Is Bill Bradley Too Snobby? Former Jersey Friends Haunt Campaign

Sharpe James, the Mayor of Newark, is a sly political operator with a wolfish grin. He rules New Jersey’s largest city from a fortress like building with a gleaming gold dome, built at the turn of the century when Newark was a thriving industrial metropolis. Today, the dome shines in the midst of acres of urban squalor. But Mr. James, like so many Newark mayors before him, still is someone to whom Democratic Presidential hopefuls pay homage.

You would think Mr. James would have no trouble choosing between former Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Vice President Al Gore. Mr. James has known Mr. Bradley since 1978, when he supported the onetime New York Knicks forward in his first U.S. Senate race. He shares Mr. Bradley’s opinion that racism is one of the nation’s most pernicious problems. Yet Mr. James has turned his back on his old friend and endorsed Mr. Gore. “I’m close to Bill Bradley,” Mr. James told The Observer, “close enough to know that Al Gore should be President, not Bill Bradley. Bill Bradley is all smoke and mirrors.”

You may hear quite a bit more from Mr. James on the topic of Mr. Bradley. With voters in key primary states like New Hampshire and New York swooning over the former Senator’s appealing thoughtfulness and his F. Scott Fitzgerald-like résumé, the Gore campaign is quietly pointing reporters to New Jersey’s top Democrats, like Mr. James, who have nothing good to say about Mr. Bradley. Call them the F.F.O.B.’s-former friends of Bill.

Friends can be very useful in Presidential campaigns. In 1992, Bill Clinton’s political advisers dispatched the candidate’s friends from Arkansas to the Democratic convention in New York to assure skeptics that Mr. Clinton was a smashing fellow and a substantial leader, not the truth-twisting, blonde-chasing non-inhaler that he had been labeled as during the 1992 primaries. They were the original F.O.B.’s.

Now the Gore campaign hopes to use Mr. Bradley’s former friends to remind voters that whatever laurels admirers like Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York may toss his way, Mr. Bradley is not without his flaws. Sure, he’s a fine fellow, the F.F.O.B.’s are quick to say. But they argue that their old acquaintance is more Jimmy Carter than Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that he is a political loner who seemed to find the very notion of party-building distasteful and who turned up his nose when state Democrats asked for his support in local races or, worse, for Federal appointments for their candidates. Some former friends are still stung by the broadside Mr. Bradley aimed at both Democrats and Republicans in his now-famous “politics-is-broken” speech, delivered in 1995 when he announced he wouldn’t seek a fourth term.

“I heard from so many people who supported Bill-the people who manned the precincts, licked the envelopes and manned the phone banks for him,” said Representative Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a Gore supporter who served as Mr. Bradley’s campaign finance chairman for 18 years. “They felt that [Mr. Bradley's remark] applied to them, too, and they are the people who are trying to make politics better. We were part of the system that he was saying was broken, and for those of us who gave him that support for 18 years, I think may of us felt offended. I know I did.”

Mr. James and Mr. Menendez are not the only New Jersey Democratic leaders who have forsaken their old friend and embraced Mr. Gore. New Jersey in some ways is a microcosm of what Mr. Bradley faces throughout the nation. Though a Quinnipiac College poll on Sept. 27 showed Mr. Bradley with a 39-point lead over Mr. Gore among New Jersey Democrats, the Vice President enjoys the support of the state party hierarchy, an important consideration in Presidential primaries. That’s not surprising, of course. A sitting Vice President can dole out many more favors than a former U.S. Senator.

The difference in New Jersey, however, is that most of the state’s leading Democrats were once supporters of Mr. Bradley, though he was never a back-slapping, horse-trading, problem-solving pol-a New Jersey version of Mr. Moynihan. “I think a lot of people felt that if they had a little problem, they went to [Senator Frank] Lautenberg,” said former New Jersey Governor Brendan Byrne, a Democrat in the Bradley camp. “On the other hand, Bradley had a Presidential vista.”

Perhaps the most prominent Democrat supporting Mr. Bradley is the New Jersey State Democratic Party chairman, Thomas Giblin, who readily admits that he would look foolish if he didn’t support the Garden State’s favorite son in the race. “It’s my feeling that he is a role model for all Americans, and I think it would be a home run to see him in the White House,” Mr. Giblin told The Observer.

Gore’s Power Base

Yet Mr. Giblin also concedes that Mr. Gore has locked up nearly all of New Jersey’s top elected Democrats, although Mr. Bradley has a scattering of support from local officeholders. Mr. Lautenberg, who is retiring from the Senate next year and who served side by side with Mr. Bradley for 14 years, is a staunch Gore supporter. The man who inherited Mr. Bradley’s seat, Senator Robert Torricelli, is expected to endorse the Vice President, although he recently surprised reporters when he said Mr. Bradley’s campaign was “better managed” and praised the former Senator for being “more engaging, more focused” on the stump than in the past.

Meanwhile, New Jersey’s Democratic Congressional delegation is expected to line up behind Mr. Gore. “It would seem to me that the White House has all of the political marbles,” Mr. Giblin sighed. “I think Bradley is fighting against history in that no sitting vice president has ever been denied the presidential nomination. But I think as time marches on, [Mr. Bradley] appears to be breaking down those walls.”
Those walls may fall with greater ease if Mr. Bradley continues to surge in the polls and raise more money than Mr. Gore. The vice president’s campaign has been so abysmal that he recently moved his national headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Nashville, Tenn., and challenged Mr. Bradley to a series of debates-after Mr. Bradley already had issued his own challenge. But for the time being, New Jersey’s favorite son can’t even squeeze an endorsement from his own Congressman, Representative William J. Pascrell Jr., the tough-talking former Mayor of Paterson whose district includes Mr. Bradley’s neighborhood in Montclair, N.J.

Mr. Pascrell is remaining neutral for now. But he is obviously conflicted. He considers Mr. Bradley a friend. Moreover, Mr. Pascrell said the former Senator never turned down a request for help during the seven years he was Mayor of Paterson, the state’s fourth-largest city. But the White House has so much to offer.

“Someone said it would be better for the district-endorsing Gore,” Mr. Pascrell told The Observer. “But Bill Bradley is a good friend of mine. I’ve known Bill Bradley much longer than I’ve known Al Gore. I think they would both be good Presidents. But I’m not going to choose up sides now.”

As one supporter of Mr. Pascrell noted, the Congressman has several projects in need of White House support. So he may have to choose between his own re-election prospects and his friendship with Mr. Bradley. (Things are a little different for his New York colleagues, who might get away with supporting Mr. Bradley by also working hard on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign.) There is little question that Mr. Bradley’s former friends from the Garden State can help Mr. Gore. Mr. Bradley has thus far escaped scrutiny and has taken advantage of the public’s image of him as a politician with rare intellectual integrity. One of Mr. Gore’s challenges is to tarnish that image with a dose of political reality, at least as Mr. Gore’s advisers see it. Who better to take the shine off Mr. Bradley than his neighbors, colleagues and onetime friends?

Fairly or unfairly, Mr. Bradley was tagged in Washington as a loner who preferred to immerse himself in global issues like Third World debt rather than roll logs and trade horses with his less elevated colleagues. Even Mr. Bradley’s admirers say he seemed adrift in his final years in office. Mr. Gore’s political advisers clearly hope to develop the criticisms of Mr. Bradley over the next few weeks. Their agents will argue that if Mr. Bradley can’t build coalitions, he will have trouble making good on his ambitious health-care proposal and his vision of racial healing. So perhaps it’s surprising that Mr. Bradley’s former friends describe him as a quitter and as someone who wasn’t always willing to go the distance for his fellow Democrats. Mr. Menendez, for one, said it was often difficult to get Mr. Bradley to campaign for party members in tight local races. “Many people saw him as the Senator for the nation,” he said, “not the Senator for New Jersey.”

A Bottle of Lysol?

Mr. James was much more caustic. In the course of a lengthy telephone interview, the Mayor of Newark said he was tremendously disappointed in the early 1980’s when Mr. Bradley supposedly was reluctant to go to Chicago to campaign for the late Harold Washington, who was about to become that city’s first black mayor. “I called Bill Bradley up, and he said, ‘I’m only into issues about tax relief; I don’t deal with jail, I don’t deal with re-election, I don’t deal with drugs,'” Mr. James recalled. “I said, ‘Bill, you know what they are calling you? A bottle of Lysol.'”

According to Mr. James, Mr. Bradley eventually went to Chicago. But from then on, Mr. James said, he was disillusioned. “Thereafter, it was all downhill,” he continued. “He became a loner. He became a lone ranger. Nobody could approach him because he was above reproach.” Then there is the matter of Mr. Bradley’s decision to retire in 1996, when the Democrats were hoping to regain control of the U.S. Senate. “He quit on us in the Senate when we really needed him,” complained David Steiner, one of New Jersey’s top Democratic fund-raisers and a key Gore supporter. “A lot of us were upset when he left. We were really worried we were going to lose the seat, and I felt personally let down because I’ve been a consistent supporter.” Nevertheless, the Democrats retained the seat thanks to Mr. Torricelli’s victory.

It must be a little disquieting for Mr. Bradley to hear some of the leading Democrats in his home state speaking so ill of him. But if he manages to wrest the nomination from Mr. Gore, the harsh words will be history. In fact, everybody will want to be his friend again.