"I asked Mr. Torricelli early in his House career why he stayed on the Foreign Affairs Committee instead of getting on a good fund-raising committee like Banking or Energy and Commerce. You don't understand he replied in words I can only paraphrase after all these years. Foreign Affairs is great for fund-raising. You can raise money from Jews, Greeks, Cubans, Pakistanis, and on and on."
New Jersey Senator Robert Torricelli's announcement that he would not seek re-election in November comes as no surprise to those who have been following the Garden State turmoil.
Because Torricelli could be bought for a big-screen TV, a few Armani suits and some folding green, Democratic control of the U.S. Senate is in peril.
Just a few weeks ago, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle predicted that Torricelli would be re-elected. New Jersey voters would, said Daschle, recognize the "extraordinary" work done on their behalf and the "exceptional" leadership Torricelli had provided.
How wrong can a person be?
The good news is that Torricelli's decision spares New Jersey from having to pick between a corrupt Democratic politician and Douglas Forrester, a wealthy, inexperienced Republican financing his own campaign.
The bad news is that the choice will now be between two enormously wealthy candidates, Forrester and former New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg.
In politics, money talks. And almost always, big money wins.
Forrester spent $5 million in personal funds to win the G.O.P. nomination this summer. As the 51% owner of BeneCard, a privately held prescription-benefits company with $50 million in total assets, Forrester declares a corporate dividend payable to himself whenever his campaign needs an infusion. Recently, Forrester loaned himself nearly $6 million.
The New Jersey Democratic State Committee has filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Committee about Forrester declaring BeneCard bonuses to raise money for his election. The complaint also noted that Forrester refuses to reveal his personal income tax filings or BeneCard profit and loss statements.
Lautenberg, a billionaire who founded Automatic Data Processing, financed his first run for Senator in 1982 with $6 million in personal funds. Democrats view Lautenberg as an exceptional choice to replace Torricelli because he can sign his own checks at a fast and furious pace.
With only five weeks to go until the November election, Lautenberg must be relieved to know that not enough time remains to match the total sum shelled out by one of his New Jersey successors in the Senate. In 1998, Goldman Sachs investment banker Jon Corzine spent $30 million of his own money to win the Democratic nomination. During his successful campaign, Corzine dished out another $30 million for a staggering total of $60 million outlay.
Unfortunately, New Jersey is not an exception in the big bucks stakes for high elective office. In an era of unparalleled cynicism toward politicians, the 2002 candidates for gubernatorial and Senate offices are spending money at an unprecedented clip.
As millions pour from campaign coffers into newspaper and television ads in California, Texas, Pennsylvania, Illinois and New Jersey the questions I'd like to ask are: "Is anyone listening? Does anyone care?"
If you are like me, you can't switch channels fast enough once an image of Gray Davis or Bill Simon appears on your television screen. Yet according to a study by University of Wisconsin political science Professor Ken Goldstein, television is the number one expenditure of political campaigns.
Gary South, Davis's top political aide, projects that $40 million will be spent on television advertising by November. Without television, says South, candidates cannot "penetrate inattentive and indifferent voters."
On the importance of television—if on no other issue—the Simon camp is in complete accord with the Davis camp.
Simon, a multimillionaire business tycoon like Forrester, Lautenberg and Corzine, just pumped $5 million more of his own money so that he could get back on television.
Claiming that he is the candidate of "ideas," Simon bemoans the cash advantage incumbent Gray Davis—he of the $55 million war chest—has. More money equals more TV access.
Sal Russo, Simon's long time political strategist, says, "California is the quintessential television state. If you're not on TV, you don't exist."
I have bad news for South and Russo. The truth is that viewers would spend hours watching a high-speed freeway chase between the California Highway Patrol and a fleeing bank robber before they would spend five minutes listening to either Simon or Davis.
Help may be on the way. The McCain-Feingold campaign finance law passed in March will bar federal candidates from raising and spending soft money.
The key words in the above sentence are "may be." Politicians have proven quite nimble at getting around soft money restrictions.
In the meantime, the sky's the limit. Last week, President Bush raised $15 million for the Republican Party at galas in Washington, Texas, Arizona and Colorado. Bush topped off the week with a $2,500-per-plate dinner for Republican Senate candidates that raised another $10 million.