By SUSAN HAIGH
The Gulf Coast is thousands of miles away, but the federal response to Hurricane Katrina has become an issue in Connecticut’s hot U.S. Senate race.
Democratic primary winner Ned Lamont is accusing U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, now running as an independent, of not holding the Bush administration accountable for failures in responding to the disaster.
Lamont also says Lieberman, ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, mistakenly agreed to put the troubled Federal Emergency Management Agency under the control of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
"I think FEMA worked really well when it had professional management as an independent agency," Lamont said in an interview this week. "And sure, it was Senator Lieberman who said, ‘Let’s redo FEMA.’ It was Senator Lieberman who said, ‘Let’s put Michael Brown as No. 2 at FEMA.’"
Lieberman defends his record on Katrina, saying he visited the devastated region a week or two after the storm and several times later. He said he and Sen. Susan Collins (news, bio, voting record), R-Maine, issued a bipartisan Homeland Security Committee report in April that was critical of all levels of government, from the White House to the New Orleans mayor’s office.
Lieberman, in a secondary report, took sharper aim at President Bush, who he said appeared distracted from the disaster as it unfolded. "The president is, after all, the commander in chief — not only in terms of international crises, but in terms of catastrophes here at home," he said.
On Thursday, Lieberman said he has also consistently fought to get adequate federal aid delivered to the Gulf Coast region.
Lamont was scheduled to be one of the headliners Thursday night at a fundraising event for Katrina victims in New York City, where he is to outline his plan to prevent another similar tragedy.
The event, organized by the liberal organization MoveOn.org, will feature celebrities such as actress Rosie Perez and singer Moby, as well as some Katrina evacuees.
Lamont, a Greenwich businessman and political newcomer, defeated three-term incumbent Lieberman in the Aug. 8 primary by about 10,000 votes.
Lieberman is now running as an independent in a three-way race with Lamont and Republican Alan Schlesinger. Lamont has gained support by criticizing Lieberman for being too supportive of Bush and the Republicans on various issues, including the war in Iraq.
This is not the first time Hurricane Katrina has been an issue in the Senate race, which has attracted both national and international attention.
Lamont referenced the Bush administration’s response to the hurricane in at least one of his TV ads, which showed flood victims standing on their rooftops waiting for help. In the ad, he talks about how the administration’s poor response exemplified Bush’s wrong priorities for the country. Lamont’s campaign is currently re-airing the ad.
Lamont has also condemned Bush’s response to the hurricane during campaign visits to mostly black churches.
Lamont is calling for FEMA to be returned to an independent, cabinet-level agency. The report issued by Lieberman and Collins concluded that only by abolishing FEMA and replacing it with a stronger authority could the government best respond to future catastrophes.
Lamont, who opposes the war in Iraq, said National Guard forces should be returned from Iraq to the U.S. to protect the nation from natural disasters as well as terrorist attacks.
"Right now our National Guard are doing not what they were contracted to do," Lamont said in an afternoon conference call with reporters.
Also, Lamont is calling for an investigation into the federal government’s response to the hurricane, and said Congress must better scrutinize all administration nominees.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press