Blue collar blues: Lautenberg v. Andrews

Adlai Stevenson may be one of former Gov. Brendan Bryne’s favorite statesmen, but it’s been a maxim ever since Stevenson’s back-to-back blowout losses to Eisenhower that American politicians should err on the side of being regular rather than aloof, smart instead of intellectual, and Jacksonian as opposed to aristocratic.

No one seems to know it better than U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D-1), two labor-backed lawmakers who voted against NAFTA in the 1990s, and who are now fiercely intent on demonstrating their common man cred as they vie for Lautenberg’s U.S. Senate seat.

In their Democratic Primary contest, Lautenberg, the silk mill worker’s son made good, and Andrews, the shipyard worker’s son made good, each argues for why he’s better suited to represent the lunch bucket crowd facing $4-per gallon gas in hard economic times.

“I was born in Paterson,” Lautenberg tells his audiences.

It’s a line he uses often, followed by the verbal equivalent of throwing his arm around the shoulders of anyone uncomfortable with Washington insiders.

“I think growing up in Paterson ought to be an initiation for a lot of my colleagues who serve in the Senate,” the senator intones, mostly to applause and laughter.

Then there’s Andrews, who doesn’t salt his speech with colloquialisms as much as he continuously burnishes his status as an everyman – not as a way of putting down millionaire businessmen like Lautenberg as much as simply signaling that, like most of his audience members, he’s not one.

This is not only a matter of roots for Andrews, he argues, but present-day concern.

“It is sometimes said that the United States Senate is a rich man’s club,” says Andrews, an attorney turned lawmaker. “I feel eminently qualified to join that club with the richness that is surrounding me this morning.”

He pauses and gazes at his young family, including his wife, Camille, whose presence Andrews’s opponents deride as less homespun and more power-placeholder, as she runs for the congressman’s District 1 seat while he pursues Lautenberg.

Andrews’s allies, meanwhile, work whenever they can to deflate Lautenberg’s Paterson folk tale, as when a reporter refers to Montclair as the senator’s “backyard’ – in acknowledgment of where Lautenberg raised his own family.

“I thought Lautenberg’s backyard was Central Park,” cracks Michael Murphy, Andrews’s campaign chairman, a reference to Lautenberg’s much discussed Manhattan tastes.

At an actual event in Montclair – a low-key town hall forum in which Andrews stands in front of 50 people – he tells them he wants to raise taxes on the top 5% of income earners – or those making over $350,000, which he promises would draw $1.5 trillion over ten years.

“By the way,” says Andrews, “if you’re in that group, I’d like to see you after the meeting, we’re raising money.”

The self-deprecatory line gets a laugh and some scattered hand claps.

The congressman uses the everyman narrative whenever he can as a counterpoint to his opponent, who in the incipient stages of Andrews’s campaign threatened to pour $2 million of his own money into the campaign to keep his younger antagonist at bay.

Lautenberg made his fortune decades ago, but any sign of a challenge to his knowledge of a dirt under the fingernails existence usually prompts him to reach back to WWII for that part of his bread and butter blue collar story that complements his Paterson origins.

In his campaign’s ongoing thrashing of Andrews on the Iraq War issue, the senator meets the congressman’s argument that Lautenberg supported Bush with public statements in 2002 by noting his own war record in the Army signal corps.

“I know war,” says Lautenberg. “I fought in a war.”

Andrews’s counteroffensive to the senator’s war record is an oft-spoken gentle suggestion that his rival’s more recent longtime service in the Senate has kept him in elite and stale company.

Given his own aggressive designs on getting there, the argument seems almost odd, but Andrews regularly reminds audiences of the Senate’s stagnant responses to problems the U.S. House has acted on already, arguing for new blood in the upper house.

“I wrote and passed a proposal to help small businesses get health insurance more easily,” he says, by way of example. “It made it through the House, but… it stalled in the Senate.”

While Andrews treads critically but more lightly on the issue of Bush, Lautenberg expresses outright disdain for the administration and the “chicken-hawk” president – in his words – as both men battling each other now constantly arc back to the dock, the mill, and the street in an argument with two weeks remaining for why they ought to be at the top of the legislative heap.

Blue collar blues: Lautenberg v. Andrews