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Distant Second in Polls Not Likely to Put Pallone Within Reach of Frontrunner

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If the family of Frank Lautenberg had its way, U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (d-6th) would claim the seat the late senator vacated when he died in office this spring. Calling Pallone the senator’s “go-to guy” in the House of Representatives, widow Bonnie Englebardt Lautenberg and her son, Josh, have formally endorsed Pallone and stumped with him on the campaign trail.

Yet if the polls and pundits are right, the Lautenbergs’ endorsement and veiled public digs at campaign frontrunner Cory Booker will have little effect on the outcome of the race. Even running in second place in the latest poll of likely Democratic primary voters, released by Quinnipiac University on Wednesday, Pallone trails the dynamic Newark mayor by 54 to 17 percent. In a campaign as compressed as this one, observers feel there’s little Pallone can do to make up that margin.

“It’s obviously a very short timetable for the race so it makes the advantage for the initial frontrunner that much greater,” said John Weingart, associate director, Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. “The difficulty he and many other members of Congress have is getting to be known outside the district. So despite his long years in Congress and high visibility within his district, he’s not particularly well known. It’s a tall order.”

A Long Branch resident who represents most of Middlesex and some of Monmouth County, Pallone, the son of a police officer, was born in the town he now calls home. The 62-year-old married father of three attended Middlebury and the Tufts University Fletcher School of Diplomacy before earning a law degree from Rutgers. His ethnically diverse and residential district includes Rutgers and Monmouth University and counts New Brunswick, Asbury Park, and Perth Amboy as its urban centers. Before being elected to Congress, Pallone served two terms on Long Branch city council and two terms in the state Senate.

Pallone also suffers by running in a four-way race. Not only must he differentiate himself from Booker, whose relationship with Gov. Chris Christie he calls “troubling,” he must also make the case against Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) and fellow U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-12th), whose liberal voting record parallels Pallone’s.

“When you don’t have a two-way primary, whatever anti-Booker sentiment there may be gets divided,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of The Cook Political Report.

Pallone has tried to distinguish himself from Booker by calling him out for skipping at least four candidates’ forums (though he did join a televised debate on August 5) and he’s criticized all three of his opponents for “lack of transparency and accountability” because they ignored his request to sign a “People’s Pledge” against outside special interest money. He also points out in a televised ad that he is the only candidate who helped President Obama write the affordable care act.

Otherwise, Pallone has kept his campaign vitriol-free and declined to comment on attack ads and mailers funded by Victor V. Scudiery, who was chairman of the Monmouth County Democratic Committee throughout most of Pallone’s political career.

Scudiery, a strong Booker supporter, says he’s looking beyond this campaign cycle and seeking to fund efforts to defeat Pallone if and when he runs for reelection to the House in 2014. Calling Pallone “unresponsive and ineffective as our Shore representative,” Scudiery’s ads accuse him of failing to protect Fort Monmouth from closure and of neglecting to work for the reopening of Sandy Hook after superstorm Sandy. However, Pallone’s legislative website trumpets efforts to lobby the National Park Service to reopen the park and heralds his assistance in securing $37 million in federal funding for its recovery.

And although Fort Monmouth’s catchment area spills into Pallone’s district, the base itself is located within the 4th Congressional District and represented by Rep. Chris Smith (D-4th). Nevertheless, in 2011, Pallone helped try to keep the base’s commissary open for two years past the base’s closing date.

Scudiery’s attacks come as little surprise to those familiar with New Jersey politics. Although the Monmouth County Democratic Party endorsed its native son, Pallone isn’t known to kowtow to party bosses throughout the state. South Jersey powerbrokers, led by Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-Cherry Hill) and businessman George Norcross, have endorsed Booker. Although nearly two dozen Middlesex County political leaders have endorsed Pallone, the county’s party itself hasn’t officially endorsed anyone in the race.

Cook House Editor David Wasserman says Pallone is viewed as an outsider in Middlesex County, which holds most of the district’s Democratic votes and whose party leaders believe the seat should be held by a county resident. Further, he campaigned as an outsider when he first entered politics -- successfully running for Long Branch city council on a pro-environment platform -- and as Wasserman said, he “doesn’t come from the New Jersey Democratic Machine.”

So Pallone must look for support on his own -- finding it in the likes of former congressman Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), the Recreational Fishing Alliance. and the State Council of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association. Though his endorsements could be viewed as relatively ineffectual, they haven’t stopped him from outpacing two of his opponents in fundraising. As of June 30, he had $3.3 million cash on hand, compared with $1 million for Holt and below the minimum reporting amount for Oliver. Booker, however, led with $4.5 million.

Booker, a legendary Twitter user, also dominates Pallone in social media influence. He boasts 1.4 million Twitter followers, most of them from outside Newark, while Pallone’s campaign and House accounts total just 11,600. Pallone says with such a short campaign it’s more effective to contact potential voters directly and argues that his 25 years of experience in Congress coupled with his immaculate ethical record can sway undecided voters.

“I have the experience in congress and I get things done,” he said. “I think it’s important to have a clean record because that’s what should be expected.”

But Pallone might have saved himself the trouble of running against a charismatic rising star like Booker if he’d only run in 2002, when he turned down an offer to run in place of Bob Torricelli, who backed out of his re-election campaign at the last minute, and in 2005, when he gave up his preliminary bid to eventual winner Bob Menendez.

Now, if Pallone loses, he’ll be able to keep his House seat. But most suspect that unless Menendez gets tapped to join a presidential administration or leaves for some other unforeseen reason, Pallone won’t get another chance to pursue his ambition to become a senator.

So while Duffy said, “If I were in his position I would run too . . . I don’t see whole lot of downside to this,” it’s these types of sacrificed opportunities that lead her colleague Wasserman to remark, “He’s one of the most dedicated and hardworking liberals in the House. He also may be one of the less politically savvy members of Congress.”

It’s the hardworking part of that statement that Pallone considers his chief advantage. Pointing to his record on getting environmental legislation passed to clean up oceans and shore up coastlines, his ability to secure grants and reimbursements to Sandy victims and deliver large aid packages to other storm-relief efforts, and his work as a coauthor of the Affordable Care Act, Pallone says he’s extremely proud of his effectiveness. “My [record] is second to none in terms of significance of legislation that can make a difference,” he said.

Calling the Affordable Care Act the most important thing he’s done in Congress, Pallone says he worries about “the little guy” getting left behind by the slash-and-burn policies of Tea Party activists and their Republican followers who attempt to, as Pallone said, “cut everything.”

His biggest priority as a lawmaker is to grow the economy, which he hopes to do by investing in R&D, reaching across the aisle to work with moderate Republicans, and closing loopholes in the corporate tax structure, something he believes will ultimately encourage domestic job growth and raise revenue. To ease life for the lower and middle classes, he aims to lift the sequester, preserve social security and Medicare, and rewrite the personal tax code to make it more economically equitable.

He does have the platforms from which to enact change. He’s Communications Chair of the Democratic Policy Committee, which allows him to develop and coordinate the party’s message on the floor of the House. He serves as a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees energy, environment, healthcare, commerce and telecommunications, and he’s the highest-ranking Democrat [and former chair] on the Subcommittee on Health, which has jurisdiction over Medicaid, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and Medicare. In this role, he’s dedicated part of his time to introducing legislation that seeks to ensure access to safe drugs and medical devices, modernize the food safety system, and extend healthcare coverage to greater numbers of low- and middle-income children. He also sits on the Committee's Environment and Economy Subcommittee and the Communications and Technology Subcommittee and is a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, which sets policy for fisheries, oceans, and the coasts.

Tara Nurin is a freelance journalist based on the Camden waterfront. Since leaving a ten-year career as a TV news reporter in 2005, she’s worked as a national columnist, city editor, features reporter, publicity director and documentary producer. The award-winning reporter has lived all over the world and is fluent in Spanish and French.

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