Former (and hopeful) U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg kicked off his campaign at the Hoboken PATH station Wednesday morning greeting hundreds of commuters with a handshake and a smile - a mere 12 hours after the state Supreme Court ruled his name could replace Robert Torricelli's on the ballot for U.S. Senate. Although Republicans have vowed to take the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court, few legal experts believe the high court will take up a case so obviously a state issue.
Torricelli removed himself from the senate race with only 31 days left until the election, sending the process into the courts for determination. Under state law, a candidate must withdraw 51 days before the election in order to have another candidate named.
In a unanimous decision, the state Supreme Court said voters' need for choice outweighed the law governing the deadline.
Lautenberg, with white shirt and tan tie, stuck out his hand at the crowds, greeting the commuters as if they were old friends.
"Can I count on your vote?" he asked again and again. For the most part, he was greeted by nods and smiles. One man wearing an identification tag from Paine Webber angrily confronted Lautenberg over the issue of having the court decide the candidate rather than the voters.
Lautenberg shrugged and told the man to vote for whom he pleased, then turned back towards more friendly faces as they paraded past.
Lautenberg was accompanied by Hoboken Mayor David Roberts and Jersey City Councilman Peter Brennan, as well as campaign workers from around the county. Representatives of Gov. Jim McGreevey's office were also on hand, but stayed back from the senatorial candidate.
Many of the people in the crowd and local business people were stunned by the energy the 78-year old Lautenberg displayed as he continued to shake hands and talk with the press holding hasty street-side interviews.
Lautenberg was tapped by the Democrats within 60 hours of Torricelli's resignation, a remarkably quick reaction that - according to state Sen. Bernard Kenny -- is testimony for the strong Democratic organization under McGreevey.
"Lautenberg has the name recognition to win against [Republican Douglas] Forester," said Kenny during an earlier interview, predicting that the campaign would now shift away from Torricelli's ethics problems and onto fundamental Democratic issues such as women's right to choose, senior prescription plans, gun control and maintaining Social Security.
"We have to protect Social Security," Lautenberg said. "We have to make certain senior citizens can get their prescriptions."
Lautenberg, founder of ADP financial services, said it was also important to restore the public's faith in corporate America.
The former senator returns to the campaign trail after retiring from office two years ago. He had served as U.S. Senator for 18 years, and is known as a hands-on legislator with strong ties to Hoboken.
"I remember having a fruit fight down here [at the train terminal] with Steve Cappiello [former of Hoboken]," Lautenberg said with a laugh. "We threw grapefruit at each other. We became friends later after I got elected Senator."
Lautenberg has deep roots in Hudson County, starting off his political career as a commissioner on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. For years, he maintained a residence in Secaucus.
Mayor Roberts credited Lautenberg with bringing in federal funds to help build up the Hoboken waterfront. Lautenberg was also instrumental in developing the Light Rail and other transportation initiatives in Hudson and Bergen counties. Indeed, the Secaucus Transfer Station has been named after him for his contributions to helping get it funded. Bob Drasheff, business administrator, credited Lautenberg with rushing legislation through the Senate to fund the Hoboken waterfront development.
Lautenberg also said that he was not going to attack Republican agenda, but move his own agenda forward. He said it was critical for Democrats to keep control of the Senate in order to guarantee a fair balance of power, both in Congress and in appointments made to the courts.
Kenny in an earlier interview said the campaign would gear up to get as much exposure as possible for Lautenberg over the next 20 days.
Praise for Lautenberg has come from both main Jersey City factions of the Democratic Party, not to mention Democrats elsewhere in the county. Brian Dorf, spokesperson for Mayor Glenn Cunningham, called Lautenberg a good friend of Jersey City, and someone the mayor looked forward to working with.
Jon Corzine, the state's other U.S. Senator, sang Lautenberg's praises as well.
Mayor Roberts said the combination of Corzine and Lautenberg brought a significant amont of clout to Hoboken. Corzine moved to Hoboken recently. Kenny is also a resident.
Lautenberg's campaign, which started in Hoboken, will likely follow the Route 1 corridor, Kenny said, an area that encompasses Hudson, Essex, Passaic, Union, Middlesex and Camden counties, the core Democratic areas in the state.
Lautenberg will likely appear at the Democrats' fall function at Scheutzen Park on Oct. 10.
Menendez declines nod
U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli withdrew from the U.S. Senate race last week, sending New Jersey Democrats scrambling to find a replacement.
His resignation followed a three-year battle to overcome allegations of taking gifts from political contributors in violation of election laws. His decision came after a prominent poll showed that he had fallen behind Douglas Forrester, his Republican challenger.
After hours of closed-door meetings with Gov. Jim McGreevey, the state Attorney General and other legal staff, Torricelli emerged Monday to issue a tearful speech announcing his resignation. U.S. Senator Jon Corzine had apparently spent the weekend trying to talk Torricelli out of the move.
Torricelli is just finishing his first six-year term, and according to one poll, and had a 2-to-1 margin among Hudson County voters. Yet insiders said Democrats in Hudson County feared voters would avoid the polls rather than vote for Torricelli.
Although Rep. Robert Menendez (D-13th Dist.) of Union City was among those who might have replaced Torricelli on the ballot, he withdrew his name early. Torricelli received huge support from Democrats throughout the county for his bold move, with the same Democrats vowing to help work to see Lautenberg elected.