Zimmer: ‘I was a pork buster before it was cool’

FLEMINGTON – In less than a week, Dick Zimmer has gone from being a mere bystander in the race for United States Senator to being the front runner for the Republican nomination.

“This is a pivotal point in history. We have incredible economic challenges here at home, national and domestic security challenges,” said the former three-term Congressman, who lost a tough race for U.S. Senate to Bob Torricelli in 1996. “It’s a great opportunity to be able to have a chance to join the U.S. Senate and shape the course of history when there are such major debates any way.”

Republicans began a very public search for a self-funding candidate last month after Anne Evans Estabrook dropped out of the race after suffering a minor stroke.

Zimmer said he received a call for a GOP County Chairman last Monday — the day after biotech millionaire John Crowley said he would not run – and asked him to consider getting into the race if Goya Foods heir Andy Unanue dropped out of the race.

“I was an observer just like you. I had no expectation of being a candidate and I made no effort to become one,” he told PolitickerNJ.com. “I just wrote an email to everybody in my office in Washington saying that if this is a surprise to you, I assure you it’s a surprise to me.”

During his fifteen years in public office, Zimmer was known as a fiscal conservative – likes to point out that New Jersey ranks dead last out of all 50 states in the amount of money it receives back from the federal government versus how much it puts – and a social moderate. He’s pro-choice, although he does believe in parental notification and is against partial birth abortion. Zimmer voted against the partial birth abortion ban in 1996, but changed his mind the following year and wrote an op-ed against the procedure in the Trenton Times.

But Zimmer doesn’t want to be labeled as a moderate just because he’s not an abortion foe like his two candidates who fall farther right on the political spectrum.

“I’m conservative. I’m proud of it,” he said. “I’m not going to give up that designation. I’m like Barry Goldwater: get government out of the boardroom and out of the bedroom.”

When he was in Congress, Zimmer was named the most fiscally conservative Representative in the House the times, and Citizens Against Government Waste, an anti-tax group, called him a “taxpayer superhero.”

“And I was a pork buster before it was cool,” he added

Zimmer insists that it’s not hypocritical to criticize Lautenberg for failure to bring home the bacon (or brisket, as Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts joked two weeks ago) while simultaneously claiming to be anti-earmark. Instead, he said, New Jersey needs to bare less of the burden of federal taxes, rather than simply lobby for more pork.

Also unlike virtually all the other candidates Republican leaders have courted, Zimmer does not have the means to self-fund his candidacy. While he can afford to take an unpaid leave from his law firm, he can’t spent the $10-12 million necessary to run a competitive race. What he does have, however, are lots of political connections that could make him a decent fundraiser at a time when Republicans – both on a national and state level – are strapped for cash. He raised more than $8 million for his last Senate run and more than $2 million when he mounted a nearly successful bid to unseat Rush Holt in 2000.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chimed in yesterday, attacking him as a “Washington lobbyist and Newt Gingrich acolyte Dick Zimmer as a candidate.”

Zimmer said that he’ll be deregistered as a lobbyist by Monday. But while the word itself has negative connotations, and Zimmer fully expects it to be used against him, he’s as proud of many of his accomplishments in that line of work as he is for those during his three terms in Congress.
“If you take the kinds of things I’ve lobbied for, they’re all issues that I can explain – in many cases their issues that I’m proud of,” he said.

Take, for instance, his lobbying for legislation that permits the families of the 1983 Beirut Marine barracks bombing to more easily collect compensation from the government of Iran.

That work would lead to an unlikely friendly relationship with none other than incumbent Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg – the same man who scoffed at a prospective Zimmer candidacy to reporters earlier this week, dismissing him as a lobbyist.

Lautenberg at the time was working on a bill to ease the process for American victims of state-sponsored terrorism to go to take those nations to court. Incidentally, Rob Andrews was one of the House bill’s co-sponsors.

“Although I didn’t buy him lunch, I did meet with him to discuss it,” said Zimmer.

Zimmer admits that his 1996 U.S. Senate race against Bob Torricelli has gone down as arguably the nastiest race in state history. But that, he said, was twleve years ago.

“First of all, if you take a look at Bob Toricelli’s previous races, even when he was opposed by very weak candidates he’s always been very aggressive and very unpleasant in his campaigns. So in that sense it was to be expected,” he said. “But I would only ask that I am judged by the press and the public on the manner in which I conduct the 2008 campaign.”

Zimmer: ‘I was a pork buster before it was cool’