When Lautenberg’s age met Booker’s ambition: An elegy for the Swamp Dog

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Booker and Lautenberg. (lautenberg.senate.gov)
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It is of course transparently disingenuous, the way Cory Booker is pursuing a Senate seat in New Jersey.

The Newark mayor spent the fall pretending to weigh a gubernatorial run against Chris Christie, a ploy that earned him a wave of statewide and national media attention—a familiar trick, by now, from the Booker playbook. But his aim was never the governorship, not with Christie so well positioned to win a second term in 2013.

It’s a spot in the U.S. Senate—and with it a chance to become a Serious National Player, even more of a fixture on the Sunday talk shows, and a future prospect for his party’s national ticket—that Booker covets.

The only problem is that the job is already belongs to a Democrat, Frank R. Lautenberg, who’s held the seat for the better part of three decades, and who hasn’t yet said that he’ll retire in 2014.

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Booker isn’t letting this stop him. Just before Christmas, he wrote a public letter announcing his intention to explore the ’14 race—insisting that he would be “consulting” with Lautenberg before making up his mind. He included some obligatory praise of the incumbent senator as “one of New Jersey’s most important leaders,” but the message was clear: Step aside, old man, or I’ll come after you in a primary.

Booker followed up with a number of national television interviews in which he stated an almost comically contradictory premise by hailing Lautenberg and promising to be respectful of him, then making it clear he wants Lautenberg's job on his own timeline.

And now Booker has gone and launched a campaign committee, which will allow him to begin raising money for a ’14 bid.

“Self-absorbed and disrespectful,” is how an unnamed Lautenberg aide described the move to Politico.

More than a few Democrats will agree with that view. Lautenberg is finishing up his fifth term in the Senate, and while he won’t be remembered as one of the giants of the chamber, he has racked up some real achievements: raising the drinking age to 21, banning smoking on domestic flights, steering serious money into transportation projects to benefit the over-congested Northeast corridor, advocating with some success for the families of the Pan-Am Flight 103 victims.

Lautenberg excels at the unglamorous constituent-service work that many senators neglect, since it comes with no glory. For years, when Lautenberg and former N.B.A. star Bill Bradley both represented the state in the Senate, Jersey politicos would joke that if your Social Security check was late and you called Senator Bradley, you’d get a three-page document on his views on entitlement reform. If you called Senator Lautenberg, you’d get your check.

Let’s be honest: The primary reason Booker thinks he can force the issue of Lautenberg's retirement is Lautenberg's age. He will turn 89 next week. He’ll be 90 if he wins another term next year, and 96 if he finishes that term. That wouldn’t make Lautenberg the oldest senator ever—Strom Thurmond made it to 100—but he’d be close. And, as Democratic insiders whisper to each other regularly, if Lautenberg were to win another next year and pass away during it, there’s a good chance Christie would be empowered to select an interim senator, giving the G.O.P. its first Senate seat from New Jersey since Clifford Case was defeated in 1978.

There's another thing working against Lautenberg which his probably challenger is surely aware of: Lautenberg has some powerful enemies in the state—enemies who see in Booker a useful tool for vengeance. Last year, Lautenberg ran afoul of the preeminent Democratic powerbroker in South Jersey, George Norcross, by stepping in to blow up a pending merger between Rowan University and Rutgers-Camden—a merger that mattered greatly to Norcross and his business/political empire. That prompted Norcross’ top ally in the legislature, State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, to release a blistering letter to Lautenberg, accusing him of “unseemly grandstanding.”

Lautenberg’s political career has been defined by unlikely victories, narrow escapes, and one improbable comeback for the ages. But Booker's challenge, in the current circumstances, looks deadly.

LAUTENBERG, A PATERSON-BORN FORMER AUTOMATED Data Processing executive, entered politics at the late age of 57, seizing on what he saw as an opportunity when the Abscam scandal swallowed up Senator Harrison Williams in 1982.

Then-governor Tom Kean opted to appoint a caretaker, Nicholas Brady, to replace Williams, setting up open primaries for both parties.

Lautenberg jumped into what quickly became an eight-way Democratic field. He had no name recognition and his pollster, Peter Hart, bluntly told him that he was “a pygmy among pygmies.” But he did have some serious money, and he spent heavily, nudging his way into contention in the June ’82 primary. He also caught a huge break when Barbara Sigmund Boggs, the daughter of the late Louisiana congressman Hale Boggs, abandoned her plans to run for the House and jumped into the Senate donnybrook instead. With her base among Princeton-area liberals, Boggs ended up siphoning votes from the favorite, former Bergen County representative Andrew Maguire. On primary day, Lautenberg won with just 26 percent of the vote.

The general election was an even tougher lift. Republicans, who had revolted in the ’78 primary and thrown out Case in favor of a right-wing Ronald Reagan speechwriter named Jeffrey Bell, returned to their senses and handed their nomination to Millicent Fenwick, a thoroughly old school liberal-Republican congresswoman with a national reputation. (She was said to be the inspiration for the Lacey Davenport character in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury.)

A former model and Vogue editor, Fenwick ran on what today we would recognize as a progressive Democratic platform: abortion rights, ERA, stepped-up aid to the poor, fewer tax breaks for the rich. She told Ronald Reagan, his popularity then tanking as the early ‘80s recession exacted a gruesome toll, to stay away from the state. Polls that summer put her 18 points ahead, and Lautenberg even called her “the most popular candidate in the country.”

But again Lautenberg dipped into his own pockets, outspending his opponent two to one. He played up Reagan’s unpopularity, arguing that a vote for Fenwick would only give the president and his party more power. He also made her age, 72, an issue. He reminded voters that a Senate term runs for six years and that she’d be pushing 80 at the end of it, and pointed out that Gerald Ford had once called Fenwick “a little eccentric.” Whatever the exact cause, Lautenberg posted a major upset on Election Day, besting Fenwick by three points.

The victory didn’t exactly make Lautenberg Mr. Popularity. New Jersey is a tough place for a politician to cultivate and sustain an image, and in the ‘80s he was overshadowed by Bradley and Kean, who won reelection with a staggering 71 percent of the vote in ’85. It was those two, and not Lautenberg, who were talked up as national players.

Lautenberg did get a brief moment in the spotlight at the Democrats’ 1984 convention, speaking to the San Francisco gathering on the first night. But whatever Lautenberg said that evening was almost immediately forgotten when Mario Cuomo took to the stage the same night and delivered the most memorable keynote of the modern era.

So Lautenberg was hardly a shoo-in when he faced the voters again in 1988, especially when Republicans recruited a candidate with a dream resume: Brigadier General Pete Dawkins, a decorated military man and Rhodes Scholar who’d won the Heisman Trophy at West Point in 1958. But Dawkins had been living and working most recently in New York City, making a small fortune at Lehman Brothers. Lautenberg raised Dawkins' residency status and an ugly-–even by Jersey standards—campaign ensued. Aided by a young campaign manager named James Carville, Lautenberg was reelected by eight points, but Dawkins managed to stick his foe with a nickname that's still in use by political people old enough to remember it: the Swamp Dog.

The ‘90s brought their own challenge for Lautenberg, and every other New Jersey Democrat. After winning election as governor with ease in 1989, Democrat James Florio had signed a $2.8 billion tax hike package that set off a full-fledged tax revolt. Protesters descended on Trenton by the thousands, decorating trees with toilet paper (to protest the new “disposable paper tax”) and screaming for Florio’s head. The governor’s approval rating sank to less than 20 percent. When Bradley refused to take a position on the tax hike, he came within an inch of losing his seat in his 1990 reelection, even though he outspent his opponent, a then-unknown Christine Todd Whitman, nine to one. The next year, popular rage decimated the Democrats’ state legislative ranks in midterm elections, and Florio ended up losing his seat in 1993.

That was the same year that President Clinton proposed his plan to balance the budget, which called for a mix of spending cuts and income-tax hikes on the top 1.2 percent of earners. No Republicans in the Senate went along with it, and six Democrats said no, too. Lautenberg, his seat up in 1994, was one of them. (It was only Al Gore’s tie-breaking vote that saved the Clinton budget, which ended up being a major reason for the surpluses the country was running by the end of the decade.) By November ’94, the tax revolt was dying down, just enough for Lautenberg to withstand a challenge from Assembly Speaker Garabed “Chuck” Haytaian, 50 to 47 percent.

FOR A WHILE, IT LOOKED LIKE THAT WOULD be the last race Lautenberg would ever run. In early 1999, as he turned 75, he began looking with trepidation at the 2000 race. Whitman, wrapping up her second term as governor, was making noise about running. Polls showed her ahead. Kean, forever flirting with a comeback after leaving the governorship a decade earlier, was also in the mix, and also leading Lautenberg. There was also the matter of Lautenberg’s new nemesis, Robert Torricelli, a Democrat who’d been elected to the Senate in 1996.

The Torch was an ambitious strategic thinker, and he knew where the money was. He raised a ton for his ’96 campaign, and his Senate colleagues saw a chance for him to do the same for them, so they made him the DSCC chairman for 2000. But he and Lautenberg didn’t get along, to put it mildly. Lautenberg was suspicious that Torricelli was too friendly with Whitman. At a gathering of Democratic senators in 1999, Lautenberg rose to address his concerns with Torricelli, who, according to a Roll Call report at the time, sought Lautenberg out after the session and said, “I’m going to cut your [genitals] off.”

It was around this time that Lautenberg opted not to seek a fourth term in 2000. He brushed off talk that he was scared off by the prospect of running against Whitman or Kean, saying he’d been vulnerable in past races and that “Mr. Vulnerable always wins.” Almost as soon as he made the announcement, though, he began telling those close to him that he’d made a major mistake.

By all accounts, the next two years of Lautenberg’s life were miserable. He missed the Senate daily, regretted giving up his seat (especially after Whitman declined to run), and seemed resigned to living out his life wondering what might have been. And then came one of those only-in-Jersey twists: The sudden implosion of Torricelli’s 2002 reelection campaign.

Torricelli had been dogged by questions for years over his relationship with a wealthy donor and had narrowly avoided indictment in early ’02. That imperiled his campaign for a second term, but when a damning prosecutor’s memo was released just over a month before the election, Democrats in Trenton and Washington demanded that he exit the race. Torricelli eventually complied, asking tearfully at his goodbye press conference, “When did we become such unforgiving people?” 

Suddenly, Republicans were in the driver’s seat for their first Senate victory in New Jersey since 1972. National Democrats, clinging to a one-seat majority in the chamber, demanded that a brand-name replacement candidate be recruited. Bradley, content in his retirement from elected politics, passed. So did a handful of congressmen. That left 78-year-old Frank Lautenberg, who quickly agreed and found himself back on a New Jersey ballot just a month before Election Day. It was the break of a lifetime, and he coasted from there. Most New Jersey voters hadn’t even realized that he’d left in the first place, and he ended up beating the earnest, forgettable Republican Doug Forrester by nearly ten points.

The question then was how long Lautenberg would stick around. His seat would be up in 2008, and those who knew him insisted he’d run again, health permitting. After all, he’d seen what life without the Senate was like and he’d hated it. Why would he voluntarily go back to that again?

But not everyone believed that. By the summer of 2003, two Democrats were making their interest in the ’08 race clear: Bergen County-based congressman Steve Rothman and State Senator John Adler, from South Jersey. Each said all the right things about deferring to Lautenberg, but the senator didn’t appreciate it; he took to calling them “the pallbearers” in private conversations. (As it turned out, Adler won a House seat in 2008, lost it narrowly in the 2010 G.O.P. landslide, then died from a heart infection in 2011. Rothman stayed in his safe House seat through the 2010 midterm, then watched as his district was merged with that of Rep. Bill Pascrell, who thrashed him in a head-to-head primary last spring, likely ending Rothman's career.)

Lautenberg did end up getting a primary challenge in ’08, but it’s best remembered—if it’s remembered at all—for its ineptness. Rob Andrews, a South Jersey congressman who had been an up-and-come in the late ‘90s only to lose a gubernatorial primary to Jim McGreevey, tried to line up the state’s most powerful county Democratic organizations and stage a surprise attack on Lautenberg. For a brief moment, it seemed like it might work, but some help from on-the-make congressman Bob Menendez—who was eager to show national Democrats that he could put out a fire in his home state—killed the Andrews plot and kept most organizations loyal to the incumbent. That, coupled with Andrews’ unpopular vote for the Iraq war in 2002, resulted in an easy Lautenberg win in the primary, followed by an easy general election win over former then-congressman Dick Zimmer. In the Obama year of 2008, there was little general-election suspense in New Jersey.

THE BOOKER CHALLENGE FEELS DIFFERENT, THOUGH.

Booker was a national celebrity long before he ever won a mayoral election, and can raise money like few politicians in America. 

He has his issues within Newark, where he didn't break 60 percent of the vote in his most recent re-election campaign. But he’s a genuine political rock star among Democrats statewide. Polls show him crushing Lautenberg two-to-one in Democratic primary trial heats.

Funny things can and frequently do happen in New Jersey, and it’s too much to say that Booker is a lock. But Lautenberg is in a deeper hole than he’s ever been in, opposed, it seems, by a stronger candidate than he’s ever faced.

The smart money says he calls it a career soon rather than face the voters again. And, if the past is any indication, that he'll regret it for the rest of his life.

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