When the U.S. House of Representatives meets at noon today to swear in the members of the 117th Congress, Rep. Christopher Smith (R-Hamilton) will set the record as the longest-serving member of Congress in New Jersey history.
After Smith won his first election in 1980, at age 27, the Almanac of American Politics opined that his election was a fluke.
“There is a general assumption in New Jersey that Smith has few political assets outside Thompson’s Abscam problems and will turn out to be a one-term congressman,” the bible of U.S. politics wrote of the freshman congressman.
The expiration of the 116th Congress will see Smith tie the record set when Rep. Peter W. Rodino (D-Newark) left Congress after 40 years in 1989.
Once Smith takes his oath office for the 21st time, the record will be his.
With the departure of Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) tomorrow after 42 years in the Congress, Smith moves up to #3 in House seniority.
The Dean of the House is 87-year-old Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who was first elected in 1973.
Since seniority for House members sworn in on the same day is alphabetical, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Kentucky), 83, moves to #2. Rogers and Smith both took office on January 3, 1981.
At age 67, Smith is on a clear path to become Dean of the House.
Despite beginning his 41st year as a congressman, there are still five members of the New Jersey House delegation who are younger than Smith.
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-Long Branch), who was elected in a 1988 special election, moves up to 10th in seniority in the 435-member House.
Rodino was elected in 1948, at age 39, on his second try.
The Democratic lawyer from Newark had lost a bid for State Assembly in 1940, served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and came within 5,730 votes, 52.5% to 45.7%, of unseating nine-term Rep. Fred Hartley (R-Kearny) in 1946.
Hartley, still nationally prominent still as the sponsor of the Taft-Hartley Act, retired in 1948 and Rodino won the open seat by 5,800 votes, 50.7% to 45.7% against former Assemblyman Anthony Giuliano (R-Newark).
Like Rodino, Smith was also elected to Congress on his second try.
Smith was 25 when he challenged 12-term Rep. Frank Thompson, Jr. (D-Trenton), the chairman of the powerful House Administration Committee, in 1978. He lost by 24 points.
Undeterred, Smith ran again in 1980.
Thompson was implicated in the FBI sting operation known as Abscam, when an undercover agent pretending to be an Arab sheik offered the congressman a cash bribe to help him circumvent federal immigration laws.
This time, Smith won. He beat Thompson by 26,967 votes, a 47%-41% margin.
When Smith ran for a second term in 1982, he faced the strongest possible opponent: Joe Merlino, a 60-year-old, cigar chomping former State Senate President who saw going to Congress as sort of a consolation prize after losing a race for governor one year earlier.
The old 4th district was a middle-class, Democratic leaning district that included mostly Mercer and Middlesex counties, with small parts in Burlington and Monmouth. Jimmy Carter had won 54% in the old 4th in 1976, and Smith received just 38% when he ran against 12-term incumbent Frank Thompson in 1978. In 1980, after Thompson was indicted in the Abscam scandal, Smith won with 57%.
Back in the days when the Legislature drew congressional districts, Merlino had a heavy hand in redrawing the 4th to make it even more Democratic. The map was drawn during the lame-duck session of the 1981 Legislature, while Merlino was still Senate President. Democratic Gov. Brendan Byrne signed the map just before Republican Tom Kean succeeded him.
Smith’s hometown, Old Bridge, was dropped, along with other southern Middlesex towns that he had won. Instead, it went down the Delaware River through Burlington and picked up Pennsauken in Camden County.
Comparing apples to apples, the old 4th gave Reagan a 47%-44% win against Carter; Carter had beaten Reagan 47%-45% in the new district.
While Merlino was given the early edge, Smith worked hard — and fought hard.
One memorable Smith TV ad contrasted the Merlino image as an old-fashioned backroom politician. It had a lit cigar in an ashtray in a room full of smoke, along with voices of people saying they didn’t approve of “Boss Merlino” distorting Smith’s record. The ad then cut to an energetic Smith campaigning as other voices explained why they liked their congressman.
Merlino’s most unforgettable TV ad was shot in black-and-white as an imitation of the film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The ad shows a youthful vagabond hitchhiking as a voice-over attacks Smith. That was followed by the actor playing Smith getting kicked down the Capitol steps with the narrator urging voters to kick Smith out of Washington and replace him with Merlino.
Republicans got actor Jimmy Stewart who played Mr. Smith in the movie, to issue a statement slamming Merlino.
“When I played Mr. Smith in that picture, I did not think he was a naive hick,” Stewart said. “I thought he believed in honesty and integrity in government, the right of the people and the love of his country.”
Stewart applauded Smith’s record as a first-term congressman – “I hope you win,” he said – and Merlino pulled the ad that had clearly backfired.
Smith won that 1982 race by 10,002 votes, 53%-47%. He won Hamilton, where he moved so he could live within the boundaries of the new district, by about the same margin.
Since his first election, Smith has run under six different maps and has represented parts of Middlesex, Mercer, Burlington, Camden, Monmouth and Ocean counties in Congress.
In his most recent re-election against Democrat Stephanie Schmid, Smith won by 91,683 votes, 60%-38%.