The Star-Ledger | October 13, 2002
By DAVID KINNEY
Douglas Forrester’s first calling came at age 22, in a big white church on Route 1.
It was 1975, and Forrester was in the seminary, helping out at Princeton Baptist Church and living in the leaky parsonage next door. Just a few months after Forrester arrived, the pastor abruptly resigned, and the young assistant suddenly found himself responsible for the spiritual well-being of about 100 souls.
Forrester preached the sermons, met with parishioners seeking pastoral guidance, and even converted a nonbeliever, before deciding he was way too young for the job.
Three decades later, he was thrown into another unlikely situation because of a different sort of calling.
In Savannah, Ga., for a business conference, Forrester was in a hotel room browsing the Internet last December when he read that former Gov. Tom Kean, a Republican, had declined to challenge Sen. Robert Torricelli despite the Democrat’s ethics questions. Outraged, Forrester had an epiphany: He was the man to take down Torricelli.
For nine months, Forrester waged an against-the-odds campaign that he cast as a crusade to return honesty to the state’s Senate seat. Then Torricelli dropped out.
Now, with former U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg as his opponent, Forrester says he is locked in a campaign against party bosses out to steal a seat he had all but won. Polls give Lautenberg a slight advantage.
Forrester is a millionaire man of faith, an expansive philosopher casting for votes in a 30-second- sound-bite political world, a deeply religious Christian staking out middle-of-the-road positions on the issues.
He has an opinion on most everything, and he backs it up with historical citations, a nod to theology and the Latin root of the words he’s using.
He has appreciation enough for the absurd to have thrown a giant, tongue-in-cheek gala to celebrate the famous 1938 radio broadcast in which Orson Welles reported Martians had landed in Grovers Mill, part of Forrester’s hometown of West Windsor.
After 14 years in local and state government, Forrester became rich running a small but lucrative prescription drug business in Lawrenceville.
“He’s not your conventional politician,” acknowledges Alvin Felzenberg, one of six friends who meet with Forrester almost every Saturday to talk strategy. “He has not spent his formative years clamoring for his next political office. Politics is not all he knows, so it’s not all-important.”
In New Jersey, where Forrester was not a major player in state Republican circles before this summer, his arrival on the scene came as a surprise.
But those who knew him back when always expected he would appear someday in a campaign for high office.
In high school in Santa Clara, Calif., he won election as class vice president his junior year and student body president his senior year. At the 1,700-student school, politics was truly serious business: There were nominating conventions complete with delegates, endorsements – even backroom deals, recalls one of Forrester’s classmates.
“It was a big, big deal,” said Randy Johnson, now the vice mayor in Scotts Valley, Calif.
From there, Forrester went in 1971 to Harvard University, where he began steeping himself in politics and religion. He studied government and philosophy and interned with a Massachusetts state legislator. And Forrester joined the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship.
“He was very much an intellectual force, always asking questions, always pushing an argument,” remembered Rodney Peterson, who runs the Boston Theological Institute and was a graduate student at the time. “You really felt he was trying to get to the bottom of the truth of something.”
When he graduated, Forrester married the girl back home, Andrea, and they moved to New Jersey, where Forrester enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary.
But his real education came at Princeton Baptist.
He remembers clearly the day he decided he would not enter the ministry. On a summer day in 1976, a parishioner called him to her house and invited him into her bedroom, Forrester said. Her husband had recently passed away, and she wanted guidance.
Forrester suddenly felt he needed about 20 more years of life before he could help: “I just said, ‘I’m not sure I’m the one who should be ministering this woman.'”
Already fascinated with policy, Forrester threw himself into a government career.
At 26, Forrester won his first political office, on the township committee in West Windsor. He became mayor at 28, but two years later, in 1983, he left electoral politics so he could spend more time with his three children while they were young.
He worked as a researcher in the Assembly Republicans’ staff office, then joined the Kean administration as an assistant treasurer and director of the state pension system. By all accounts, he excelled, even with no training in finance. He left state government in 1990 when Jim Florio became governor.
Soon after, Forrester began BeneCard Services Inc., a pharmacy card company that administers employees’ prescription-drug benefits for business, government and unions. Forrester made millions.
How he did that has become one of the Democrats’ chief questions about him. Forrester says the answer is that he was a smart businessman who offered his customers a better deal than the competition. Democrats claim Forrester drove up costs and pocketed lucrative payments from drug makers to push more expensive drugs.
‘THAT’S NOT DOUG’
Either way, as his bankroll fattened, friends say, his lifestyle didn’t change much.
“He doesn’t drive a fancy-schmancy car. He doesn’t live in a fancy-schmancy house. He doesn’t do fancy-schmancy things. That’s not Doug,” said Dick Woodbridge, one-time mayor of Princeton Township and an adviser to Forrester. Woodbridge said he was stunned to see Forrester put $6 million of his own cash into his campaign.
Friends are equally taken aback when they watch his serious and often stiff campaign appearances. The Forrester they know is decidedly less stern. For several years, they had read Forrester’s weekly musings – many satirical, some silly – in the West boro Chronicle.
In a column titled “Grovers Mill Ponderings,” Forrester regaled 10,000 local readers with stories: about killing a shrew in his bathtub, about why he hates flying and why he likes fireflies, about how some members of Congress might just be addicted to the LSD-like high of licking toads.
“He always had a sense of humor,” former treasurer Roland Machold said.
In the past few years, with his company a success, two of his children in college and another nearly there, Forrester began thinking anew about running for office.
Then came that realization in December that he should be the one to challenge Torricelli.
“Doug’s spirituality – his sense of right and wrong – is what drew him to this race,” says David Knowlton, who plays squash with Forrester regularly at the Trenton Club.
Forrester, who attends the interdenominational Windsor Chapel in West Windsor, is still a voracious reader of theology and philosophy. Conversations with him can swerve into theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and his ideas about the place of religion in public life.
“Some people go through the motions, go to church, say prayers. Doug thinks about what it means,” said Knowlton.
Even Forrester’s taste in art runs to the spiritual: His favorite artist is Gib Singleton, a Santa Fe, N.M., sculptor whose rendering of the crucifix tops Pope John Paul II’s staff. Forrester’s house features a Singleton sculpture of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – representing war, famine, plague and death.
Precisely how his faith figures into his political views is complex.
Forrester said he sees parallels, noting that the word “politics” comes from the Greek polis (“city”) and “religion” comes from the Latin religio (“to link together”). Both, he said, are about bringing people together. “That’s why I’ve been involved in electoral politics,” he said.
Forrester said separation of church and state is an important tenet, but that politics cannot be entirely secular.
“All but a tiny minority of Americans have religious beliefs which they consider essential to the formation of their values,” Forrester wrote in a 1992 column. “How can the most profound structures of thought and feeling of a people be irrelevant to their politics?”
While he opposes prayer in schools, Forrester laments that children never learn about “ultimate reality” because teachers fear injecting religion into the classroom. To illustrate this, he tells a story about his son: Asked to write a report about a historical figure, his son chose Moses. The teacher discouraged him.
Forrester said the ban on school prayer had led to “a mind-set that says we can’t talk about ideals or ideas or religions of the world or pursuit of virtue and morality. People say, ‘Oh, well, that’s a problematic thing.'”
Forrester cites the Third Commandment – “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” – in explaining why he does not speak on the campaign trail about his faith.
The Third Commandment “has nothing to do with foul language,” Forrester said. “It really is a commandment that came out of Hebrew culture to prohibit people from using God for their own purposes.
“That is one of the reasons we need to keep religion and politics distinct. I’ve always felt uneasy about people who use God to vouchsafe themselves.”
Forrester’s handlers are sensitive to the perception that his faith means he holds right-wing, conservative stands out of step with a moderate New Jersey electorate that has not sent a Republican to the Senate in 30 years.
Forrester’s agenda is moderate to conservative, with a focus on advocating hands-off government that at times comes across as Libertarian.
In the Senate, Forrester has said, he would support abortion rights and oppose any private investment of Social Security. He said he would oppose vouchers to help low-income parents send their kids to private schools, but he would favor charter schools.
On gun control, he has said: “I have a visceral reaction against what appears to me to be an attempt to mislead the public . . . that we can pass additional laws and be safe. We need to throw all our attention to enforcing the laws we have.”
But 10 years ago in his column, he urged the repeal of New Jersey’s ban on semi-automatic weapons, arguing it would have little effect on violent crime and interfered with civil liberties.
Asked about the column last week, Forrester said he supports the federal assault-weapon ban and, if elected, would vote to renew the law before it expires in 2004.
“To go back 12 years and try to probe into a column about an instance I used to make a larger point about government might, I think, mislead people,” he said.
Forrester said he would vote for tax cuts, support using tax dollars to clean toxic-waste sites, and back a prescription-drug benefit in Medicare.
He said he would support President Bush on national defense and Iraq, vote to toughen rules for granting visas and strengthen tracking of foreign visitors.
Democrats say his support of abortion rights is tepid at best. Forrester opposes all public funding of abortion, even when asked about a hypothetical case of a 14-year-old girl raped by a relative. Under New Jersey law, Medicaid covers abortions for poor women in instances of rape, incest or when a mother’s life is in danger.
Forrester also opposes late-term abortions, and supports parental notification before a minor terminates her pregnancy – both popular positions in the polls.
He has staked out anti-tax stands, saying he would vote to make Bush’s tax cut permanent, repeal the estate tax and end taxation of Social Security benefits.
His four-year record on West Windsor’s council gives Democrats a platform to call him a free spender: Property taxes and debt both increased in his tenure. He blames the increases on construction of a sewer system.
While the shift from ethics to other issues makes Forrester’s climb steeper, the Republican hasn’t entirely let go of the topic that had worked so well for him.
In weeks past, he had introduced himself as “the guy running against Bob Torricelli.”
Now he tells voters, “I’m the guy who beat Bob Torricelli.”