The late Frank Lautenberg’s departure from Congress’ upper chamber is noteworthy in that he was the last of the 115 men from the lionized Greatest Generation to have served in World War II and the United States Senate.
The 89-year old Garden State Democrat had another distinction, having died at the same job he had previously retired from in 2001.
Lautenberg was first elected to the senate in 1982 defeating Republican congresswoman Millicent Fenwick in a close race. During the campaign the then-58 year old Lautenberg made a point of exploiting his GOP opponent’s age (she was a relatively spry 72 at the time).
In 2000, the 76-year old Democrat, feeling heat from the state’s Democratic kingpin, fellow US Senator Bob Torricelli, and a potentially strong Republican opponent reluctantly announced he would not seek re-election, thus bringing to an end his time in Washington.
Or so it seemed.
In 2002 his former colleague/intra-party nemesis Bob Torricelli ran into some troubles after it was disclosed that his campaign had received illegal campaign donations. “The Torch’s” political ship was taking on water quickly before the election and that Republican candidate Doug Forrester would likely defeat the scandal-plagued Torricelli.
And then a legal kabuki played out that “torched” the concept of rule of law.
The Democrats were determined to hold the seat and if the current Democratic nominee couldn’t win then they would get another Democratic nominee.
The problem for the Democrats was that New Jersey law (19:13-20) prohibited a “nominee swap” 48 days prior to the general election. As Torricelli had bailed on the race within the period, a replacement was not legally possible.
However the Democrats were not about to let something like the law stand in the way of politics, ignored statute and went to court to pave the way for their willing and ready candidate of choice, 78-year old Frank Lautenberg.
If Lautenberg’s re-entry into the political arena at such an advanced age did not cause the late Congresswoman Fenwick to turn in her grave, what transpired in the judicial realm likely made a dozen circuits worth of deceased judges roll over in their coffins.
New Jersey’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Democrats should be able to replace damaged political goods with stale ones, citing a need to “allow the voters a choice”.
The voters had a choice all along, granted it was not an advantageous selection for the Democrats, but whose fault was it for Torricelli becoming the duly nominated candidate of their party?
That Torricelli was no longer politically invulnerable was not the law’s problem but the Democrats’.
In an act of cowardice likely stemming from its involvement in the presidential election “settlement” just two years before, the US Supreme Court opted to punt on the matter.
Apparently being fine with the entire arrangement, New Jersey voters “blessed” it by giving Lautenberg what was then his largest margin of victory (10 points) in an otherwise big year for the GOP.
It was like a game of “rock, paper, scissors” in which “paper” (Republican Forrester) trumped “rock” (tainted Democrat Torricelli) but “scissors” (bland, aged Democrat Lautenberg) trumped “paper”/Forrester.
The message was clear that for New Jersey, a decent milquetoast Republican is only preferable to an ethically radioactive Democrat, though not an old opportunist one.
And so the legal/political drama played out to its conclusion a hair over a decade later when the man who once mocked the age of his opponent to get elected to the US Senate left office feet first eight months before his 90th birthday.
New Jersey’s Republican governor Chris Christie tapped the state’s Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa to assume the duties as US Senator until the voters pick someone else the month prior the state general election.
Some Democrats have howled that Christie’s October “special election” was nothing more than a brazen attempt to insulate his gubernatorial re-election bid from being “nationalized” by sharing ballot space with a US Senate race.
And if all things were equal perhaps this would be a charge worth considering, but with their track record related to the concept of rule of law being what it is, Democrats in New Jersey have no credibility on the matter and their protests should be summarily dismissed.
New Jersey Democrats operate not by what’s right but what works. If the right law isn’t there, then they’ll find the right judge to make it up.
And so after a corruption investigation from the beginning of the previous decade and trips to the judicial and electoral woodshed, the New Jersey GOP finally has a Republican in Torricelli’s senate seat.