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Connecticut Post - Shays-Himes Race Comes at Critical Point

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Connecticut Post - Shays-Himes Race Comes at Critical Point

by Ken Dixon

We don't know who's going to win the 4th Congressional District race on the night of Nov. 4, but over the next few days we'll find out why.

You might care about who wins, but for objectivity's sake, I can't. I do love coincidence and incongruity, though.

And if the incumbent loses, after 21 years of schlepping up and down the Northeast corridor for the folks back home -- plus those 22 trips to Iraq -- he might fit my Webster's Dictionary's definition of anachronism: "one from a former age that is incongruous." For the last couple years, it's been fun, in a twisted way, knowing that U.S. Rep. Chris Shays of Bridgeport can hold a caucus of New England's Republican House members every time he washes his hands and looks in the mirror at the men's room sink in the Longworth Building, across from the nation's Capitol.

He always has a quorum. And his hands are clean.

Of course, in many ways, Connecticut is to New England the way Greenwich is to Bridgeport. They share some geography, but the similarities are few.

We don't know if this will be Shays' toughest campaign since winning that special election in August 1987, following the death of legendary U.S. Rep. Stewart B. McKinney of Fairfield.

For the last few months, Shays' campaign and that of Democratic challenger Jim Himes of Greenwich have existed in parallel political universes.

They've bumped into each other a few times along the campaign trail, but they've mostly been toiling solo.

Himes was introducing himself to the 650,000-person 4th District and Shays was holding the bag full of stinking, toxic, smoldering investment instruments down in that spent-fuel pool called Washington.

There was also a little local dust-up a few weeks back, when Shays confronted Himes at a news conference called by the Democratic candidate at the infamous, broken Congress Street bridge in Bridgeport. But they've mostly kept to themselves.

For reasons that possibly only a targeted GOP incumbent with internal poll results can understand, Shays has decided to confine this campaign to seven debates and forums -- six on three days -- in a weeklong stretch starting Tuesday morning at 8 o'clock with the Bridgeport Regional Business Council.

I got a sneak peak at Himes's debate tactics during a forum at the University of Bridgeport last week.

It was an event that came dangerously close to being a semi-surprise head-to-head between Shays and Himes, but the former dropped out and sent Rina Bakalar, a Democrat who runs his district office.

For undertaking this appearance/scouting mission, Shays, who lives about two miles as a seagull flies from the campus over to Black Rock, should give Bakalar a bonus.

The venue was a UB auditorium on Iranistan Avenue, across from Seaside Park. The university's 40-year-old Black Student Association collected about 40 people for the event, which was supposed to start at 7, but stalled until 7:45.

Himes, a former vice president at Goldman Sachs who got out of Wall Street when the getting was good six years ago, followed Bakalar's 15-minute opening.

"He has been there for the community that I care about," she said, predicting "some great opportunity coming" and a new jobs bill that Shays is crafting for the next Congress.

Speaking from behind the podium, she said Shays wants more summer youth-employment legislation and that offshore drilling for energy will create local jobs in the U.S.

"He is a kind and serious person," she said, maybe realizing that the predominantly black crowd was supporting Barack Obama for president. "Chris Shays has kept a great heart, an honest heart and a great work ethic for the people of the district."

Himes then rose for his shot and the hints at this week's strategy.

"These are issues that will be facing you for the rest of your life," Himes chimed to the students. "They're your problems. Think about the changes that need to be done in Washington." In the first of his thematic references to Obama, Himes said, "The thought of serving in Washington with him, quite frankly, is what gets me out of bed in the morning." The former investment banker recognized that the price tag for the war in Iraq, a trillion bucks, may equal the ultimate price of the Wall Street giveaway that Shays supported and for which Himes would have voted, as well.

"I would have held my nose," Himes said. "This was not an American way of doing things."

Himes hammered Shays on his support for the war, the 22 trips and how now, in an election year, he's again in favor of a controlled withdrawal.

"He said it one more time, two years ago, when he was up for re-election," Himes said.

Himes also called Shays out on the Bush administration's tax slashing of the early 2000s. "We cut taxes going into two wars," he said, charging that it's counterintuitive.

Himes called for a "new American economy" based on changing the country's taste for petrofuels. "We just need the leadership to make it happen." He promised an expansion of health care access and a whole new way to run public schools.

He noted Harding High School's 40-percent dropout rate. "In the wealthiest state in the country, we are throwing children away. This is civil rights. This is civil rights. Education is the whole ballgame."

So if you care about public policy, where your tax dollars are going and the direction the country's about to take, pay attention to the Himes-Shays debates next week.

At stake is the career of a 21-year veteran House member, the fate of the challenger and, quite possibly, the future of your country.

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