Sen. Robert Torricelli gets a reprimand by his Senate peers. The real surprise? It might actually matter.

By Michelle Goldberg
Published August 1, 2002 7:42PM (EDT)

Maybe the most shocking thing about Sen. Robert Torricelli's current predicament, culminating Tuesday in an admonishment from the Senate Ethics Committee for, basically, appearing to accept bribes from a campaign donor who wanted help making deals with both North and South Korea, is that it might actually affect the New Jersey Democrat's Senate race.

The mudslinging in New Jersey is so fierce that in Torricelli's last race, against Richard Zimmer, voter participation was shockingly low -- even among voters. Ten percent of those who turned out refused to vote for either Torricelli or Zimmer. That campaign, characterized by a steady barrage of attack ads, had only the most determined and partisan voters interested in casting a ballot. And in New Jersey, which hasn't elected a Republican senator since 1978 and hasn't voted out an incumbent senator in 50 years, that's good news for Torricelli -- especially since Democrats enter the November election with just a one-seat advantage.

But Douglas Forrester, Torricelli's millionaire opponent, has already seized the moment, holding a press conference at his house in West Windsor, N.J., to denounce the senator as "unfit for office." According to Forrester's press secretary, Tom Rubino, the Republican National Committee is going to throw its resources behind him, narrowing the fundraising advantage Torricelli has right now. The RNC certainly seems to smell blood. Spokesman Dan Ronayne says, "Senator Torricelli for some time now has made this race very competitive by his misconduct and the embarrassment he's brought upon the people of New Jersey."

"Torricelli, and I know this is probably killing him given his ego and his Machiavellian character, hurt himself here," says David Rebovich, director of the Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. "Forrester has borrowed up to $6 million of his own money," says Rebovich. "Nobody was donating to his campaign. The anticipation was that Torricelli would have as much as $15 million and outspend the multimillionaire."

But even before the Tuesday slap by the Ethics Committee, all was not rosy in the Torch's campaign. A poll done last week by SurveyUSA for a Philadelphia TV station showed the two candidates even, but it was an automated survey, and since a computer can't screen for proper respondents, many questioned its results. But New Jersey Republican pollster Adam Geller says he took a poll of likely voters last week showing Forrester ahead of Torricelli, 40 percent to 37 percent.

Could New Jersey, the state that has, according to Rebovich, "more mayors in federal prison than any other state," finally be fed up with political corruption? Its residents surely must be fed up with reading about Torricelli. The Justice Department spent three years investigating him for campaign finance violations before closing the case in January. No charges were brought. But U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White sent her findings to the Senate Ethics Committee, which began a probe of the funding of Torricelli's 1996 campaign that led to accusations that contributor David Chang gave Torricelli more than $50,000 worth of cash and gifts so that the senator would open political doors for him. Chang is currently serving a year and a half in prison for obstructing justice and making $53,700 in illegal contributions to Torricelli's 1996 Senate race.

But because of all the din and the years of accusations, Tuesday's sanction might seem like nearly a vindication. "People will put in perspective exactly what has been determined. It was determined that he took a few gifts and only a few gifts and he didn't reimburse Mr. Chang sufficiently, and he apologized on the Senate floor for those errors," says Lanny Davis, former advisor to President Clinton and author of "Truth to Tell: Tell It Early, Tell It All, Tell It Yourself." "Compare those errors to the other examples of corporate corruption and crimes that were being committed in the corporate world. I think most New Jerseyians -- and I was born and raised in New Jersey -- will put this in perspective and will not overly harshly condemn Torricelli."

Or compare Torricelli's sins (which, in his apology, he never admits to) with his fellow New Jersey public servants. Last year, former acting Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco dropped out of the gubernatorial race after his business dealings came under press scrutiny. Meanwhile, the state Legislature considered impeachment hearings for state Supreme Court Justice Peter G. Verniero, who allegedly concealed his true opinions about racial profiling when he was appointed. That doesn't include a Bergen County sheriff who admitted pressuring employees to donate to his election campaign, or the Camden mayor, who was convicted of taking mob money.

And this happened all in the last two years.

James Mcqueeny, who was chief of staff to former New Jersey Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg, says Torricelli "can't be too apologetic, because voters will think 'Thou doth protest too much,' [but] can't totally ignore it because people will say 'You're not repentant enough.'"

"But if anybody can take that subtle message and race through the door before it closes on Election Day," Mcqueeny says, "it will be Torch."

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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