Frank Lautenberg and the last campaign

The following are reprints of three stories from Senator Lautenberg’s 2008 campaign…


U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg looked east Friday, high above the industrial wasteland crammed into the swamp and river beds, and the lights on the commuter traffic on the Turnpike in the distance, and the packed trains just below boring into Newark Penn Station.

“When I first became a senator I knew I wanted my office to be here in Newark, in the center of things,” said Lautenberg, who turned 84 this past week while looking at a favorable job rating of 43% in the latest Monmouth University/Gannett poll.

It’s in an election year for New Jersey’s senior senator, which is why after voting on the floor earlier in the day he returned to New Jersey to make some fund-raising calls in anticipation of his general election showdown with Republicans.

The Democratic incumbent leads two Republican primary candidates: 38%-24% against millionaire developer Anne Evans Estabrook, and 40%-25% against State Sen. Joseph Pennacchio. The Monmouth poll did not include Ramapo College Professor Murray Sabrin, who entered the race after the survey was taken.

In another sign that the campaigns are revving up, the National Republican Senatorial Committee last week unveiled an attack ad against him, which notes that New Jersey rates last in return on federal taxes. Featuring a 1982 clip of a bushier side-burned Lautenberg vowing to get a better rate of return than 45th in the state on tax dollars, the ad states, “Twenty-six years after his promise… New Jersey isn’t 45th anymore, it’s dead last.”

Lautenberg dismisses the charge as “politics,” and bluntly counters that the Republican candidates must answer for the dismal record of their party and the presence of a man in the White House whom he acknowledges has been “painful” to behold.

“We have failed to make necessary investments, and we are falling behind in health standards and longevity standards,” said Lautenberg. “This administration has disregarded our domestic needs.”

At GOP venues around the state, Estabrook and Pennacchio mutually side-step the issue of President George W. Bush and a mismanaged war with an estimated $2.4 trillion price tag, by invoking both the troops, and the late Ronald Reagan as the complete conservative leadership package. Their attempt at symbolic resonance in the memory of Reagan is understandable, said Lautenberg.

“America has lost its leadership over the last few years, and there are no badges of honor due for anyone except our brave troops in Iraq,” Lautenberg told in an interview on Friday. “We may have seen the worst of the presidents.”

As for Reagan, “He was a good communicator,” said Lautenberg. “He brought an image of comfort and leadership.” But reaching back to those years cannot dispel the Bush years, he maintained.

“We’re in a war that’s costing us $3 billion a week – with supplementals on top of that,” said Lautenberg. “The war has been directed by Republicans, by a vice-president who has taken the word ‘mismanagement’ to a new level.”

Estabrook on the campaign trail casts the issue in terms of politicians who won’t let the generals in Iraq do their jobs. At a local party function in Clark Township on Thursday, Estabrook said the troop surge in Iraq is working, and criticized lawmakers’ efforts as meddlesome.

“Announcing a specific departure date on a billboard in Bagdad is irresponsible and dangerous,” said the Republican candidate.

Lautenberg said he doesn’t want to be an armchair general on the war, but says “there should be a definite withdrawal date.”

“We can’t just walk away, and the political situation has to be ironed out,” said Lautenberg. “We’ve lost our coalition. With the right leadership we could make a serious appeal to other countries about the price they pay for failure in Iraq, but we cannot continue with a war that has demoralized our country.”

He mentions his own experience as a WWII soldier in the Army signal corps as a way of connecting with the troops he says have been battered by a misfit administration.

“The surge has had only a temporary effect,” said the senator, deriding Bush-Cheney as “chicken hawks” whose fundamental lack of understanding has played havoc with the lives of military families whose people have been deployed multiple times to Iraq.

In Estabrook’s stump speech, she plugs the fact that she has no experience in public office. “I am a businesswoman,” she says. “Like any businessperson, I am allergic to government regulation and red tape.”

On the stump in Riverton on Monday night, she said, “It’s time for a change. Together, let’s change. Let’s change and have our government work for us, for a change.”

To the charge that he is an out-of-touch Beltway denizen, Lautenberg said, “I am a businessman. I founded a business (Automatic Data Processing) that employs 46,000 people.” But for the Republicans to make an argument for Bush’s war while railing against federal spending, even as the infrastructure needs of the country are out-of-date, makes no sense, said the senator.

“Look at that bridge down there,” said Lautenberg, indicating a hulking, faded gray structure spanning the Passaic River. “That’s exactly the kind of thing we need to be looking at replacing as we seek to move people out of their cars and into mass transit.”

He talked about his senate fact-finding mission trip to Greenland last year to observe the ice melts and to confirm the threat of global warming.

“We need change, yes,” said Lautenberg. “Change absolutely, in the way we think about our highways and skyways and the technology we apply to improve the lives of our citizens.”


WOODBRIDGE – U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) wasn’t supposed to face a primary opponent, and when he did, few were as irked as U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

In the months preceding U.S. Rob Andrews’s challenge of Lautenberg, Schumer saw the elder statesman bringing in big donors and positioning himself to make a convincing stand come the November general.

Andrews’s entry into the race was at best a headache for Schumer because it meant Lautenberg would have to spend money in a primary – maybe a lot of money.

With McCain at the top of the ticket and competitive here against Obama but the Republican Party otherwise in shambles after Bush, Schumer didn’t want to have to worry about New Jersey. There were other opportunities for senate seat wins, enticing red-to-blue prospects – namely in Alaska, Colorado, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Virginia, and Maine. Schumer didn’t want to have to look at Lautenberg until Nov. 5th, let alone spend money on him.

Andrews’s throw down prompted Schumer to call U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ). The command was simple: stop the uprising.

Menendez did what he could, which was considerable: going straight into Bergen County with U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9) and short-circuiting a deal between South Jersey Democratic leader George Norcross and Bergen boss Joseph Ferriero. Along with Rothman, the remaining Democratic congressmen united in their public support for Lautenberg and pledged to run on the line with him in their respective north and central Jersey districts.

Iraq and age and Iran…and Iraq

Those were big wins for the incumbent, coming even as Andrews was already having other troubles early on the issues front. Every time he opened his mouth and tried to talk, Lautenberg’s people smothered Andrews with Iraq.

He tried to talk about debates and the opposition hit him with Iraq. He tried to talk about energy costs and Lautenberg family oil company stock and again: Iraq. Little known statewide, Andrews was becoming synonymous in the public political consciousness with arguably his worst moment in a 19-year congressional career.

Andrews tried to return fire, making the case that Lautenberg himself had publicly backed Bush on the war. But it didn’t neutralize the issue, for there existed what for Andrews was that real and heartbreaking distinction between Lautenberg’s public declaration of support for the war versus the congressman’s co-sponsorship of the Iraq War resolution.

In possession of some solid endorsements but running behind the 84-year old senator by double digits in a Bergen Record poll with two weeks left in the campaign, Andrews, 50, decided to go directly to the age issue. Last week he released a TV ad with a picture of the late U.S. Rep. Millicent Fenwick’s face accompanied by the reminder that Lautenberg had injected the age factor into his 1982 match-up with the congresswoman.

That answered the question about whether or not Andrews would go negative. The question now becomes whether in his final week’s worth of advertising Andrews continues to batter Lautenberg on his age – and amplifies the argument by introducing in ads what he describes on the trail as a real possibility that the GOP will use the fear card in a general election.

His opponents might describe the tactic as the ultimate un-Roosevelt like campaign act of fearing fear itself, but Andrews maintains that the Republicans will not go gently in Jersey.

“Every couple of weeks the administration tries to blow out of proportion a naval incident,” to implicate Iran, Andrews says. “If you look at their history – the way they beat up Max Cleland in 2002, and their use of the Bin Laden tape against Kerry in 2004 – I expect them to do something like that again, and I wouldn’t doubt their attempts to Gulf of Tonkinize Iran in an election year.”

Lautenberg sleepwalking into that general election atmosphere won’t serve the party, Andrews argues. “You can’t fight back against this Republican attack machine by running a campaign in absentia,” he says.

Should he decide to refrain from staying negative, there is another advertising option for Andrews’s final days.

Of labor and bosses

He can articulate another distinction that he regularly highlights on the campaign trail: his and Lautenberg’s differences on some recent trade agreements.

Maybe packing less concussion than the age-fear argument, it nonetheless makes a case to a divided – and important – labor vote.

When Andrews entered the race, the AFL-CIO decided to remain neutral after initially supporting Lautenberg – a fact that Andrews proudly underscores often. Now Andrews could attempt to break that standoff with an aggressive appeal.

The candidates’ ratings from the AFL-CIO are almost interchangeably high, and both men voted against the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). But while Andrews against China and Peru trade agreements that in the congressman’s view mirror the damaging provisions of NAFTA, the senator voted “aye” on both counts.

Particularly troubling, in Andrews’s view, was Lautenberg’s vote on the U.S.-China Relations Act of 2000.

“I think this was a classic case of whether you’re for corporate America or whether you’re for the middle class,” says Andrews. “As a consequence of that agreement, New Jersey lost 125,000 manufacturing jobs and maybe as many as 200,000.”

The Lautenberg campaign stands by the senator’s votes.

“Sen. Lautenberg believes the Peru agreement had strong labor and environmental standards and was good for New Jersey,” says Lautenberg spokeswoman Julie Roginsky. “We have a thriving Peruvian community in our state, and promoting trade with Peru will help New Jersey.He supported normal trade relations with China because it required China to join the WTO, which is critical. We needed to make China subject to WTO rules, so we have some real leverage if they engage in unfair practices.”

As Lautenberg’s team simultaneously looks at the end-game, they can continue to hammer away at Andrews’s hawkish stances on Iraq, ratcheting up their assault on the congressman’s war backing and leaving that single, potentially fatal image out there of Andrews as a Bush cheerleader.

Another tack is to play up the link between Andrews and boss Norcross as part of a bigger case for Lautenberg’s independence. The senator does not come out of the bowels of a political organization like Andrews, with all of the associative factors connected to a man who rose to power with the backing of a boss.

Andrews jokes about being a regular guy up against the millionaire – the underdog with a small bank account bucking the system – but in this case the millionaire has the advantage of being self-made. Indeed, one of the reasons key bosses – Ferriero, Adubato and Norcross – tried to join forces here was because Lautenberg never felt obliged to kiss rings.

Now Andrews’s people depict the relationship between Norcross and the congressman as symbiotic, and often volatile.

They came together to get Fred Madden elected to the state Senate in what Andrews today describes as a true alliance after several years of bad relations. But Andrews allies continue to stoke bad blood stories, apparently to nullify the idea that Andrews is overly dependent on Norcross. In fact, one theory for this current campaign is that Norcross fooled Andrews, using Tom Byrne to bait the congressman into challenging Lautenberg, then leaving Andrews out there in the arena so he could at last get him out of the federal seat he’s held for 19 years.

Andrews says no way.

“When you get emails at 4 in the morning, you know someone is working for you,” Andrews says. “As far as I can tell, George is doing nothing but working for the campaign night and day. Those suggestions are hurtful and insulting to George.”

But the boss factor nags at the Andrews campaign, and Lautenberg could exploit it if the senator feels the Iraq issue hasn’t already sufficiently hobbled his opponent’s campaign.

Eight days out

The primary war goes on: Lautenberg standing at podiums in D.C. in statesman fashion, hurling more blue state meat into the maw of June 3 and keeping a blitz of emails and ads going, and Andrews making the rounds on the ground, pumping a stream of youtube videos onto the web and inundating Middlesex, Passaic, Bergen, Essex and Union with campaign lawn-signs.

In typical contrast, Andrews walks through the Woodbridge Community Center in this north Jersey city, talking to third and fourth graders participating in an after-school program, even as the Lautenberg team sends out an email blast noting Lautenberg’s recent legislative accomplishments.

Team Lautenberg’s continuing effort counteracts Andrews’s ground maneuvers with short burst examples of a hard-working senator at his desk. In the past weeks, they note, the senator passed an amendment blocking Bush’s efforts to diminish the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), championed a GI bill, strengthened beach water testing and ramrodded legislation making Paterson’s Great Falls a national historic park.

In Woodbridge, it is difficult to pass through a public building without being reminded of the fact that James McGreevey once served as mayor. Embossed everywhere, his name stands over Andrews now in the community center, and is a difficult presence not to acknowledge given the congressman’s torturous loss to McGreevey in their 1997 run for governor.

“I don’t think I campaigned here in ‘97,” Andrews says with a laugh. But he is now, trying to run up against Lautenberg’s northern stronghold with pockets of support he’s built over the last five years.

“This campaign isn’t a cold call,” he says.

Lautenberg’s team laughs at his earnest persistence. As Andrews talks at a Montclair Town Hall forum attended by about 50 people, including a sizable smattering of Newark North Ward Center allies, a Lautenberg person says, “good, keep him there. As long as he’s out talking to little groups like that, taking time, we’ve got him pinned down.”

An Andrews remark about energy elicits a pitter-patter of hand claps that never ignites into outright applause before an elderly woman haltingly invokes Jimmy Carter in her question. The name prompts an inadvertent head roll of discomfort from Andrews, as it would from any politician in an uphill election in a room beyond home turf where the atmosphere is already hardly electric and Carter is code for political failure.

Yet Andrews keeps talking as if he’s in a fight and the Ledger liked what he has to say enough to endorse him, and Lautenberg keeps fighting back, and what Schumer didn’t want in New Jersey’s Democratic primary season at the very least is what he’s got eight days out: a fight.


NEWARK – He says he’s the fighter who never forgot down deep that he’s working class, and on the last Friday before Election Day, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) headed to the docks to collect the endorsement of members of locals aligned with the International Longshoremen’s Association, AFL-CIO (ILA).

“Like you, I have an attachment to a union, only it was through my father,” the senator told the crowd of over 200. “My father worked in the silk mills of Paterson, like his father did and his uncle and his brothers. And they tried their best. They tried their best… to get a union, and got beat up but eventually it happened.”

The workers here handled $100 billion in goods in 2003 and unloaded 2.6 million tons in 2006. At this the world’s second busiest cargo terminal, the cheers come with any mention of a union fight and with every exhortation to be number one.

Moments before the senator arrived, two trailers disgorged the longshoremen at Port Newark’s Berth 25 and they trudged forward, filling up part of the pier while shaking blue Lautenberg signs, waiting for the man and when he arrived finally, striding up onto a platform in suit and tie with labor brass on his heels, the men called, “Frankie! Frankie!”

Facing those men and some women from the locals of the largest union of maritime workers in North America, Lautenberg vowed to win for them.

“If you’re with me,” he told the union members, “I’m going to continue to serve you and be proud of everything I do on your behalf, and proud of you, the people who do the lifting to make sure the cargo passes through, generates income, who take care of our country and yourselves.”

On the same afternoon, the campaign of Lautenberg’s chief rival, U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, unveiled an attack ad in Trenton outlining how the father of a Marine killed in Iraq had felt spurned when he tried to approach Lautenberg and then found comfort when he met with Andrews.

His opponent was also reveling in his own radio debate performance the preceding evening, particularly when contrasted with Lautenberg’s effort.

Andrews’s campaign chairman, Michael Murphy, had issued a statement, proclaiming a Thursday night victory for his candidate.

“Sen. Lautenberg’s angry, evasive and inarticulate performance clearly demonstrates why he waited until the final weekend of this campaign to debate. Frank Lautenberg denied New Jersey’s Democratic voters their right to a series of debates on the serious issues we face. Now we know why.”

But on Friday, Lautenberg was happy here outside at Port Newark in the blue collar crowd hours before his second and last debate, on television, and the workers appeared happy on their break to welcome him.

“I’m familiar with the docks, comfortable with the docks,” he said. “I got dropped off in Antwerp, Belgium during the war.”

With the water, and the Bayonne Bridge in the distance over his shoulder, which he promised to help raise to get more ships into the harbor, and the men and razor wire protecting the pier and Newark Bay Bridge curving over the Hackensack into Bayonne, Lautenberg told the longshoremen he would continue to fight for New Jersey against the “failed policies” of the Bush administration.

“There’s a two-mile stretch between the harbor and the airport that is a most attractive target for terrorists and we don’t want to let them get here,” the senator said. “That’s why I insisted we get our fair share of the money to fight that risk. …that’s why I insisted that we maintain our own rigid standards for chemical safety in the face of weakening by the Bush administration.”

To repeated applause, he noted his fights to stop the war, to preserve the State Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) for thousands of New Jersey children, and to get the federal government to reimburse families who have had to pay out of their own pockets for body armor to shield their soldier sons and daughters in Iraq.

U.S. Rep. Donald Payne (D-10), ILA general manager Jerry Owen, Tom Leonardis, president of the ILA, local 1235 and Stephen Knott, president of the ILA Atlantic Coast District, stood on the stage with the senator.

“I’ve been involved in politics a lot of time and I’ve seen politicians come and go,” said Leonardis. “Some of them you take with a grain of salt and some of them just don’t get it. Well, this guy here, he gets it.”

“Frankie! Frankie!” the crowd chanted.

Payne cited his and Lautenberg’s commitment to occupational safety. A couple of hours removed from a fatal crane collapse in New York, the congressman spoke of the hazards of businesses rushing work while failing to secure protection for their workers.

Payne told the longshoremen he was with them.

“I love this place,” he said. “I worked down here from 1952 to 1956, on Doremus Avenue, where they used to have about one ship a week, believe me. The old days. But we’re so glad to see this port come to where it is today. I’m with you, I’m with Frank. Let’s put him over the top.”

Earlier, at one point during the senator’s speech, handfuls of longshoreman started leaving, waving at him as they departed.

“We’ve got to go back to work, Frankie,” a few of them cried.

“We’re with you, Frankie!”

When Lautenberg was done, he waded into the crowd and they engulfed him, longshoremen and reporters; and among them, former middleweight boxing champion Vito Antuofermo, who once went 20 rounds with Marvin Hagler and now works on the docks, shook the senator’s hand.

Lautenberg wanted a picture with him.

“He’s our champ,” said another man, a longshoreman, whose face was scarred, staring at Antuofermo as the old senator and the old boxer sized each other up and Lautenberg exclaimed, “Vito!” Frank Lautenberg and the last campaign