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'Connecticut was always in his heart': Former US Senator Joe Lieberman remembered in state he served

FILE, 2006: Senator Joe Lieberman speaks at a campaign rally Waterbury, Connecticut when his position was challenged for the Democratic Senate nomination by Greenwich, Connecticut, businessman Ned Lamont.
Bob Falcetti
FILE, 2006: Senator Joe Lieberman speaks at a campaign rally Waterbury, Connecticut when his position was challenged for the Democratic Senate nomination by Greenwich, Connecticut, businessman Ned Lamont.

Connecticut’s former U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent whose political career almost took him to the White House, was remembered Thursday as a principled politician who got his start in Connecticut.

Lieberman forged alliances in the Senate, despite his independent streak, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said.

“He was ferociously independent,” Blumenthal recalled Thursday on Connecticut Public’s “Where We Live.” “Sometimes infuriatingly so. But he always listened. Even in disagreement, he was affable and gracious and even smiling.”

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

Lieberman was a politician with “deep convictions and conscience” rooted in his Jewish faith, Blumenthal said.

“He spoke about it from the heart,” Blumenthal said.

Lieberman’s willingness to veer from the party line would infuriate some Democrats, both nationally and in Connecticut, but Blumenthal said the former senator’s willingness to disagree was rooted in principle.

“Certainly I disagreed with him on a number of very important issues,” Blumenthal said. “As much as we talk about him being a maverick, he was – at heart – a Democrat. He fought for gay rights, women’s reproductive care, for civil rights and voting rights.”

Lieberman’s centrist tendencies were evident even when he served in the state Senate, Blumenthal said. Lieberman was elected to the Connecticut Senate in 1970, serving for a decade, and spending six of those years as majority leader.

“As majority leader, he had a 19-to-17 margin and he always had to knit together alliances with members of the Republican party,” Blumenthal recalled.

Lieberman eventually became Connecticut’s attorney general, a position he held from 1983 to 1988. As attorney general, he was considered a strong consumer and environmental advocate.

“Joe Lieberman showed how important the job of state attorney general could be in protecting people,” said Blumenthal, who succeeded Lieberman as attorney general in 1991. “He really cared about the people of Connecticut. No matter how far or high he went, Connecticut was really always in his heart.”

State Attorney General William Tong said Lieberman was the reason he got into politics.

Tong met Lieberman as a 15-year-old Senate campaign volunteer and said Lieberman would become a mentor throughout his entire career.

“What I learned from Joe is that if you focus on the work – and do what you think is right – that the politics will take care of itself,” Tong said Thursday. “People will see that you’re focused on serving them and that you’re dedicated to the principles that define you as a person.”

After he was sworn in as attorney general in 2019, Tong said Lieberman was quick to call and offer him congratulations.

“He said, ‘Willy Tong, I just wanted to call and say how proud I am of you,’” Tong recalled. “‘You’re now serving in the same office I served in when I first met you when you were a kid.’ It was a really meaningful and important moment and I’ll just always be grateful.”

Gov. Ned Lamont ordered flags to fly at half staff Friday in remembrance of Lieberman.

Lamont defeated Lieberman in a Democratic primary in 2006 for Connecticut’s U.S. Senate seat, but would ultimately lose the race after Lieberman bolted his party and turned independent. He recalled their first meetings.

“Sort of an inauspicious beginning because we had a pretty feisty campaign,” Lamont told “Where We Live.” “At the end of that race, we shook hands and we have stayed friends ever since.”

Dating back to his time in the state Senate, Lieberman was a “fighter” for Connecticut, Lamont said.

“More recently, I think his legacy is related to stability and independence and working across the aisle, something that’s sadly lacking in Washington, D.C., right now,” Lamont said.

Former Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell, a Republican, was in office from 2004 to 2011 and remembered Lieberman’s kindness and personal convictions.

“But more importantly, he would just listen,” Rell, who now lives in Florida, recalled in an interview.

“The most important thing that Joe offered to the public was his integrity,” Rell said. “When he took a stand, he was doing it for the right reasons.”

Hear the full episode: “Reflecting on Joe Lieberman's career, impact and legacy”

This story will be updated. Connecticut Public’s Catherine Shen, Frankie Graziano, Patrick Skahill, Chris Polansky, Eddy Martinez and The Associated Press contributed to this report.