WASHINGTON — Facing the toughest re-election fight of his nearly 30 years in the Senate, Sen. Christopher Dodd boasts about snubbing lobbyists.
Yet even as he touts his independence, the embattled Connecticut Democrat is still cashing lobbyist campaign checks and rubbing shoulders with them at fundraisers and party gatherings.
Dodd, perhaps the most vulnerable Senate Democrat in 2010, has driven home his message in fundraising pitches and campaign videos.
"The lobbyists can't get meetings with Chris," Dodd's campaign manager Jay Howser said in a recent e-mail to supporters. "He won't return their phone calls ... Chris just isn't giving them the time of day."
The videos even suggest Dodd has been so hard on lobbyists that he's made them cry.
But the tough talk hasn't stopped Dodd from raking in tens of thousands of dollars in lobbyist campaign contributions this year. It hasn't prevented Dodd from letting lobbyists host his fundraising events. Or kept Dodd from schmoozing with lobbyists at places like Martha's Vineyard, a favorite summer getaway spot for the rich and famous off the Massachusetts coast.
A few days after Howser's e-mail, Dodd trekked to Martha's Vineyard for a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee weekend retreat where about 30 senators joined major party donors, including lobbyists.
Dodd's leading role in the Senate's big health care reform fight has made him a popular target for the many lobbyists working for hospitals, doctors, drug companies, insurers and other medical industry groups with major stakes in the outcome.
Dodd was tapped by ailing Sen. Edward Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee, to take over the panel in his absence as it tackled the sweeping health care overhaul.
Dodd led the committee in recent weeks as it hammered out a bill to expand insurance coverage to all Americans, becoming the first congressional panel to approve a health care reform plan.
More than a dozen health care lobbyists wrote him checks in the weeks before the panel began drafting its bill, Dodd's fundraising report for the second quarter that ended June 30 shows. Some of K Street's most prominent lobbyists ponied up.
The Glover Park Group's Joel Johnson and Susan Brophy each gave $1,000. The prominent firm with Democratic ties represents Pfizer Inc., WellPoint Inc., the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association and United Health Care Services, Inc.
Richard Tarplin, a former Dodd aide who is a health care lobbyist, gave $2,500.
Christopher R. O'Neill, the son of the late former House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr., gave $1,000. O'Neill's firm lobbies for the American Hospital Association, which paid them $50,000 during the second quarter. The firm also got $150,000 during the quarter from Partners HealthCare.
Anthony Podesta, one of Washington's best-known Democratic lobbyists, contributed $500. The Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care paid Podesta's firm, the Podesta Group, $120,000 for the quarter.
Podesta's wife, Heather Podesta, hosted a $1,000 per person fundraiser in March for Dodd at the Podestas' home in the affluent Woodley Park neighborhood of Washington. Her firm, Heather Podesta + Partners, was paid $50,000 this year by HealthSouth Corp., one of the country's largest health care service providers.
Two lobbyists for U.S. Oncology, a leading oncology services company, hosted a $1,500 per person Dodd fundraiser in June. The event was sandwiched between a health panel session chaired by Dodd and a later White House event attended by Dodd.
All told, Dodd has collected $436,062 from lobbyists since 2005, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a group that tracks money in politics.
Republicans have accused Dodd of publicly denouncing the same lobbyists he cozies up to privately for cash.
"Voters can see through Dodd's nonsensical doublespeak, especially when he's collecting millions of dollars from the same people who he claims to make cry," said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Amber Wilkerson.
Howser said Dodd is simply highlighting complaints by lobbyists – made anonymously in a few news stories – about how Dodd is giving them the cold shoulder.
"The big point that everybody's missing is why are (lobbyists) mad at him," Howser said. "They're mad at him because he's cracking down."
Dodd's popularity has tumbled in the wake of the financial meltdown and his failed 2008 presidential bid. He provoked a home-state backlash after temporarily moving his family to Iowa before his poor showing in the caucuses there.
Dodd has been criticized for collecting Wall Street contributions while chairing the Senate banking panel. He's also come under fire for his role in writing a bill that protected bonuses for executives at bailed-out insurer American International Group Inc. and for allegations he got favorable treatment on two mortgages with Countrywide Financial Corp.
A recent poll showed Dodd running 9 points behind former GOP congressman Rob Simmons.