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Opinion: No Love Lost -- Politics as Usual in New Jersey

Politics can be a blood sport in the Garden State, but does that actually interfere with business getting done?

Ever since Gov. Chris Christie cancelled the ARC Tunnel in 2010 and Frank Lautenberg complained loudly, relations between the two of them have taken a nosedive. It's hard to remember a Jersey governor and U.S. Senator dissing one another as regularly and loudly as these two.

It flared up this winter when Lautenberg questioned whether the Rutgers-Rowan merger plan is a political deal between Christie and George Norcross. Lautenberg got his comeuppance for that when Bill Baroni set a trap for him at a hearing Lautenberg convened to look into Port Authority finances; Baroni came armed with statistics on all the free E-Z pass trips Lautenberg had enjoyed over the years as a former commissioner.

I've been wracking my brain and talking to people for examples of similar poison.

Oddly, what I've come up with is that while this is the worst it's gotten between a governor and a U.S. senator, there have been equally troubled relations between the state's two senators themselves, at least when it was Lautenberg and Bob Torricelli. Those two hated each other. They jealously competed for credit on anything good that happened for the state out of Washington, and one of them said something about cutting the other's balls off in a Democratic caucus.

Brendan Byrne got along well enough with Clifford Case and Harrison Williams. In 1978 Byrne backed Dick Leone, his Treasurer and mastermind, for U.S. Senate over Bill Bradley in the June primary, which Bradley won. It complicated their relationship, Byrne's and Bradley's, but there was no public falling out.

Tom Kean appointed his friend Nick Brady to the Senate after Williams got nabbed in Abscam, and that was a tremendously productive relationship, according to Kean. But when Lautenberg beat Millicent Fenwick in '82, Brady resigned in late December with Kean's blessing so that Lautenberg could be sworn in early and gain seniority in the Senate. Kean says he got along fine with Lautenberg and Bradley after that. In '88, Kean backed Republican Pete Dawkins' challenge against Lautenberg with sufficient fervor that some think it soured the Kean-Lautenberg relationship, although Kean doesn't remember it that way.

Jim Florio had Lautenberg and Bradley, and he remembers things as basically solid. He says Lautenberg was the expert on transportation, Bradley on taxes. But the relationship with Bradley can't have been too close. Bradley was running for a third term in 1990, the year Florio took office and hiked taxes by 2.8 billion dollars.

All summer and fall, Bradley was asked his opinion on the tax hike and wouldn't answer; he maintained it wasn't a federal issue. I remember riding in a car with him about a week before the election. Christie Whitman, the Republican candidate, was hammering him for avoiding the tax issue. I mentioned to Bradley what I thought he should have been saying -- not giving him advice, just trying to provoke a reaction. He didn't bite. He stubbornly stuck to his guns, and a little-known Whitman came within three points of beating the legend. It's hard to imagine Bradley and Florio being too chummy after that.

Whitman had Bradley and Lautenberg when she took office in '94, then Torricelli when Bradley quit the Senate after the '96 election. A person who worked for Whitman said, "With Torricelli the relationship could not have been better. With Lautenberg it could not have been worse." This person recalled that during Hurricane Floyd in '99 Whitman's people got a call from Lautenberg's people demanding that she cancel a press conference in Bound Brook that day because the senator was going to travel to Bound Brook and do his own press conference.

"No way," Lautenberg's people were told. "She declared the state of emergency, not him." There were similar trip-over-each-other episodes at the Panama Canal and on Ellis Island, according to this confidante, who describes the Torricelli camp as always cooperative in the staging of press events. "With Torricelli it was always about the rising tide lifting all boats. With Lautenberg it was always a fight, always difficult. Still, I admire him for his spunk. He loves a fight," said the source.

Whitman herself confirmed that, from her vantage point, "Torricelli was about getting things done for the state, whereas with Lautenberg it was more about where he was going to stand on the podium." She described relations with Bradley as "very cordial. He never had an ego."

Don DiFrancesco took over for Whitman in 2001 right as Lautenberg retired and Jon Corzine won election to fill the seat. DiFrancesco worked with Torricelli, the senior senator, when he wanted to get something done but enjoyed a good relationship with Corzine, who lived in Summit, which was in DiFrancesco's legislative district. "We collaborated on Chris Christie's appointment to be U.S. Attorney," DiFrancesco recalls. As for Lautenberg, he says, "I like Frank a lot. A lot of Republicans don't like him. He does have an edge to him. But when a guy gets to be 80 he can do and say things he wouldn't have said otherwise. He reminds me of some of my uncles—they'll say anything." Lautenberg is 88.

Jim McGreevey had a terrible relationship with Torricelli. They had duked it out in the summer of 2000 for the right to be putative heir to the Democratic throne, in an episode famously remembered as The Twelve Days of Bob Torricelli. McGreevey had prevailed, and after his election in 2001 he poached Torricelli's longtime right-hand-man Jamie Fox to be Transportation Commissioner and later chief of staff. Torricelli was forced out of his re-election battle in 2002 by persistent allegations of gift-taking, which is when the party brought back Lautenberg, who was only too happy to stop puttering around the house and get back to policy-making. So McGreevey had Lautenberg and Corzine.

Then, of course, McGreevey stepped down in 2004, to be succeeded by Dick Codey. Corzine wanted McGreevey to vacate office quickly so there would be a special election that November and Corzine could make a blitzkrieg to the governorship. Codey wanted McGreevey to wait three months, so there would be no special election and he could fill out the remaining 14 months of the term. That set off a Codey-Corzine rivalry that followed Codey into the governorship. Christie and Lautenberg may be sniping at each other, but Codey and Corzine were mortal rivals for awhile during Codey's time in the front office.

Corzine as governor had Lautenberg and Bob Menendez, whom he appointed to succeed himself as U.S. senator in early 2006. And that's the pair Christie inherited when he succeeded Corzine in 2010.

What's more, the rivalries were as intense among Democratic senators themselves as they were between senators and governors. Lautenberg is widely believed to have been jealous of Bill Bradley's celebrity, and his feud with Torricelli was toxic and way out in the open. People even wonder whether he and his current mate Menendez get along that well. They do events together, but they've crossed swords on who should be appointed U.S. Marshall (Menendez felt it was his call, that Lautenberg had gotten his choice Paul Fishman as U.S. Attorney), and on the appointment of Judge Patty Schwartz to the 3rd circuit court (Menendez initially blocked her; she is seen as a Lautenberg person).

Political feuds make great fodder for journalists and the people who read and listen to them. What's less clear is whether it matters to the state that its governor and one of its senators aren't speaking. "These are two tough guys," DiFrancesco says of Lautenberg and Christie. "They're like oil and water. I don't think it's ever gonna be fixed. Chris Christie views Frank Lautenberg as irrelevant, as do many other Republicans. It's unique, unusual. Governors and senators usually work well together. But I don't think it matters to the state."

Tom Kean says when he was governor, it mattered more to the state that he get along with Reps. Robert Roe and James Howard, who controlled two powerful House committees that dispensed money, than with the senators. He added, "It's helpful for everybody to get along. They're all serving the same people. I don't know what the state's losing right now, but something could come up."

Christie Whitman agrees. "It's helpful for the state because you do need things from the federal government. It's not crucial, but it's helpful."

Michael Aron is chief political correspondent of NJTV and vice president for news and public affairs at the Foundation for New Jersey Public Broadcasting.

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