By John Burton
The death of U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg this week has area elected officials weighing in with their thoughts about the senator’s life and legacy – and much speculation about his eventual successor.
Lautenberg, 89, died Monday, June 3, of complications from viral pneumonia bringing to an end a long, distinguished career in the U.S. Senate for the Democrats. His death has also forced Gov. Chris Christie to announce that a special election will be held Oct 16, with a special primary scheduled for Aug. 13. The governor appointed state Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa Thursday to serves senator for the interim.
The deadline for potential candidates to file a petition to run in the primary is Monday, June 10. Candidates must file their petitions with the required 1,000 signatures by then, according to John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.
The cost of the primary and special election is about $24 million, according to the state’s Office of Legislative Services.
“For anyone who has ever thought that they would like to be a senator from New Jersey, this is a complicated moment,” Weingart said. “They have to act very quickly.”
Christie, a Republican, said this week that it was “no secret that Sen. Lautenberg and I didn’t always agree and we didn’t always get along. We had our fights. We had our words, but I always respected the vigor which he put into his job each and every day,” Christie said, who called Lautenberg “a true public servant.”
U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-6th, who has served in Congress since 1988 and whose district covers much of Monmouth County, said Lautenberg was more than a colleague to him. “No question he was a mentor for me,” said Pallone who has been mentioned as a possible Democratic successor to Lautenberg.
Pallone, however, declined to comment on whether he would seek the office.
Pallone said Lautenberg, who was first elected to the Senate in 1982 to 2001 and then from 2003 until his death, shared many of his concerns, including the environment, health care and an unsuccessful battle with the Pentagon and Congress over trying to save Fort Monmouth from being closed.
Pallone said he and Lautenberg worked often on legislation.
“He was known to get things done down here in Congress,” Pallone said, recalling Lautenberg’s work on transportation matters, beach replenishment and adoption of a bill for cleaner beaches and water that required regular water testing and beach closings to protect the public when there was contamination
“He would tackle the problem and try to come up with a solution,” Pallone said. “He really believed Congress could make a difference in people’s lives.”
From the other side of the political aisle state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos Jr., R-13th, who represents part of Monmouth County and who ran unsuccessfully last year for the senate seat held by Robert Menendez, has been coming up on everyone’s short list of possible names to fill the seat. He too declined to talk about whether he would run.
Kyrillos said that Lautenberg “lived a great American life and has my admiration and respect.”
Menendez, New Jersey’s junior senator, released a statement this week praising Lautenberg as “a fighter for New Jersey families and the causes he believed in.”
U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-12th, is another person party insiders say has expressed interest in the job. He also worked closely with Lautenberg over the years. “Frank was dogged; he was persistent,” Holt said in a statement. “Frank did his homework; he knew what he was talking about and he just kept fighting.”
Vin Gopal, Monmouth County Democratic chairman said, “Frank Lautenberg was one of the gutsiest elected officials I think the Democratic Party ever had.”
Gopal noted Lautenberg’s well-publicized battles with GOP leaders, including Christie and President George W. Bush. “He (Lautenberg) had a lot of courage,” he said.
Lautenberg, Gopal noted, “didn’t always have the political bug in him,” coming to elected office relatively late in life – in his late 50s – following a successful career in a private sector business as one of the founders of ADP.
In addition to Pallone, Holt and Kyrillos, those talked about as possible candidates include Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat who previously announced his plans to run in 2014 – even before Lautenberg announced he would not seek another six-year term.
“I strongly believe,” along with Booker, “Congressmen Pallone and Holt will be running,” Gopal said.
Usually before undertaking such a campaign, potential candidates evaluate the field, do polling and seek advice. Without that lead time, Weingart said, Booker would seem to have the advantage, given his high name recognition and fundraising capability. But the political scientist also noted that Holt and Pallone have long histories in public office and have, especially in Pallone’s case, substantial political war chests.
On the GOP side, Kyrillos has had a close friendship with Christie, going back to their college days, with Kyrillos working for Christie’s first campaign.
Earlier in the week Weingart suspected correctly that in the interim Christie would name someone who isn’t interested in running for the full term. Chiesa said he would not run.
Weingart was surprised about Christie’s decision to hold a special election because by appointing someone who would serve the remainder of Lautenberg’s term, that Republican candidate presumably, would be in good position to win the seat, not held by a Republican for almost 40 years.
“It’s all speculation,” Weingart acknowledged. “We’ll see.”