It’s difficult to admit that the 2002 U.S. Senate race was so long ago that many people involved in New Jersey politics today don’t remember it. 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. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Sen. 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, who was the top choice of Norcross and Lynch. McGreevey was prepared to back Roberts, but there was some pushback from Daschle, who worried that a state legislator lacked the stature to win an expediated 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 my old website, PoliticsNJ.com.
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.
Even sixteen years later, 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 Lautenberg, who immediately said yes. I remember Steve Kornacki, who was my reporter at the time, telling me that 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.
Pallone is now the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and would become one of the most powerful men on Capitol Hill if Democrats take control of the House this year. That sounds good, until you realize that had Pallone taken the Senate seat in 2002 – no one was trying to screw him, really – he would be 24th in seniority today. Eight of the thirteen ranking Democrats on full Senate committees would have had less seniority than Pallone.