Op-Ed: Oldtime Politics, Protocol Mark Incumbent’s Response to Senate Seat Rival

Carl Golden | February 14, 2013 | Opinion
Veteran Frank Lautenberg takes familiar tact in face of challenge from wunderkind Cory Booker

When Newark Mayor Cory Booker announced in December that he intended to seek a U. S. Senate seat in 2014 rather than run for governor this year, the ensuing rush to judgment was that incumbent Sen. Frank Lautenberg would choose to retire rather than take on a well-financed, well-organized primary election opponent less than half his age.

In the intervening weeks, Lautenberg has taken every opportunity to swat away both the rush and the judgment, needling Booker along the way and, according to numerous published reports, telling intimates that he intended to seek re-election next year, despite reaching 90 years of age.

Lautenberg has never created any doubt that he thoroughly enjoys life in the Senate, even ruefully admitting that his retirement in 2000 was a mistake and that his comeback two years later was a restorative experience. He’s had health issues — he’s a cancer survivor, for instance, and recently missed a number of Senate votes because of a prolonged bout with the flu and bronchitis — but maintains a rigorous political and social schedule.

There is a belief that Lautenberg remains annoyed with Booker for announcing his intention to run without attempting to first determine the senator’s plans and that his frequent hints at seeking re-election are more a reflection of his pique than an indication of his intentions. Booker, he felt, failed to pay the proper deference to a sitting U. S. senator and there is a price to be paid for that failure.

The predictions of a Lautenberg retirement were accompanied by speculation that Democratic party leaders would fall into line behind a Booker candidacy and deliver an unmistakable message to the senator that he could not count on their support in the primary and that the wiser course for him would be to step aside gracefully and go out a winner rather than suffer the ignominy of being cast aside by his own party.

The ramifications of sending a 90-year-old back to the Senate for six more years were openly discussed and concern was voiced that, should Lautenberg become incapacitated and forced to resign, Gov. Chris Christie would, under the state constitution, appoint a fellow Republican to fill out the term and be in a position to run for the seat as the incumbent. The last time New Jersey voters sent a Republican to the Senate was 1972, a Democratic win streak of more than 40 years and one the party would prefer to remain intact.

At the moment, though, Lautenberg is having none of it. He is a ferocious campaigner and skilled political infighter, someone who’s demonstrated he’s not the least bit shy about using not so subtle personal references to his opponents.

Consider: In 1982, he suggested that his Republican opponent, Congresswoman Millicent Fenwick, at 72, was on the verge of senility (Lautenberg was a youthful 58 at the time). In 1988, he accused his opponent, retired Brigadier General of the Army Pete Dawkins, of being an unprincipled carpetbagger who moved from state to state to find one which would respond favorably to his candidacy. In 1994, he intimated his opponent, Assembly Speaker Chuck Haytaian, was racist because he was the guest of a right-wing radio talk show host who uttered provocative comments. In 2002, he suggested that his opponent, businessman Douglas Forrester, was a draft dodger because he hadn’t served in the military.

In 2008, Camden County Congressman Rob Andrews mounted a primary challenge to Lautenberg and was crushed after the senator said his colleague was untrustworthy because he’d broken his word not to run.

He’s already brought his campaign style to bear on Booker, comparing the mayor to a child who deserved a spanking; as a mayor who spent more time traveling than governing while ignoring the problems of the state’s largest city. At one point, when Booker spoke about the need for gun control to curb weapons-related violence, a Lautenberg staff member accused the mayor of stealing the senator’s ideas and marketing them as his own.

Booker has kept his own counsel thus far. He hasn’t risen to Lautenberg’s bait, wisely understanding that publicly trading rhetorical barbs could quickly turn ugly and damage everyone involved. While party leaders would prefer harmony and a peaceful outcome, they view Booker as someone who could not only win the Senate seat next year but who, at age 43, could keep it in the party’s hands for at least another 30 years.

They would also prefer to avoid being seen as ungratefully shoving a reluctant Lautenberg out the door, but may be willing to do that if the senator resists pleas to leave voluntarily.

For his part, Lautenberg appears to be hugely enjoying himself, throwing sharp elbows at Booker occasionally while encouraging speculation that 90 years old is a state of mind rather than a chronological impediment to his candidacy. Recalling his 1982 Senate campaign, 90, he might say, is the new 58.