Senator Torch

Posted: Sep 05, 2002 12:00 AM
UNION CITY, N.J.--A New Jersey joke: ``Why do people take an instant dislike to Sen. Robert Torricelli? To save time.'' Douglas Forrester believes that Torricelli--who has been hauled before the ethics committees of both houses of Congress--is making New Jersey the butt of jokes. So on this day Forrester, corporate gray in his suit and temperament, is splashing through rain puddles, shaking Hispanic hands, trying to become the first Republican elected to the Senate from this state in 30 years. Forrester, 49, is a former seminarian challenging the man known as the Torch because he scorches opponents by (as one observer puts it) using ``the temper tantrum as a communication tool.'' Forrester says, ``The idea that New Jersey is not normal needs to be dispelled.'' That idea will be ratified if Torricelli, 51, wins re-election with a campaign strategy well-characterized as a plea bargain: I am embarrassing, but if I lose, Republicans might control the Senate and destroy peace and freedom. Forrester is a moderate, pro-choice Northeastern Republican who eschews what he calls ``Arizona and Idaho-type ideas.'' Forrester leads 48-30 among voters who know that the Senate Ethics Committee recently ``severely admonished'' Torricelli. Forrester will tell the rest that Torricelli says he was unaware that there are rules against taking--from a man now in prison for illegally funneling $53,700 to Torricelli's 1996 campaign--a $4,000 grandfather clock, a $9,200 Rolex watch, 12 handmade Italian suits, cufflinks, a stereo, a big-screen TV, three pairs of diamond earrings and more. Torricelli's response to the ethics committee, which effectively called him a liar, was exquisitely Clintonian: ``It has always been my contention that I believe that at no time did I accept gifts or violate any Senate rules.'' Savor that ``my contention that I believe.'' He took ``full personal responsibility'' for having broken ``no laws'' and promised to ``learn from this painful experience,'' which has taught him that ``life is a complicated formula'' and ``character is a complex question.'' Got it? Torricelli, whose feverish careerism makes him the Energizer Bunny--perhaps the Energizer Ferret--of American politics, also is a human Enron in a year of handcuffed CEOs doing perp walks. His hometown newspaper has demanded his resignation. The largest paper in South Jersey says, ``Torricelli cannot remove the stench of corruption, even if he showers from now until Election Day.'' The Newark Star-Ledger says Torricelli considers New Jersey ``a state of 8 million Tony Sopranos.'' Ouch. Torricelli once said that as a young Italian-American he was upset by watching televised Senate hearings into the Mafia--hearings that ended when he was five days old. Torricelli calls the gift scandal ``a lapse of judgment.'' One paper tartly called it the longest lapse in history. Indeed. ``Torricelli Charged'' read the 1971 headline in the Rutgers student newspaper. His election as president of the sophomore class was invalidated because of ``gross unethical conduct.'' Criticized for making a huge profit on a stock deal not available to the public, he said henceforth he would invest only in mutual funds. But henceforth soon expired and he made a bundle on a drug stock later found to have been illegally manipulated by a man who had illegally given $20,000 to Torricelli's 1996 campaign. In 1999 he dissolved his blind trust and turned $5,000 into $225,000 in an Internet startup deal not generally available to the public. Torricelli says being a Republican is a character flaw, as is running a pharmacy benefits management company, which Forrester does. PBMs, which serve 190 million Americans, are hired, at the recommendation of independent consultants, to be middlemen between pharmaceutical companies and insurers (governments, companies). PBMs broker reduced costs for pharmaceuticals, for which service they make a profit. Torricelli is scandalized. But the pharmaceutical industry is New Jersey's largest, and Torricelli has received more pharmaceutical industry contributions than any other Senate candidate. Torricelli faults Forrester, whose only elective office was mayor of West Windsor 20 years ago, for inexperience. Forrester says he is glad not to have had Torricelli's experiences. And he notes that New Jersey's Sen. Jon Corzine and its recent senators Bill Bradley and Frank Lautenberg all made senator their first elective office. Torricelli trumpets his foreign policy experience. Forrester trumpets Torricelli telling a meeting of Muslim extremists nine years ago that ``America has little to teach and much to learn.'' Forrester's stiff formality calls to mind the story that Sen. John Calhoun once wrote a poem beginning, ``Whereas ...'' But Forrester the prosaic might extinguish the Torch.