A Congressman Decides Not to Play the New Jersey Game Anymore

040308 andrews web A Congressman Decides Not to Play the New Jersey Game AnymoreFinally, after years of false starts, Rob Andrews has grasped what so many ambitious and otherwise bright New Jersey Democrats haven’t: If you stand around waiting for someone to hand you a promotion, you’re never going to get anywhere.

Andrews, age 50, is intimately familiar with the particular agony that attends missed opportunities in politics, because he is condemned to live with the knowledge that he might this very moment be a top player in national politics—if only he could have found a way to beat Jim McGreevey.

That was back in 1997, when Andrews, then a fourth-term congressman from the Philly suburbs, took the statewide plunge, offering himself up for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. He was fresh-faced, telegenic and politically moderate. The nomination was his for the taking, and it was all too easy to envision where it might lead: Victory over a vulnerable Christie Whitman in November, national recognition as a young and innovative leader of a major industrial state, a thumping reelection in 2001, and then a shot at the presidency in 2004. Why not?

And then he lost the primary. McGreevey really had no right to win it. He was just a freshman state senator and the mayor of a suburban township, unknown outside his small pocket of Middlesex County. And it wasn’t like his candidacy was justified by some unique and pressing ideological perspective. And, anyway, it wasn’t his turn. Andrews was the golden boy from the south with the perfect personal and ideological profile to unseat Whitman in the fall. He’d been marked as a rising star when he won his House seat in 1990, and after seven years, it was his time to shine.

But McGreevey, who (like Andrews) was probably rehearsing a future State of the Union address in the bathroom mirror at age nine, was in just as much of a hurry. “Wait your turn” was not a command he recognized. Instead, he harnessed his ruthless mastery of the perverse rules of machine politics, scheming and conning his way into the good graces of old-time party bosses up and down the New Jersey Turnpike. When he picked off the Essex County line, which everyone had just assumed would go to Andrews, the primary was his. The unknown state senator beat the big-shot congressman and rising star by two points. McGreevey was a soulless huckster, but his moxy should have served as an object lesson to every Democratic politician in the state about how to get ahead.

But no one—Andrews included—seemed to understand this. Since ’97, a Democratic nomination for statewide office has come open five times. And only once in that time has there been a competitive primary. That was in 2000, and even that wasn’t much of a fight, with Jon Corzine plopping down $40 million to essentially outbid former Governor James J. Florio and the South Jersey machine that backed him for a Senate nomination. No one else dared enter.

Besides 2000, every nomination has been handled months, if not years, ahead of time, not by voters, but by party bosses. The deals they have cut—picking McGreevey over Robert Torricelli for the gubernatorial nomination in 2001, most famously—have been treated like papal edicts by other Democrats who might have been interested in running. “Sorry, the timing just isn’t right for you,” they are invariably told. “But help us out this time, and we’ll remember you in the future. Your time is coming.”

They have all been willing to play this game. Congressmen like Frank Pallone, Steve Rothman, Rush Holt, Bill Pascrell and Donald Payne have all talked about running for higher office. But the years have passed and they’ve stayed put, one open seat after another, waiting for their number to be called. They all wanted Jon Corzine to appoint them to the Senate seat he abandoned to assume the governorship in 2006. So they all pitched in on his gubernatorial campaign, sparing no hyperbole in telling the masses why the Wall Street mogul was a perfect fit for Trenton. Then Corzine won and picked Bob Menendez for the seat. The others were disappointed, but no one dared challenge Menendez. Their turn would come.

Andrews has finally decided not to play the game anymore. He lost in ’97, and maybe he deserved to, letting McGreevey out-hustle him like that. And then he sulked about it for a few years, thoroughly alienating much of the New Jersey Democratic world. But then, about six years ago, he got his act together, patched up his tattered relationships—even with George Norcross, the South Jersey boss he tried to break free from before his ’97 campaign—and threw himself headlong into the business of partisan politics, pitching in for candidates across the state, raising money, doing favors, racking up the IOU’s. There would be several statewide openings in the middle of the decade, and one of them, he figured, would be his—if he’d just work for it.

But no. The gubernatorial nomination came open first, in 2005. Andrews toyed with entering. So did Dick Codey, who became the acting governor when McGreevey left his wife on national television. But then Corzine swooped in and bought up just about every boss in the state. Andrews, eventually, did what was expected of him: He played along, backing out, endorsing Corzine, and working overtime to elect him, believing his efforts would be rewarded with a Senate appointment.

When that didn’t happen, Andrews felt betrayed. He told Corzine so, and adopted the posture of someone who was considering a primary challenge to Menendez. But again, in the end, he threw himself into Menendez’s campaign. So did every other ambitious Democrat. Just around the corner was 2008, after all, and there was no way cranky old Frank Lautenberg would run again. Except he did. And Andrews and all of the other New Jersey Democrats who dream of statewide office were told to wait. And once again, they all seemed to listen.

But at some point, Andrews stopped and finally recognized that the time to do something is running out. He will turn 51 this summer. After this year, the next statewide race will be in 2009. But Corzine will be seeking reelection—another “wait your turn” moment. It would be no different in 2012, when Menendez’s first term will expire. Only in 2014, when a 90-year-old Lautenberg would (maybe) decide to finally hang it up, would there be a clear shot for Andrews. But by then he’d be 57, and who knows what new flavor will have arrived on the New Jersey political market by then.

To wait again this year, Andrews realized, would likely mean spending the rest of his career waiting in the U.S. House. So he decided to make his move. And, at long last, New Jersey finally has an authentic Democratic primary on its hands.