Three months after former U.S. Rep. Dick Zimmer held a press conference and said he would not make age an issue in his U.S. Senate run against incumbent Democrat Frank Lautenberg, Republican State Chairman Tom Wilson stood in the same State House conference room and brought the issue front and center, making repeated references to the 84-year-old Senator’s senior status.
“If you’re too afraid, too incompetent or too old to campaign, then you’re surely not fit for six more years in the U.S. Senate,” said Wilson. “It’s time to let voters decide whether you’re up to serving in the United States Senate until you’re 90 years old.”
Wilson called the press conference to attack Lautenberg for the way he’s run his campaign – or rather, his lack of a campaign.
Lautenberg, said Wilson, has been missing on the campaign trail, making only a public appearance here and there while giving the media little time for questions and refusing to accept one of the roughly 20 debate invitations that have been issued so far.
By not engaging his opponent or the voters on the issues, Wilson said, Lautenberg has brought attention to his age by raising the question of whether he really is up to the task of serving another six year term, at the end of which he’ll be just shy of his 91st birthday. He contrasted Lautenberg’s public schedule with U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), 78, who although not up for reelection has been holding town hall meetings on behalf of John McCain in every one of his state’s counties.
Wilson cited polls that backed up his concern, though answers to the age question have varied depending on the way it was phrased.
“In the 16 weeks since primary day, he’s ignored the voters. No statewide candidate in the history of this state has been less visible, made himself less available to the press, met fewer voters or offered less of a reason to be reelected,” said Wilson. “He’s made (age) an issue by not engaging in this campaign, by not allowing people to ask legitimate questions about his fitness to serve.”
Reached for comment, Zimmer agreed that Lautenberg’s inaction has brought the issue to the fore.
“He’s refused to make any statements on the current financial crisis or the corruption investigation in Bergen County, where he’s a registered voter. He doesn’t even respond to reporters personally, as I’ve been told by them,” he said. “At this point I can only conclude that either he concludes that he can’t run on his record or he and his handlers believe he’s no longer up to the job.”
A press release issued by the Republican State Committee highlighted that Lautenberg’s campaign hasn’t issued a press release in 48 days and that he’s only held one press conference since Labor Day – and that was in Washington. Since the June primary, the release highlighted, Lautenberg has only held two press availabilities in New Jersey – both times with U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez.
Wilson said Lautenberg “seems to rely on” on Menendez at press conferences “to do his talking for him.”
Wilson said that’s particularly egregious when the economy is in crisis and New Jerseyans who work in the financial sector are panicked, arguing that Lautenberg hasn’t even publicly addressed where he stands on the proposed $700 billion bailout.
“Don’t we have an obligation to look under the hood of the car and say, is this thing capable of going around the track again?” said Wilson.
Lautenberg did address the economic crisis in a statement last week, however, even if he didn't indicate how he would vote on the bailout.
"We need to focus our economic recovery efforts on working families along streets across New Jersey, not just Wall Street. We are in this predicament because of special interest lobbyists who pushed the Bush Administration and its allies to cast a blind eye toward reckless behavior on Wall Street," he said. "Taxpayers need to be protected from this happening again, so it is critical that smart, tough new regulations and oversight of the markets are put in place. I know I will roll up my sleeves and work with the Administration and my colleagues in the Senate to get these tasks done as swiftly and effectively as possible."
From a purely strategic standpoint, Wilson said he understands why Lautenberg wants to stay off the campaign trail. He pointed to Lautenberg’s joke that it was “one’s responsibility” to “make sure the food they serve is okay, that it passes the taste test and the liquor is the right vintage” to an ABC News crew that found him outside of a lobbyist-sponsored party during the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
Of course, much of what Wilson complained about regarding Lautenberg has been raised in the presidential race, where Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin has been largely shielded from the press — only granting two interviews to news outlets (not counting People Magazine).
But when asked about Palin by PolitickerNJ.com, Wilson — a McCain supporter since 2000 – argued that the comparison was not applicable.
“I’m talking about Senator Lautenberg. The answer is that candidates who want to be elected to office ought to talk to voters. I think that the mechanics of a presidential campaign are a little bit different,” he said. “You don’t see candidates for President sort of wading through festivals and talking to Italian-Americans or Macedonians, as was the case during Senator Lautenberg’s recent appearances… I know that I’ve been to a grocery store and seen cover after cover after cover of everything from People Magazine to the National Enquirer. Sarah Palin is clearly talking to reporters. She might not be talking to some reporters, and that’s part of the campaign tactics.”
“But how about talking to some reporters? Frank Lautenberg doesn’t talk to anybody. The only person he talks to, best I can tell, is (political consultant) Steve DeMicco, who just keeps telling him ‘now, now Senator, you stay there and don’t you worry about the voters. They don’t need to hear from you.’”
Zimmer noted that Palin has agreed to debate Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Joe Biden, while Lautenberg has yet to commit to one.
Lautenberg has not put out any campaign press releases in a long time, but his legislative office frequently sends reporters news of his work in the Senate, often touting earmarks for New Jersey projects. For instance, on Monday Lautenberg and Menendez announced that the Department of Transportation would spend $604,729 on improving downtown Newark’s infrastructure.
But Wilson said that, even if you grant that Lautenberg really is responsible for pulling in that money, he ought to show up in New Jersey to talk about it.
“If he wants to be Senator Earmark, then come and say this is what I’ll do for the next six years,” he said.
Lautenberg spokeswoman Julie Roginsky argued that Lautenberg is doing his job in Washington while Wilson and Zimmer “have apparently been too busy running their own party into the ground.”
Roginsky said that Wilson’s count of press availabilities is incorrect – that Lautenberg had took questions on the economy in Newark on Friday, and that he was recently trailed at events by reporters from The Bergen Record and The Star-Ledger.
“When he is not in the Capitol doing the job the voters have elected him to do, Senator Lautenberg is campaigning actively across the state and making himself available to both the voters and the press,” she said. “While Senator Lautenberg is fighting against the special interests every day and addressing the real concerns New Jerseyans have about their financial well being, Zimmer and Wilson are playing politics and thus continue to embody the shallow, failed leadership their party has offered our state for many years."