In New Jersey they do things differently: farce first, tragedy second.
A veteran politician, one of the state’s top elected officials, wakes up one day to find himself crushed by a burgeoning scandal. His party’s fretful chieftains convince him to drop out of the imminent election for the sake of the greater cause. When he agrees, they seek to jigger the rules so that a viable candidate can be substituted. But this looks like robbery to the opposition candidate, who wanted to run against the scandal-crippled guy. The opposition candidate seeks relief from the courts, protesting a corrupt attempt to interfere with the electoral process.
That narrative accurately describes the latest developments in the New Jersey Senate race. But it’s also the story of the Garden State G.O.P. last year, when Acting Governor Donald DiFrancesco abruptly bailed out of the gubernatorial primary so that Bob Franks could run against Bret Schundler. Newspaper reporters had discovered Mr. DiFrancesco’s bad ethical habits, such as his acceptance of a $225,000 gift from one of the state’s biggest developers, and he eventually decided that he didn’t like having those ink-stained snoops examining his private finances. He had also realized, along with everyone else, that he was going to lose to Mr. Schundler, the maverick conservative mayor from Jersey City. That was a result the state party leadership wanted to avoid at all costs.
So acting at the behest of the G.O.P. bosses in the state capital, the legislature swiftly approved a bill changing the primary date to let Mr. Franks, a former member of Congress, run for governor. (They gave him some campaign financing assistance at the same time.)
To Mr. Schundler and his supporters, this was an outrage. “The bosses greased all the skids for Mr. Franks, a former state party chairman,” wrote John Fund, then a Wall Street Journal editorial writer who had long served as Mr. Schundler’s most ardent publicist. “A law was rammed through the Legislature that delayed the primary for three weeks and transferred most of Mr. DiFrancesco’s campaign treasury to Mr. Franks.”
The Journal editorial board protested even more furiously: “The GOP legislature has brazenly rewritten the rules of the primary race to allow former Rep. Bob Franks to become the establishment candidate. Indeed, the Garden State’s primary rules appear to be about as honest and open as the intrigue in the Soprano household …. By attempting to rig the primary they are demonstrating what little respect they have for the voters.”
The Journal ‘s rancor was understandable, since its editors would have preferred their favorite to face the ruined acting governor-or better yet, nobody at all. When Mr. Schundler sought to throw Mr. Franks off the ballot, however, the New Jersey courts told him to get lost. The key paragraph in the decision on appeal noted that “the purpose of the election laws is to afford voters the maximum opportunity to make a choice.” It went on to state that “a court’s interpretation of [the laws] should allow the greatest scope for public participation in the electoral process as is possible consistent with the statutory language,” and rule “in such a way as to enhance the opportunity of qualified candidates to convey their thoughts and beliefs to the people.”
Mr. Schundler defeated Mr. Franks despite the party bosses, and then lost in a landslide to James E. McGreevey, now the Democratic governor.
With Mr. Torricelli’s decision to step aside, the Jersey judiciary may soon face a similar decision with perhaps far wider consequences. The Republicans will correctly argue that under state law, it is too late to substitute another Democrat on the ballot. That’s the difference between this case and that of Mr. Franks, whose shuffling enjoyed the color of law because of maneuvering by the legislature. The judges will have to weigh the Democratic failure to meet the legal requirements against depriving voters of a choice at the polls. They must decide whether an inflexible deadline, missed by two weeks, is more important than a democratic election.
Mr. Torricelli would have avoided this fiasco by resigning from the Senate instead of just dropping his bid for re-election. Then the governor could have lawfully appointed a Senator and set the date for a special election. If the Senator cares half as much about the elderly, the poor and the environment as he claimed on Sept. 30, that is what he still can do. And Doug Forrester, the Republican candidate who has repeatedly demanded his resignation, would be in no position to complain.
Listening to his tearful farewell, it was almost possible to feel sorry for the snuffed Torch. That feeling disappeared with the news that he’s still trying to manipulate the choice of his successor based on personal grievances. “When did we become such an unforgiving people?” he wailed. Unforgiving? He will truly know what it means to be unforgiven on Nov. 6, if Mr. Forrester is elected and Trent Lott regains control of the Senate.