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How Frank Pallone got to Congress

Elected to Long Branch City Council in 1982, ousted a GOP State Senator in 1983

By David Wildstein, November 26 2018 12:02 am


A primer on Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr., who is about to become one of the most powerful people on Capitol Hill when he is poised to assume the chairmanship of the House Energy & Commerce Committee in January.

Pallone was a 30-year-old attorney when started his political career as a candidate for the Long Branch City Council in 1982.  He had served as Gov. Jim Florio’s Monmouth County campaign director in 1981 and was one of Florio’s lawyers during the recount.  His slogan: “A New Direction in Community Leadership.”

He faced ten candidates for five seats in the May non-partisan municipal election.  Pallone raised the most money, about $12,000; most of the contributions were less than $100 each.  He won the endorsement of Mayor Henry Cioffi.

Pallone was the top vote-getter with 5,504 votes – 1,206 votes ahead of the second place finisher, incumbent James Cofer and 2,505 votes ahead of the candidate who finished sixth.

In the mayoral race, Cioffi was beaten by Philip Huhn.

STATE SENATE

By January 1983, Pallone was already mulling a challenge to two-term State Sen. Bran Kennedy (R-Sea Girt).  He was also fighting with Huhn, who accused Pallone of criticizing his first municipal budget for personal political gain.

Pallone entered the Senate race in April, saying Kennedy was a do-nothing Senator.  He said he would give up his job with a New York law firm if he won but promised to hold on to his Long Branch council seat.

Former State Sen. Herbert Buehler (D-Ocean Township), who had lost his seat to Kennedy in 1977 and had unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for governor in 1981, was also in the race. Monmouth County Democratic Chairman John Fiorino gave the organization line to Pallone.

A state administrative law judge removed Buehler from the ballot around Memorial Day after Fiorino challenged Buehler’s petitions.

Pallone won the Democratic nomination with 91% of the vote against Dorothy Eaton of Asbury Park, who ran on the slogan “Beam Technology: Stop War, End Depression.”

Republicans didn’t view Kennedy as vulnerable and he did not receive much help from the state party, who were mounting a strong effort to take control of the Senate.

In fall, Pallone made an issue of Kennedy’s attendance record, saying he missed over 100 votes in the Senate. Rep. James Howard (D-Spring Lake Heights) campaigned heavily for his protégé, Pallone.  The congressman’s daughter took a month off from her job in Washington to work on the Pallone campaign.

In what was regarded at the time as one of the best campaigns of the year, Pallone defeated Kennedy by 927 votes, 50%-49%,

Two Republican assemblymen, Joseph Palaia (R-Ocean Township) and Doc Villane (R-Long Branch), were re-elected by more than 8,000 votes.

In 1987, Republicans targeted Pallone in a district where Palaia and Villane had won re-election two years earlier by a plurality of more than 19,000.  But the GOP was unable to convince either of the assemblymen – Villane had just become chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee – to run against Pallone.

Instead, the Republicans nominated Gerri Popkin, a Neptune City councilwoman and the Monmouth County purchasing director.

Popkin ran an aggressive race, filing an ethics complaint against Pallone for allowing the Communications Workers of America to pay for a mailing where he endorsed the CWA’s efforts to represent workers at the Monmouth Medical Center.  She also accused him of plagiarizing the work of other legislators.

Pallone again ran a strong campaign, beating Popkin by 9,472 votes, 60%-40%.  Palaia and Villane won by nearly 6,000.

U.S. CONGRESS

On March 24, 1988, Pallone’s career took an unexpected turn.

That morning, Howard, a 60-year-old chairman of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee, was playing golf at a country club in suburban Washington, D.C. when he suffered a massive heart attack. First responders and emergency room doctors worked for two hours to revive the congressman.  Unconscious and breathing through a machine, he was flown to a Washington hospital where he died the following day.

Howard won twelve terms in a Republican leaning congressional district, with many close calls.  Kennedy held him to 53% in 1984 and Assemblywoman Marie Muhler (R-Marlboro) came within 2,085 votes of ousting him in 1980.  In those days, the district also included heavily Republican parts of Ocean County.

At the time of Howard’s death, less than three weeks before the filing deadline, former State Sen. Joseph Azzolina (R-Middletown) had already announced that he would run in 1988.

Although he was the preferred candidate of the Howard family, Pallone was not the automatic choice of Monmouth and Ocean County Democrats.  First, he had to wait and see if State Sen. Richard Van Wagner (D-Middletown) wanted to run.  Van Wagner opted out of the race and endorsed Pallone.

After Eatontown Mayor Joseph Frankel decided not to run, Pallone won the Democratic primary without opposition.

Azzolina faced a last-minute challenge for the GOP nomination.  Villane got in the race, but then got out when Monmouth GOP leaders declined to switch their candidates.  Azzolina won the Republican primary by a 67%-14% margin over Kennedy, with Scott Colabella, now the Ocean County Clerk, finishing third in a field of five candidates with 8%.

Pallone beat Azzolina by 9,545 votes, 51.6%-47.4%.  The district backed George H.W. Bush for President against Michael Dukakis by a 62%-37% margin.

After he was elected to Congress, Pallone wanted his close friend, Adam Schneider, to take his council seat.  Mayor Huhn broke a tie by appointing Bob Wainright to the seat.  Pallone took the race so seriously that he pushed then-Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Florio to come to Long Branch and endorse Schneider.  Schneider beat Wainright in a 1989 special for Pallone’s unexpired term.

Republicans almost beat Pallone in 1990 amidst a backlash against Florio’s $2.8 billion tax increase.

Two early favorites for the nomination, State Sen. John Bennett (R-Little Silver) and Assemblyman Joseph Kyrillos (R-Middletown), declined to run.  The GOP nod went to Paul Kapalko, a former Asbury Park councilman who had lost a 1989 Assembly bid and then spent six weeks in the Assembly after Palaia won a special election to fill Pallone’s State Senate seat.

Pallone beat Kapalko by just 4,170 votes, 49%-47%.

New Jersey lost one of its fifteen congressional seats in 1992, and the congressional redistricting commission drew a district that put Pallone and six-term Rep. Bernard Dwyer (D-Edison) in the same district.

After the 71-year-old Dwyer, who won re-election in 1990 with just 50.6%, decided to retire, Middlesex County Democrats backed Assemblyman Bob Smith (D-Piscataway) against Pallone in the Democratic primary.

Pallone won the primary by 6,318 votes, 55%-37%, against Smith and two other Democrats.

In the general election, Pallone defeated Kyrillos by 17,317 votes, 52%-45%.  With Middlesex County added, the district became more Democratic; Bill Clinton carried it by five points, 44%-39%, against Bush.

Pallone won re-election thirteen more times after that: 60% against Mike Herson in 1994; 61% against Assemblyman Steve Corodemus (R-Atlantic Highland) in 1996; 57% against Michael Ferguson in 1998; 68% against Brian Kennedy in 2000; 66% against Ric Medrow in 2002; 67% against Sylvester Fernandez in 2004; 69% against Leigh-Ann Bellew in 2006; 67% against Robert McLeod in 2008; 55% against Monmouth County freeholder Anna Little in 2010; 63% in a rematch against Little in 2012; 60% against Anthony Wilkerson in 2014; 64% against Brent Sonnek-Schmelz in 2016; and 63% against Richard Pezzullo in 2018.

Pallone was elected twice in November 1988 – once in a special election Howard’s unexpired term and the other for a full two-year term.   Pallone has won seventeen elections but when he takes the oath in January 2019, he will be serving his sixteenth term, since the House never held a lame duck session after the 1988 election.  Anticipating his move to Congress, Pallone resigned his State Senate seat on December 8, but was never sworn in.   He took office on January 3, 1989.

Still, the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives starts Pallone’s seniority as of November 8., 1988.  That gave Pallone a jump on anyone elected in 1988.  Today, he is #19 in seniority; he would be #24 otherwise.   Pallone’s official biography says that he was sworn in for his 15th full term on January 3, 2017.  In January, he’ll move up to #14.

U.S. SENATE

In 2002, Bob Torricelli was the Democratic U.S. Senator from New Jersey and he was dealing with the aftermath of an admonishment by the Senate Ethics Committee.

To help keep the seat in Democratic hands – Democrats had a one-seat majority in the Senate at the time, Torricelli withdrew from the race five weeks before the general election.   That was the race where 78-year-old Frank Lautenberg came out of retirement and beat Republican Doug Forrester.

The process of selecting a replacement candidate is a classic New Jersey story.  Gov. Jim McGreevey and other Democratic party leaders – including George Norcross and John Lynch — gathered at Drumthwacket to select a new candidate.  Forrester led in some public polls, and George W. Bush had a 62%-34% approval rating in New Jersey.

The first choice was Rep. Bob Menendez (D-Union City).  Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and U.S. Senator. Jon Corzine both pushed Menendez to run, but he declined.  He was the vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and was positioning himself to move into leadership and run for chairman.

Next up was Assembly Majority Leader Joe Roberts (D-Camden), who was the top choice of Norcross and Lynch.  McGreevey was prepared to back Roberts, but there was some push-back from Daschle, who worried that a state legislator lacked the stature to win an expedited statewide race.

Choice number three was Rep. Frank Pallone, who met with the Democrats at Drumthwacket and agreed to run.  The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee went as far to write a media advisory saying Pallone would be the candidate – a copy of that never-released advisory eventually made its way onto the PoliticsNJ.com website.

Pallone got cold feet – which is a polite way of saying that the presence of Norcross and Lynch in the room when he was offered a seat in the United States Senate spooked him out.  The Monmouth County congressman didn’t trust the group, especially Lynch, who tried to take him out a decade earlier when he backed Bob Smith in a Democratic primary against him.

What happened next was an amazing turn of events.  A suspicious Pallone asked for a break.  He turned off his cell phone and took a long walk through Princeton to think about his political career.  He couldn’t help but think that being offered a U.S. Senate seat was some sort of set-up to get him out of the House.  By the time he got back to Drum, he changed his mind and said no.

Democrats, now a little bit desperate to find a replacement candidate in a state that hasn’t elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972, turned to former Senator Bill Bradley – then two years removed from his campaign for president.  Bradley declined – some with knowledge of the conversation said that Bradley actually laughed out loud at the idea of returning to a place he left voluntarily because he believed the system was broken.

The fifth name on the list was former U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, who immediately said yes. (Steve Kornacki, who was a PoliticsNJ.com reporter at the time, said he reached Lautenberg on his cell phone on the way down to Princeton and the ex-Senator seemed almost giddy at the sudden fortune he was about to inherit.  Lautenberg regretted his decision not to run again in 2000 and was so miserable in retirement that he mulled running for Mayor of Paterson after Martin Barnes was arrested earlier that year.

Pallone never got another clear shot at the Senate.  He ran in the Democratic primary eleven years later after Lautenberg died, but Cory Booker beat him by a 59%-29% margin.

House Energy & Commerce Committee

After Rep. Henry Waxman (D-California) retired in 2014, Pallone became a candidate for Ranking Minority Member of the House Energy & Commerce Committee.

Despite Pallone’s seniority, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi endorsed Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-California) for the post.  The House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee followed Pelosi’s lead and backed Eshoo.

Pallone had the support of House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) and the Congressional Black Caucus.

In a vote of the full House Democratic Caucus, Pallone beat Eshoo by ten votes, 100 to 90.

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