the aisle and finding partners from the opposite party,” Lieberman said. “That is what is desperately needed in Washington now.”

Learn more

Lieberman’s funeral will be held Friday at Congregation Agudath Sholom in his hometown of Stamford.

Lieberman spoke with Connecticut Public through the years, including a 2021 appearance on "The Colin McEnroe Show" and a 2023 interview with John Henry Smith on "All Things Considered."

More reaction from CT officials

U.S. Rep Rosa DeLauro: "I was blessed to both count Joe as a friend and have the opportunity to serve with him in the Congress for over 20 years. It was a pleasure and honor to do so. Joe leaves an incredible legacy of public service, and he will be deeply missed."

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong  April 10, 2022, to discuss the federal court ruling that overturned the FDA’s approval of mifepristone. (Mark Mirko/Connecticut Public)
Mark Mirko
Connecticut Public
Connecticut Attorney General William Tong

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong: "No one meant more to me in my choice to pursue public service than Joe Lieberman. And no one encouraged me more than he did. I first met him when he was Attorney General, and I was a 15-year-old campaign volunteer for his 1988 U.S. Senate race. He was principled and tough, but also incredibly warm and kind, and deeply dedicated to Connecticut and his hometown of Stamford."

Stamford Mayor Caroline Simmons: "Joe Lieberman was a proud son of Stamford and a trailblazer in American politics. Throughout his career, he was not only principled in his values, but he exhibited the very best of civility and bipartisanship in politics, always putting the American people first. His commitment to service is a model for us all and he will be deeply missed."

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney: "The passing of Senator Joe Lieberman is a moment of history for the state of Connecticut. His long career in public life left indelible marks on our state. In eastern Connecticut, his brilliant 2005 summation speech before the Pentagon’s Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) in Boston, Massachusetts was a critical turning point in the successful effort to save Naval Submarine Base New London from closure. As a strong Sub Base supporter in the audience, I will never forget the power of his words that day which clearly reinforced the need for the Commission members to vote to keep the base open."

Connecticut Public's Patrick Skahill, Michayla Savitt, Eric Aasen, Eddy Martinez and John Henry Smith and the Associated Press contributed to this report, which has been updated.