News and Analysis: A Returned Volunteer May Be the Next US Senator from Connecticut

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Caption: Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Chris Shays (Fiji) talks about the “Peace Corps Inspiration” on the Peace Porch at the 2011 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

When I attended Gaddi Vasquez’s hearings to be Peace Corps Director in November 2001, Chris Dodd (RPCV Dominican Republic), who chaired the Subcommittee that oversees the Peace Corps, let Chris Shays (RPCV Fiji) come over to the Senate hearings from the House of Representatives and as a courtesy let Shays sit at the elevated dais with Dodd and question Vasquez.  At the conclusion of the hearings Dodd and Shays began to chat and I heard Dodd say to Shays, “Did you enjoy the view from that seat?”  Shays replied that he did and Dodd rejoined “Someday that seat may be yours.”

Now according to multiple sources close to the former US Representative, Shays has decided to seek the Republican nomination to replace retiring US Senator Joe Lieberman for the Senate seat in Connecticut in 2012.

Shays confirmed on July 28 he is entertaining a bid for Senate in 2012. “I’m giving it a long, hard look.”

Connecticut polls show Shays in a statistical dead-heat with U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., in a hypothetical matchup for the Senate. The survey of 500 registered Connecticut voters had Murphy, who entered the race in January after Lieberman announced his retirement, leading Shays 42 to 40 percent.

Recently elected state GOP Chairman Jerry Labriola Jr. acknowledged that he has spoken to Shays about the prospect. “He has a tremendous record of dedicated public service, serving as congressman for 20 years,” says Labriola. “He would make a terrific candidate for U.S. Senate.”

Political professor Gary Rose says Shays has a lot going for him, saying his moderate positions have widespread appeal.

Shays lost his seat of 21 years in 2008 to Greenwich Democrat Jim Himes, who is currently serving his second term. During Shays’ final term he was the lone New England Republican in the House.

Attorney Brian Hill is the only other declared Republican. If Shays wins the Repulbican nomination, he will probably face Rep. Chris Murphy (CT-5), State Rep. William Tong, or former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz in the race who have all declared for the race on the Democratic side.

One wild card is former WWE wrestling executive Linda McMahon, who lost to longtime Democratic Attorney General Richard Blumenthal in the 2010 Senate race, 52 to 36 percent. McMahon is also mulling jumping into the Republican field, as well as former Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele and David Walker, a former U.S. comptroller general who coincidentally bought Shays’ former home in Bridgeport.

Shays Loves the Peace Corps

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Caption: Chris Shays visiting a school on the West Bank during his visit to the Middle East in 2003 where he was the first member of Congress to cross into Iraq - against the wishes of the US Army and the State Department. On his return to Washington he held hearings with NGO’s working in Iraq to determine what impediments there were to providing aid to Iraq more effectively.

In February, 2009 when Obama was selecting the Director of the Peace Corps, Shays was one of the candidates. Shays lobbied for the job and acknowledged he was not unhappy about being mentioned on the short list for the directorship of the Peace Corps.

In April, 2009 Shays asked the Obama administration to remove his name from consideration as director of the Peace Corps as he decided to accept an appointment from House Minority Leader John Boehner to serve on a congressionally mandated commission charged with looking into contract failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The commission is scheduled to release its final report at the end of August and dissolve in September, leaving Shays with the ability to become a full-time candidate for the seat of retiring incumbent Joe Lieberman.

More recently Shays attended the Peace Corps Program at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival together with his wife Betsi, also a Fiji RPCV and for eight years a staff member at Peace Corps headquarters.  Shays and his wife talked about the “Peace Corps Inspiration” on the Peace Porch.

“Anyone thinking about doing the Peace Corps should examine it,” said Shays adding that Peace Corps service “is not a summer camp.  There needs to be a deep, deep commitment.”  For those who possess the commitment, Betsi said Peace Corps can truly be a transformative experience.

The US Senate Needs an RPCV

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Now that Chris Dodd has retired there is no RPCV in the US Senate for the first time since 1979.   In the big scheme of things, the Peace Corps, with a budget of about $0.4 Billion of the total US $3,700 Billion budget, is just a small part of the US government and unless there is someone in the Senate who has a specific interest or connection in the agency, the Peace Corps could find itself taking significant cuts in the coming years of austerity.

It is very important for the future of the Peace Corps that RPCVs have someone in the upper chamber who understands the Peace Corps and will look out for her interests. Chris Shays is that man.


References:

Greenwich Time.  “2012 Senate race beckons soon-to-be free agent Shays” by Neil Vigdor.  July 28, 2011.

Party Hard Politics.  “Breaking News: CT Senate Race”  August 5, 2011.

CBS News.  “Chris Shays Reportedly Eyes Joe Lieberman’s Senate Seat”  July 29, 2011.

The Hour.  “More than 300 honor Abe Lincoln at dinner” by Franics X. Fay Jr.  February 13, 2009.

Associated Press.  “Shays Opts Out Of Possible Peace Corps Job” April 2, 2009.

Peace Corps Worldwide.  “A Second Photo Essay from the Peace Corps Program at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival”  by Hugh Pickens.  July 15, 2011.

Peace Corps Connect.  “Shays Says “Do it in a heartbeat” by Jonathon Pearson.  July 12, 2011.


A Bonus Question

Here’s a quick question for students of Peace Corps history.  I am sure you can name the two RPCVs who have served in the US Senate.  Who can name the two Peace Corps staff members who have served as US Senators.