Biden’s V.P. Search: Chris Dodd, a D.C. Insider Helping Pick the Democratic Running Mate

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Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. knew how to flatter an old friend.

He had been sitting in the Oval Office in May 2014, in his telling, convening privately with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Barack Obama when another commitment demanded his attention: Christopher J. Dodd, the former Connecticut senator turned movie industry lobbyist, was expecting Mr. Biden imminently at a trade conference nearby.

The vice president said he bid the chancellor farewell.

“Angela Merkel looked at me like, ‘What in the hell is he talking about?’” he recounted a short while later — perhaps with characteristic exaggeration — talking up Mr. Dodd’s clout before his colleagues at the Motion Picture Association of America.

The vice president noted the “rumors,” dating to their time as legislative peers, that Mr. Dodd “controlled” him despite Mr. Biden’s Senate seniority.

“I’ve given new life to those rumors,” he joked.

Six years later, Mr. Biden would appear to be doing so again. With the biggest decision of his long campaign life looming — choosing a running mate before accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in less than two weeks — he has tasked Mr. Dodd with helping to lead the selection process.

The choice is about comfort and trust for Mr. Biden, his friends and allies say: Mr. Dodd, a fellow septuagenarian Irish Catholic from the Northeast, has known Mr. Biden for decades and is intimately familiar with the capital’s corridors of power. As a legislator, Mr. Dodd was regarded as canny and effective by bipartisan consensus, traits that could serve him, and the former vice president, well in a role that necessarily entails seeking agreement from disparate groups.

Yet his involvement in 2020 has also struck some Democrats as curious, at minimum, from the moment it was announced in April. As Mr. Biden pledges to name a woman to the ticket and works to convince progressive voters that he hears their calls for wide-scale change, he has elevated, in Mr. Dodd, a Washington uber-veteran long trailed by allegations of personal and financial indiscretion.

Criticisms of Mr. Dodd, lobbed quietly in some Democratic circles for months, spilled into open view late last month after Politico reported that Mr. Dodd had privately complained about a lack of “remorse” from Senator Kamala Harris of California, a top vice-presidential contender, over her attacks on Mr. Biden when she ran for president last year.

While former staff members have defended Mr. Dodd as a champion of women and he issued a statement saying the remarks as reported “do not represent my view on Senator Harris,” some younger Democratic women have accused him of conveying a retrograde vision of female political ambition. “The 1980s called,” tweeted Jess O’Connell, a former top adviser to Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign, “and wants Sen. Dodd back.”

But then, so did Mr. Biden, a fact as reflective of his political instincts as any vice-presidential pick he might make.

In many ways, Mr. Biden, who is often publicly wistful about a bygone era of Senate harmony, has identified in Mr. Dodd a kind of avatar of the Washington he loved, when lawmakers got along and the chamber retained a sheen of statesmanship. He once called Mr. Dodd his “single best friend” in Congress.

“You look at Chris, and you think, man, there’s a lot of tradition there,” said Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska who served with both men, nodding at Mr. Dodd’s legislative lineage as the son of a senator.

“Chris Dodd, John Kerry — the guys, right?” Carol Moseley Braun, a former Democratic senator from Illinois, said of Mr. Biden’s friend group in his Senate heyday. “Being the Black girl, I was not part of the old boys’ network. I was not part of the circle of friends, and I would never be. That was just the way things are. But they were all nice to me.”

In an emailed statement, a Biden campaign spokesman, Andrew Bates, said the former vice president was “deeply grateful for Sen. Dodd’s friendship and his contributions to the selection process, alongside his incredibly talented colleagues.”

But in naming Mr. Dodd one of four selection committee co-chairs, Mr. Biden has also revived examinations of his friend’s own checkered résumé.

This includes a politically damaging controversy over whether Mr. Dodd received preferential treatment on Countrywide loans. A Senate ethics panel cleared him of serious wrongdoing in 2009 but scolded him for not taking greater care to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

There was also a longstanding accusation that Mr. Dodd participated in an episode of sexual misconduct involving a waitress and Senator Edward M. Kennedy, his close friend, in the mid-1980s.

Tales of Mr. Dodd’s womanizing as a then-unmarried senator were so legion that veterans of Capitol Hill at times invoked his name in private last spring after Mr. Biden faced his own accusation of sexual assault.

Yes, there were lawmakers who had a reputation for lasciviousness, they allowed. But Mr. Biden was not one of them. He was no Chris Dodd.

While Mr. Biden, a teetotaler who famously took the train home to Delaware each night, did not share his friend’s social appetites, their dual political arcs seemed to bond them through the years.

Both men reached the Capitol in their early 30s — Mr. Biden as a senator, Mr. Dodd as a congressman until his promotion in 1981 — growing into caucus eminences and frequent collaborators.

And both men joined the historic Democratic presidential primary of 2008, when Mr. Obama outlasted Hillary Clinton for the nomination, and saw their nonhistoric campaigns roundly rejected by voters, a parallel setback that friends say drew them closer.

Like Mr. Biden, former aides say, Mr. Dodd valued loyalty as a principal virtue early in his public life, holding close to favored confidantes.

“He’s one of the rare politicians who not only expects loyalty but returns it,” said Marla Romash, who worked on Mr. Dodd’s first Senate campaign and later served as his press secretary in the 1980s.

Ms. Romash was among the women whom Mr. Dodd placed in senior positions in his office and campaigns.

“That door opened for me through Chris Dodd,” said Rosa DeLauro, his former campaign manager and chief of staff who has been a Connecticut congresswoman for nearly three decades.

In some corners of the capital, though, Mr. Dodd’s personal life could occasionally overshadow his record.

He dated Bianca Jagger and amassed prolific bar tabs with Mr. Kennedy, who had a starring role in two prominent accounts of Mr. Dodd’s hard-living years.

In one, captured in a 2011 book by the actress Carrie Fisher, she described a blind date with Mr. Dodd during a night out with the two senators. “So, do you think you’ll be having sex with Chris at the end of your date?” Mr. Kennedy asked, according to Ms. Fisher, who recalled Mr. Dodd leering with “an unusual grin hanging on his very flushed face.”

A more serious charge circulated in media reports decades earlier: that Mr. Kennedy had sexually assaulted Carla Gaviglio, a young waitress at a Capitol Hill restaurant, when he was with Mr. Dodd in 1985. Ms. Gaviglio said in a recent interview that Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Dodd had summoned her to a private dining room. When she arrived, she recalled, “I was thrown across the table and then picked up and thrown on top of Senator Dodd by Senator Kennedy.” Mr. Kennedy, Ms. Gaviglio said, then rubbed his genitals on her.

Mr. Dodd did not try to stop Mr. Kennedy during the assault, she said, but she did not consider Mr. Dodd the instigator.

A spokesman for Mr. Dodd declined to comment on Ms. Gaviglio’s account.

Friends say Mr. Dodd’s life took a dramatic turn after he remarried in 1999 and became a father. (His first marriage ended shortly after he reached the Senate.) And at no point did his after-hours conduct appear to dent his standing as a reliable Democrat who was well liked by his colleagues.

For years, amid an extended stay on the Foreign Relations Committee and legislative victories on children’s issues, Mr. Dodd was perhaps best known for working to pass the Family and Medical Leave Act, which offered workers unpaid time off to care for a child or sick relative and became law under President Bill Clinton.

Seeking the presidency himself in 2008, Mr. Dodd anchored his bid around ending the Iraq war, which he had voted to authorize, and promising financial security to retirees. He offered himself up to Democrats with a less-than-stirring self-description: an “unknown quantity with experience.”

The electorate did not reward this pitch.

And Mr. Dodd and Mr. Biden found themselves at last on divergent professional paths after their twin 2008 campaign failures.

Mr. Biden became vice president. Mr. Dodd became a lame duck, though not before co-writing what is now his most cited legislative legacy: the Dodd-Frank regulatory overhaul of 2010, expanding federal oversight of the financial system.

As chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Mr. Dodd had fought perceptions that he had grown too close to special interests and corporations he was charged with overseeing.

The senator’s top campaign contributors included major insurance, securities and investment firms, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and the pharmaceutical industry pushed for Mr. Dodd’s re-election.

But facing the prospect of a difficult race, Mr. Dodd resolved to leave on his terms — 40 years after seeing his father, Thomas J. Dodd, driven from the Senate after being censured for misappropriating campaign funds.

He announced in early 2010 that he would not seek re-election.

And in 2011, he took a job with the Motion Picture Association of America, earning $2.4 million that year — more than double what his predecessor had made — as Hollywood’s top lobbyist. For his full six-and-a-half years with the nonprofit trade association, Mr. Dodd received more than $25 million, according to filings with the I.R.S.

In that post, he was credited with helping to increase the distribution of American movies in China. He referred to Mr. Biden as “our champion inside the White House.”.

Mr. Dodd stepped down in 2017, citing his age as a factor. But rather than retire from lobbying — work that in 2010 he had said he would never pursue — he joined a white-shoe law firm in 2018. In recent years, lobbying disclosure reports show, Mr. Dodd has focused on the interests of victims of terrorist attacks in Israel, representing the plaintiffs in a high-profile case brought by a group of American families against the Palestine Liberation Organization.

His return to the political fore this year was both unexpected and unsurprising to former colleagues, given the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Of the four co-chairs on Mr. Biden’s selection committee — which also includes Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware, Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles and Cynthia Hogan, a former Biden aide — Mr. Dodd is viewed by many in the party as a kind of first among equals.

People who have spoken to Mr. Dodd understand him to be occupying something of an emissary role: collecting impressions (and sharing his own).

“Chris’s role is to try and bring them together and to report to Joe as to what the consensus is,” said Barbara Boxer, a former Democratic senator from California who served with both men.

As the campaign nears its choice, Mr. Biden’s faith in his judgment would appear to be unswerving.

In 2018, when Mr. Dodd’s new law firm, Arnold & Porter, held a party to honor its newest lobbyist, the former vice president stopped in for a toast.

Mr. Biden complimented the firm partners on their “incredibly good judgment in convincing Chris to come on.”

He closed with a joke.

“Anyway, I just wanted to say congratulations,” Mr. Biden said. “And I hope I don’t need you.”

Kitty Bennett contributed research.