TOPICS > Politics

Sen. Torricelli Bows Out

September 30, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Now, for more on Torricelli’s decision, and what it means, we’re joined by Richard Berke, chief political correspondent for The New York Times, and Dan Balz, national political reporter for The Washington Post. Welcome to you both.

Bob Torricelli is considered one of the most combative, partisan members of the United States Senate, Dan. What brought him to this? What brought him this realization?

DAN BALZ: I think it was as he said. It was the realization that he was likely to lose this Senate seat. And that If he lost this seat, the Democrats could well lose control of the Senate. He worked very hard as he noted in his comments today at his press conference as chairman of the Democratic Senate campaign committee in the past to get a Democratic majority in the Senate and I think in the end he was loathe to see it lost simply on his failings.

MARGARET WARNER: Rick Berke, did he come to this entirely on his own or was he nudged or pushed?

RICHARD BERKE: I think he came, from what I’m hearing, he came to it on his own largely because we talked to some Senate Democrats today who were stunned by his decision and a couple of them said they tried to talk him out of it and tried to tell him to take a deep breath and think about it a little bit before announcing it. But the one thing, I’ll say, as Dan alluded to, this is such an irony for the Democrats. Here was a guy who was out there helping the Democrats regain the Senate last time through his work as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He was the one responsible more than any other senator for taking back the Senate. And then he suddenly became the most vulnerable Senate incumbent.

MARGARET WARNER: Dan, the bad news just kept coming didn’t it, even after the Senate Ethics Committee report. There was something from the prosecutors last week.

DAN BALZ: There was a prosecutors memo that was unsealed which basically said that the prosecutors believed many of the charges that David Chang, the businessman who is now in prison, had made against Torricelli but they chose not to prosecute because… for some other reasons, but not because they didn’t think his comments and his charges against Torricelli were credible. And I think what happened… I mean, a person close to Torricelli told me today that that memo was, as he put it, one more brick than the load could carry. And I think it convinced the senator that there was no way he was ever going to be able to change the subject in this race, that it would always be about him and his ethical problems and never about the issues on which he thought he could win.

MARGARET WARNER: Rick, remind us just how important this New Jersey Senate race had become.– we heard Torricelli refer to it — in this battle for the Senate.

RICHARD BERKE: Well this was a race that wasn’t a race. As recently as earlier this summer, there was no real contest. The national parties weren’t putting money into it because they really didn’t think… they thought he had a safe seat. There was a sense that the relatively mild reprimand that Sen. Torricelli got from the Senate would be enough to let him get beyond — move beyond this whole investigation. It turned out that didn’t happen. We’ve seen him suddenly sinking in the polls, which means that the seat that they thought was not vulnerable was completely vulnerable. That’s tough when you have a really neck-and-neck race for control of the Senate that could go either way. So the fortunes have just changed. Suddenly this seat is so competitive and the Republicans and the Democrats find themselves pouring money and resources into it.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Dan, what do the Democrats do now? It’s no easy matter, I gather, to get somebody else on the ballot at this point.

DAN BALZ: Well, first they have to find a willing candidate and they’re going to try to do that overnight. I think Congressman Robert Menendez is probably the leading choice, although not the only choice. There are a couple of other congressmen who are under consideration or being talked about: Frank Pallone, and Rob Andrews.

But then they have to make sure they can get him on the ballot. That is going to involve a court fight. The Republicans say that there is… that the Democrats can’t put another name on the ballot at this point, that under New Jersey law it is too late to replace Torricelli with another candidate. The Democrats are going to try to get the courts to go along with them, but there will be a legal battle that will ensue over the next several days about that. And whoever gets on the ballot will come with some taint because of that court fight. The Democrats think in the long run that they can win that, a, and b, that by the time you get to the election that won’t be the real issue. The issue will be whose issues are the ones that are more in tune with New Jersey.

MARGARET WARNER: Rick, Torricelli says he’s petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to take his name off the ballot. Does the U.S. Supreme Court get involved or did he misspeak? Did he mean the State Supreme Court?

RICHARD BERKE: I think it’s the State Supreme Court. I don’t know anything about the… I can’t see right away the U.S. Supreme Court getting involved in this. One thing that I think is particularly stunning’ what happened today is this is a man who, in his concession, sort of said that Bill Clinton was one of his heroes, one of his role models. This is a politician who is very aggressive, ambitious and doesn’t back down easily.

So the fact that he’s dropping out of a race, that he so aggressively wanted to be a U.S. senator, it’s a real surprise to everyone. And it shows that he really thought that he was in trouble because no one ever thought this would happen.

MARGARET WARNER: But now, Rick, if he wanted to really make it easier for the Democrats, if he had resigned his Senate seat, then it would have been a much easier path, wouldn’t it?

RICHARD BERKE: It would. But I think they’re figuring with the state party in control, the state run by a Democratic governor and a Democratic attorney general, I think the sense is right now that they’ll be able to prevail and get another Democrat on the ballot.

MARGARET WARNER: Dan, just address that too if you would, whether Torricelli ever thought about also resigning from the Senate because just to explain as I understand, if he also resigned from the Senate, then the governor under the existing law could have appointed a replacement for both. He would be on the ballot and it would be done.

DAN BALZ: It seemed to be an easier path if he had resigned his seat from the Senate. Even the Republicans acknowledge that and I think they expected that that would be the course. I think some Democrats also thought that. But one person I talked to who I think knows Torricelli well said that that was one indignity more than Sen. Torricelli was prepared to accept given the fact that he was pulling out of the race. So I think that that was a non-starter, and several people close to Torricelli said today that there has not been any discussion that they’ve been involved in with Torricelli that involved resigning his seat.

MARGARET WARNER: As a theoretical matter though, if this attempt to get another Democrat on the ballot were to run into serious trouble, Torricelli could still resign his seat, could he not?

DAN BALZ: Well, I think that’s true, but I think every day is crucial here. We’re, you know, we’re within a window in terms of the election that it becomes a point at which you probably can’t replace his name on the ballot even if he were to resign the seat. I know the lawyers have been pouring over New Jersey election law. It is a little bit unclear as to what you do in all of these circumstances. Both sides obviously are preparing their arguments. But something has to happen very quickly. And the Democrats have to more quickly in the courts in order to try to assure that they get a new name on the ballot.

MARGARET WARNER: Rick, what names are you hearing about other than the three that Dan mentioned, those three congressman.

RICHARD BERKE: Also, the one Democrats would probably like to see the most is the man who held the seat before who is Sen. Bill Bradley, former Sen. Bill Bradley. He’s made clear or sort of indicated that he doesn’t want to go back to the Senate. But they would love Bill Bradley. Also Frank Lautenberg who was a senator from New Jersey also is popular in the state. Those names are also mentioned.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Dan, what does this do to the Forrester campaign?

DAN BALZ: It completely changes the Forrester campaign. Most of the Democrats that we’ve been hearing from today despite their, you know, their sorrow for Torricelli having to quit this race, feel that this is now a very winnable race. They say that Forrester had based his entire campaign on a fight against Torricelli’s ethics. He will now have to put together a completely different kind of campaign and that if he’s not able to do that, he’s probably going to lose.

MARGARET WARNER: Dan Balz, Rick Berke, thank you both.