PLAINSBORO – You’d think it might get tiresome sometimes being Rush Holt trying to navigate in what is often perceived to be a dumbed-down profession, populated by those seeking to have beers with the world’s bar stool-bound sports fans sooner than discuss issues – let alone the fine points of quantum physics.
Yet even though Holt is a former Princeton University professor who revels in policy and rejoices in science, he has another side seldom appreciated by those outside the Central Jersey suburban spill-zone known as the 12th Congressional District.
Now running as a candidate for U.S. Senate in a field dominated by the uber-twittering Newark Mayor Cory Booker and complicated by the presence of Holt’s doppelganger, fellow progressive U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6), Holt is positioning himself not only as the progressive fighter, but as the battle-tested progressive fighter.
“My strategy in this race is to do everything we would ordinarily do in a campaign – only faster, better – concurrently – rather than sequentially,” he told PolitickerNJ.com this morning over coffee, a day after he hit seven counties on a campaign swing and two days after he went up on the web with another nimble web ad.
There’s a little more than a month left in this special election.
“There’s nobody I know who can run a campaign like I can,” said the congressman. “Maybe close is Bill Pascrell’s primary last year. It will be difficult to win against Cory Booker’s fame. I’m going to do all those things one does in a textbook campaign – and that won’t be enough.”
He’ll have to do more this time, he admits – and he will, he promises.
It goes back to 1998 when Holt beat incumbent Rep. Mike Pappas.
“Everyone remembers the ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Kenneth Starr’ singing commercial, but what the election was about was Kenneth Starr going off on a tangent until he could find something embarrassing, and the people’s belief that Congress should not be involved in witch hunts and blame games,” said the congressman, who at the time defended President Bill Clinton.
He defeated former U.S. Rep. Dick Zimmer, and spent much of the early 2000s criticizing the Bush administration’s Iraq War policy. Both he and Pallone voted against authorizing the President to use force in Iraq.
In 2010, at the height of the Tea Party movement, Holt defeated hedge fund manager Scott Sipprelle, a candidate, he says, who “embodied the financial world.”
“The Tea Party was expressing an ill defined frustration and anger, and I think it’s starting to fade, partly because ‘leave me alone’ is not a very good organizing political principle,” he said.
“The one thing is my campaigns, where you’re fighting for the campaign – but what counts is after the election what do you fight for? Frank Lautenberg had that,” Holt added.
He gives Pallone props for cracking down on oceanfront dumping.
But on every other issue, Holt puts himself forward as a leader who gnawed through the tougher opposition to better represent voters on everything from opposition to the Patriot Act and offshore drilling to protecting civil rights and civil liberties, and the environment, he said.
“I was an environmentalist before I was in Congress,” Holt said.
He keeps pressing his insistence on universal single payer healthcare.
Son of a former U.S. Senator from Holt’s native West Virginia with the same name and a 100-year-old mother, Holt knows his brand is not of the Sopranos school of tough guy talk, trench coats and fedoras.
But he believes his aggressive style of campaigning and advocacy will pay off.
“My mother told me last week, ‘I know you can beat the machine on Jeopardy, but can you beat the machine?’” he said, a reference to his much celebrated – and victorious – appearance on the popular TV game show. “The machine in New Jersey is overrated. If by a machine what is meant is something that can operate and deliver, then that exists to an extent, but it’s not so relevant this time.”
Holt disagrees with Gov. Chris Christie’s decision to have the Senate election on a timeline separate from the gubernatorial election. It’s an unnecessary expense and designed simply to get the Republican governor re-elected.
But for his part, resigned to taking part in the established time frame (including an open August Primary, not ballot-bound to county party organizations and their usual columns and lines), Holt sees the contest schedule as “the great leveler.”
“I’m making the best of it,” the congressman said.
He disputes the notion that in this particular collision, the front-running Booker will have an edge because he can boast of alliances with George Norcross III, powerful Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and other machine political parts.
“There’s no question Cory Booker has a celebrity that no one else has, but so what?” he said.
Still, polls consistently show Holt and Pallone dueling for second place.
Didn’t the two men try to sit down prior to the filing deadline and attempt to work out a strategy to avoid the danger of cancelling each other out?
“We frequently pass each other in the hall and we have worked together a lot on issues, including Hurricane Sandy relief or Superfund stuff, but this certainly wasn’t calculated or planned,” Holt said. “We are in this each for our own reasons. Frank has been angling for years and passed up a real opportunity.”
The reference is to the winter of Torricelli, when the bosses went to Pallone and tried to prevail on him to run.
Holt insists he seriously considered running only after the death last month of U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ).
“I asked myself, ‘Who’s going to be the fighter for New Jersey that Frank Lautenberg was? If not I, who? I just didn’t see anybody else who would be the progressive fighter he was. I can easily make that case.”