Mr. Potato Head: Lawmaker or lawbreaker?

State Senator Robert Martin last week acknowledged that he was arrested for drunk driving in March 2005 and lost his driving privileges for three months that year. Martin, a Law Professor and veteran Municipal Prosecutor, was able to keep his arrest and conviction quiet. Several Republican Senators and Morris GOP leaders said they knew nothing about Martin’s legal woes until contacted by a Gannett newspaper reporter last week. Martin announced last September, a month after the state restored his license to drive, that he would not seek re-election to the Senate in 2007. There had been rumors of Martin’s pending retirement, although it was generally assumed that he wanted to avoid another difficult battle for the GOP nomination. Some insiders now speculate that his decision to retire was based on his desire to keep his DWI conviction out of the public domain. The Gannett story came a week after Martin supported the nomination of Zulima Farber for state Attorney General, and defended her on questions related to her own driving record — both in the Judiciary Committee and on the Senate floor. He was one of four Republicans to vote yes on Farber’s confirmation. After eighteen years in a safe district, permitted to pursue his own agenda without the encumbrances of severe electoral politics, Martin was suddenly facing the political battle of his life to win renomination in the 2003 Republican primary. His challenger was 31-year-old Jay Webber, a conservative Harvard-educated lawyer who was Chief of Staff to Congressman William Martini. Webber attacked Martin for using his campaign committee to pay nearly $40,000 in college tuition costs so that the Senator can receive a graduate degree in Education from Columbia University. Martin says, accurately, that the expense is a legal one, and that the knowledge he gains from the pursuit of his degree helps him to a better job as Co-Chairman of the Senate Education Committee. Martin, considered to the left many of his Senate GOP colleagues, had been criticized in the primary for being too supportive of Governor James E. McGreevey’s appointments. He voted with Senate Democrats on the nomination of Joseph Santiago as state Police Superintendent. Normally it really isn’t stop-the-presses kind of news when a candidate for public office throws dirt at the opponent. But when the guy throwing the dirt is Martin, who has built a reputation of tremendous integrity and independence during his nearly two decades in Trenton, it was a bit startling to realize that this honest man really isn’t that much different than all the rest. Martin is perhaps nothing more than a run-of-the-mill politician in a highly volatile race — willing to say whatever it takes in order to stay on as a Senator. For Martin, who had allowed himself to be held to a higher standard than most other politicians, he was suddenly faced with the prospect of being judged by that standard. So his hard hitting campaign, which seemed to many observers to have distorted the record of his opponent, appeared incredibly out of character. At the time, PoliticsNJ.com said that Martin had mounted the most intellectually dishonest campaign of the year. This website dubbed him “Mr. Potato Head” (after the children’s toy known for changeable facial features) for his ability to change his political face to meet the challenges of a more conservative primary electorate. Martin has criticized Webber for accepting a Law Clerk position working for state Supreme Court Justice, Peter Verniero, saying that Webber should have tuned down the job because Verniero, as New Jersey Attorney General a few years earlier, had refused to defend the state’s partial-birth abortion ban in a federal lawsuit, and criticized Webber because Verniero voted to allow Democrats to switch U.S. Senate candidates last October. A tenured Law Professor at Seton Hall University, Martin probably knew better than to hold a Law Clerk responsible for the actions of the Judge they work for. Seton Hall works hard to push their students toward legal clerkships and wears it as a badge of honor when their alumni obtain them. And there’s a little irony in this: Martin voted to confirm Verniero’s appointment as Attorney General, and while he opposed Verniero’s nomination to the top court, he voted to confirm six other Justices who voted exactly the way Verniero did on the U.S. Senate decision. In a 2003 e-mail to PoliticsNJ.com, one of Martin’s students summed it up: “I felt a little betrayed. It certainly puts politics before his profession, an odd way to behave when you are a law professor.” The Martin campaign used direct mail and cable television ads to infer that Webber helped finance the re-election campaign of embattled U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli (who surely doesn’t poll well among Republican primary voters in Morris County) last year because a political action committee run by some lawyers at the firm Webber works at gave money to the Democratic Senator. Martin’s mail included a replica of a check showing Webber making a $1,000 contribution to Torricelli’s campaign. Was it fair to hold Webber, a second-year associate at a national 450-lawyer firm, responsible for campaign contributions made to Democratic candidates, including Torricelli, by the firm’s PAC? Webber had no say over these contributions (Federal Election Commission reports do not list him as a contributor to the Drinker Biddle PAC). And Martin didn’t point out that the Drinker Biddle PAC gave significantly more money to Republicans than Democrats in 2002, including monies to Republican Senate candidate Douglas Forrester and GOP Congressman Michael Ferguson, or that Webber worked on the Forrester campaign. Martin criticizes Webber for contributions made to Democrats over which he had no control, but says that his own 1995 campaign fund contribution to a Democratic Assemblyman (and fellow Seton Hall Professor) Wilfredo Caraballo is old news. In a debate during the primary, Martin alleged that Webber hadn’t paid property taxes on his Chatham home — his campaign mocked up a check payable to the taxpayers for $0 and signed Webber’s name. Webber was able to prove that Martin was wrong. In some ways, Webber used Martin’s reputation as a tool against him, hoping that 26th district Republicans would see that Martin’s attacks are so out of character — for Martin — that they will view him as desperate. In reality, Martin’s attacks on Webber would probably be judged tame in many other regions of the state. But the fact that Martin the Law Professor made the attack, heightened the political community’s attention to the race, especially in gentlemanly Morris County. Within a year, as the Daily Record’s Fred Snowflack reported, Martin seemed like his old self at a the signing of the Highlands protection legislation. After winning the praise of Governor McGreevey (Martin, attacked in the primary for being “liberal like McGreevey,” responded by his own sharp criticisms of the Governor), Martin had some rather harsh remarks for the Morris County GOP legislative delegation who opposed the Highlands plan: “I think they’re knuckleheads,” Martin said. Assemblyman Rick Merkt said that the GOP legislators weren’t considered knuckleheads when they backed Martin over challenger Webber, and Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll told Snowflack: “There’s always the possibility that maybe the rest of the world is sane and he’s crazy.” From time to time, Martin had pursued moving on: he was mentioned as a candidate for Ramapo College President, and for state and federal judicial appointments.

Mr. Potato Head: Lawmaker or lawbreaker?