The song that changed New Jersey

The GOP is divided over a humiliated Republican's attempt at a comeback.

Topics: Republican Party, New Jersey

In the midst of the impeachment mess, on
July 21, 1998, a freshman Republican
congressman from New Jersey managed to
do something so stupendously stupid it
temporarily stole media attention away
from President Clinton’s own unseemly
mess.

He sang.

On the floor of the House.

A song he had written about Independent
Counsel Kenneth Starr.

To the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little
Star.”

“Twinkle, twinkle, Kenneth Starr,” Rep.
Mike Pappas began, “now we see how brave
you are.”

“Up above the Pentagon sting, like a
fair judge in the ring. Twinkle, twinkle,
Kenneth Starr, now we know how brave you
are. When subpoenas and lies are gone,
when obstruction shines upon, then you
throw your trump cards down, twinkle,
twinkle, all brought down.”

“Twinkle, twinkle, Kenneth Starr, now we
see how brave you are! Then the Congress
in the dark, thanks you for your courage
and spark; we could not see which way to
go, if you did not lead us so. Twinkle,
twinkle, Kenneth Starr, now we see how
brave you are!”

Even after experiencing the lyrics, it’s
still hard to convey how insanely
clueless the decision to sing this
little ditty seemed to anyone except for
Pappas. Its repercussions are far more
easily described.

To the campaign of Pappas’ Democratic
House challenger, a Princeton University
physicist named Rush Holt who previously had been given
zero chance of winning the Republican
seat, Pappas’ serenade was music to the
ears. “Holt for Congress” soon began
running ads featuring the Republican’s
“Star-Search-meets-C-SPAN” moment. With
the tag line “Mike Pappas: Out of tune.
Out of touch,” and a $200,000 ad buy on
radio and TV, Holt’s ad against Pappas
made the congressman’s a cappella
performance a local top 40 hit.

Sitting at home watching the evening
news that July 1998 night was Dick
Zimmer, a moderate Republican who had held
the same congressional seat from 1990
until 1996, when he lost a bid for the
Senate to Democrat Bob Torricelli. “I
saw it that evening as it hit the news
shows,” says Zimmer. “I thought it was a
mistake … It was inappropriate and it
was memorable.



“But I didn’t think his career was
over,” Zimmer says.

Not many people did. “Holt raised a lot
more money than anybody thought that he
would and he had a real campaign, but I
don’t think anybody could tell you that
they thought he would win,” says Amy
Walter, House analyst for the Cook
Political Report in Washington. “The
[Democratic Congressional Campaign
Committee] didn’t think so … We didn’t
hear a word about this race.”

In November, Pappas was one of only
six members of the House to lose his
seat — to Holt, by about 5,000 votes.

“It was a dynamite ad,” Holt now says.
“It caught the essence of what the
campaign was about: the fact that
Congress was not dealing with
kitchen-table issues, but instead was off
on witch hunts and impeachment
investigations.”

The ads “were just brilliant,” says Nick
Acocella, editor of Politifax New
Jersey, a nonpartisan Hoboken weekly
newsletter. “Pappas was made to look
foolish. He’s not a foolish man, but he
was made to look foolish. And on little
such things do campaigns turn.”

A year and a half passes. Members of
Congress are once again running for
reelection, and with a five-seat GOP
majority in the House, every single
swing congressional seat is being
targeted for a war.

Re-enter Zimmer. And re-enter Pappas. They are squaring off in the
Republican primary June 6 for the honor
of opposing Holt in November. Both want
what was once theirs. Both see in the
other a flawed kind of Republicanism.
And both are supported by Republican
heavies in a race that illustrates the
essential conflicts at the heart of the
Republican Party.

Zimmer is fiscally conservative but
socially moderate, and enjoys the
support of GOP moderates such as New Jersey
Gov. Christine Todd Whitman; state GOP
Chairman Garabed “Chuck” Haytaian; House
Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.; and Rep.
Tom Davis, R-Va., the chairman of the
National Republican Congressional
Committee, congressional Republicans’
crucial fund-raising arm. In addition,
Thursday morning Zimmer’s campaign will announce that on Saturday, Sen. John McCain — now a
spokesman for GOP inclusivity — will
head up to the Garden State to campaign
for Zimmer.

Pappas, meanwhile, is conservative
through-and-through, and enjoys the
support of the party’s conservative
stalwarts, including House Majority
Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas; Majority
Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas; and about three
dozen other House conservatives,
including New Jersey’s own Rep. Chris
Smith, legal abortion’s chief House foe.

Whoever faces Holt — perhaps Congress’
most vulnerable Democrat — will
probably participate in one of the
year’s most
expensive
and hard-fought House
races. Holt had raised almost $1 million
as of Dec. 31, and has featured Minority
Leader Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., and
first lady Hillary Clinton at
fund-raisers.

To Whitman, the race “really comes down
to electability,” and she says we
haven’t heard the last of Pappas’ House
floor aria, which she calls “devastating
… That’s one that’s just going to come
back again and again. It’s an obstacle
he just can’t overcome, I believe.”

But is that really Pappas’ only problem?
“That’s the biggest,” she says, “and
really the thing to me that says he
cannot win. He doesn’t appreciate that that
kind of behavior in the well of the
House” wasn’t acceptable, Whitman says.
“It’s fine to stand up for someone in
whom you believe, but singing a song –
they wanted more than that out of their
congressman, and I believe they still
do.”

“I apologized for it,” Pappas, 39, says of
the song. “For those who may have been
offended, or thought that I had a lack
of respect for Congress or the
presidency, that I thought the issue was
not significant, it’s something I
shouldn’t have done. But anyone that
knows me knows that that’s not the case.
I have great respect for these
institutions and the issue.”

Pappas changes the subject by suggesting
that the song represented his passion
and courage. “I do not apologize for
standing up for what I believe was
right,” Pappas says, “for voting to
impeach the president for lying under
oath and disgracing the presidency.
There are people — and Zimmer’s one of
them — who really want it both ways. He
refused to take a position [on
impeachment] until last Friday and I
think he only said so then because he’s
probably polled that and seen the …
Clinton fatigue that didn’t exist two
years ago.”

Additionally, Pappas takes issue with
the electability charge, pointing to a
recent Public Opinion Strategies poll
showing that he and Zimmer each run
about even with Holt.

“Pappas is going to fight [his campaign]
on ideological grounds,” assesses
Acocella. “He’s got a constituency
that’s pretty hardcore; the question is
how close to 50 percent does it get? My
guess is that somewhere between a third
to 43 or 44 percent [of the electorate]
share Pappas’ conservative views.” And
those with
conservative views
are backing him.

With the four senior GOP House members
split between the two candidates, it’s
not tough to see the primary as symbolic
of the current battle being waged for
the soul of the Republican Party.

After all, as is often forgotten because
of Holt’s “Twinkle twinkle” ad, another
effective Holt salvo against Pappas
featured a TV clip of beloved ex-Gov.
Thomas Kean, a moderate Republican, on a
New Jersey public affairs show allowing
that Pappas was “extreme” on some
issues.

Holt says that the moderate-conservative
schism going on in his district’s
primary is pretty typical. “There’s a
fair amount of it going on nationwide.
You certainly see it in the House of
Representatives at large; and it’s why
the leadership of the majority party
can’t get their act together. It’s
symptomatic of a party’s inability to
work together and get things done.”

More important for Holt, he hopes that
the schism will ensure that whoever wins
the primary — and though he never
admits it, it’s not tough to gauge that
he’d rather face Pappas, the man he beat
once before — has been hobbled by a
fractious and ugly primary.

“Republican insiders argue that when all
is said and done, Zimmer is going to
win, but it might not be pretty,” says
the Cook Report’s Walter. “And it will
certainly be more exhausting than Zimmer
wants. The question is, What are the
long-term implications of this battle
going to be, and how enthusiastic will
the party be.”

So far the battle has been pretty quiet;
Zimmer has been coasting to an advantage
in almost every realm. Last Wednesday
night, Whitman and Haytaian attended a
fund-raiser at the Princeton Hyatt that
netted Zimmer $100,000 — augmenting his
campaign’s half-mil on hand.

Pappas, conversely, wouldn’t reveal how
much he’d raised, though as of Dec. 31
– when Zimmer had $442,000 cash on hand (and Holt
$665,000) — Pappas reported a paltry
$62,000.

Locally, Pappas hasn’t fared much
better. Zimmer won the endorsements of
four of the five of the county
Republican parties in the 12th district,
including Pappas’ own Somerset County,
where he held elected office from age 21
until he ran for Congress in ’96. (The Somerset
endorsement even prompted Pappas’
campaign chairman, Somerset County GOP
Chairman Dale Florio, to resign and
endorse Zimmer.)

“I certainly would rather have won
those,” Pappas concedes.

But, Pappas is quick to say, county GOP
conventioneers’ opinion of him matters
much less than the voters’. And, he
insists (as do Zimmer and Holt, of
course) that he is far more “in tune”
with voters than his opponents. Forgoing
any argument about policy positions,
Pappas says he’s more in touch with the
common man.

“Some view Senator McCain as someone who
was able to make that kind of connection
to people, many of whom had never been
involved in the political process,”
Pappas says — unaware that McCain is
scheduled to campaign for Zimmer. “There
are some similarities there in just the
connecting with people who haven’t been
involved.” He cites as an example his work pushing for
the home-office tax deduction, added to
the Tax Relief Act in time for 1999 tax
forms. And during the
debate over a vocational education bill
in the summer of 1997, he says he
changed his vote after a constituent
called to argue against it. “I didn’t
know the woman,” he says, “but she
seemed like she knew what she was
talking about, so I said, ‘I’m going to
check this out.’ And I changed my vote.”

Pappas stresses his attention to his
constituency — which he knocks both
opponents for lacking. “I have heard
while I’ve served in office and since
I’ve left office that both my
predecessor and my successor did not
have the kind of constituent service
that I expected from my staff to
provide,” he says, citing what he claims
is anecdotal evidence of district voters
shunned by his competitors. Those who
wrote “never got a response. They call
three or four times to get an answer to
a specific question, never even getting
a response.” A summer intern applicant
“just got blown off.” Sure, Pappas says,
a legislator must deal with the big
issues, “but you’re representing people
on an individual basis as well.”

Zimmer denies this, of course, but
focuses on the “broad issues” that
distinguish him from Pappas. The author
of Megan’s Law, which requires
sex offenders to register with local law
enforcement, Zimmer paused Wednesday
before speaking at the Princeton Hyatt
to wave to supporter Rich Kanka. Kankas
seven-year-old daughter, Megan, inspired
the 1996 federal legislation after she
was killed in 1994 by a convicted child
molester Kanka didn’t know lived across
the street.

This will be one of the issues he will
tout, along with being a supporter of
abortion rights, “reasonable gun safety
laws,” and the environment — a big
issue in the sprawling land of strip
malls, toxic waste and
hypodermic-needle-besotted beaches.

Zimmer is a legitimate environmentalist, and while
Pappas’ 1998 congressional score with
the League of Conservation Voters beat
the congressional average, it was the
lowest in the New Jersey delegation. And
the issue illustrates that Pappas’ top
congressional supporters — such as
DeLay, a former Texas exterminator
despised by environmentalists — can
offer him little help. “The world looks
different from Sugarland, Texas, than it
does from East Brunswick, N.J.,” Zimmer
says, “and I think I am an accurate
reflection of the views of this part of
the United States.”

So too, perhaps, is Zimmer’s pro-choice
position. Pappas points out that the
abortion-related issues Congress
actually votes on — late-term or
“partial birth” abortions, government
funding of abortion — are ones in which
his position in shared by “the vast
majority of the people in this district
and this state and this nation, even
those that are pro-choice.”

Yet these are legitimate schisms. One of
the more ridiculous battles between the
two is over the mantle of “most fiscally
conservative.”

Zimmer: “My record on taxes and spending
is stronger than his in our
congressional careers.”

Pappas: “I’m just, if not more, fiscally
conservative than he is. And we can give
you some numbers from National Journal
and such comparing our records.”

Zimmer: “He’s got some campaign material
that says that National Journal ranks
him as more fiscally conservative than
me, but what he did was compare his best
year to my worst year.”

Pappas: “He, as a member of the state
legislature, voted for tax and fee
increases probably over 20 times.”

Zimmer: “He voted to raise property
taxes a number of times as a [county]
freeholder.”

It’s an inane debate; both are solid
fiscal conservatives. But the National
Taxpayers’ Union gives Zimmer higher
marks: Zimmer scored an NTU grade of A
in every year from 1992-96, while Pappas
got Bs for his two years in Congress,
’97 and ’98.

There are plenty of reasons why Pappas
should be the GOP choice for the more
partisan voter. A former deputy whip for
DeLay, Pappas says he has better working
relationships with his fellow Republican
members of Congress than Zimmer, which
seems likely. Zimmer is admittedly
“more independent” than his primary
opponent, as he concedes, and thus less
“easily whippable.” He has butted heads
with DeLay plenty of times. During a
1995 vote on Medicare reform Zimmer
thought would “hurt New Jersey
hospitals,” he says that “Tom DeLay and
[then-Speaker] Newt Gingrich and the
rest of the leadership brought me down
to the ‘Dinosaur Room’ and beat me up
pretty good.” Gingrich had had a private room filled with dinosaur bones in his offices.

When Zimmer held his ground, “They
called up campaign contributors to get
them to lobby against me; I was
threatened by [then-RNC Chairman] Haley
Barbour publicly that I’d have trouble
in my Senate campaign.” Still, he says,
“I voted the New Jersey way.” Pappas, he
says, “is using that against me as a
sign of disloyalty, claiming that I hurt
the Republican Party.”

Indeed, there are a world of differences
between the two New Jersey Republicans.
But few will be discussed in Washington.
In March, a political action committee
affiliated with Zimmer-backer Rep. Fred
Upton, R-Mich., sent out a care package
to GOP fund-raisers.

“Mike Pappas is unelectable,” read the
letter, written by Upton and three other
moderate Republicans. And just in case
they needed some extra convincing, the
package included its own piece of
evidence: “We are enclosing a tape of
his singing on the House floor and the
ad used against him so you can see for
yourself why Pappas can’t win.”

Pappas was offended, of course, and he
lashed out at Zimmer for engaging in
negative campaigning. “That was 60
seconds,” he says, somewhat
exasperatedly.

“I think there are issues — the
political issues — that divide us, that
distinguish us, that I would prefer to
focus on rather than the song,” Zimmer
says. But he has not been opposed to
playing dirty — his losing 1996 battle
with Torricelli was one of the nastiest
Senate races in recent memory. Regarding
the Upton care package, Zimmer insists:
“It’s not my campaign that did that. The
people that distributed it are my
supporters, but that isn’t something
that I would do during this campaign.”

So will he rule out running his own
“Twinkle, twinkle” ad if the race gets
tight come late May or early June? “I
don’t know what our TV ads are going to
be,” he says.

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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