The Star-Ledger | October 1, 2002
By DAVID KINNEY
Tearfully calling it “the most painful thing I have ever done in my life,” U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli gave up his troubled fight for re-election yesterday under the pressure of plunging poll numbers and relentless questions about his honesty.
The withdrawal of one of the Senate’s most powerful and combative figures left Democrats scrambling for a replacement to oppose millionaire Republican Douglas Forrester, a political neophyte who suddenly has found himself the man to beat with just 35 days until voters go to the polls.
At a Statehouse news conference crammed with supporters, Torricelli – at times choked up, at times defiant – slammed the Republican candidate, recounted fond memories and reflected on his accomplishments.
“While I have not done the things I have been accused of doing, most certainly I have made mistakes,” he said, then wondered: “When did we become such an unforgiving people? When did we stop believing and trusting in each other?”
As Torricelli made his decision, the Democrats prepared to go to court to try to replace his name on the ballot. Republicans vowed to oppose any effort to name a new candidate.
Speculation immediately fell on whom the Democrats would choose to wage a hurried, uphill battle. Party leaders focused on Rep. Robert Menendez of Hudson County and former Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Bill Bradley.
Lautenberg, 78, who has the personal wealth to help fund a last-ditch run, said he was ready and willing. Menendez (D-13th Dist.), who has a $2.4 million war chest, said he was interested in running only for re- election to the House, but he did not close the door on a Senate bid.
Bradley, who served three terms in the Senate before retiring in 1997, told Democratic leaders he was not interested.
Gov. James E. McGreevey said the party would name a replacement within 48 hours, and lawyers for the Democrats planned to petition the state Supreme Court today to halt printing of the ballots and allow the Democratic State Committee to name a replacement candidate.
The courts were expected to take up the matter this afternoon.
“The laws of the state of New Jersey do not contain a ‘We think we’re going to lose so we get to pick somebody new’ clause,” Forrester said in a brief news conference in front of the Statehouse after Torricelli finished.
By bowing from the race, Torricelli left Forrester without the only issue the GOP nominee spent much time talking about: the senator’s ethics. (Torricelli supporters taunted Forrester as he walked out to his news conference, saying, “What’s your issue now, Doug?”) Democrats hope they can rally their traditional base behind a new candidate and continue the broadsides Torricelli started firing on Forrester’s positions.
A tireless campaigner and a legendary fund-raiser, Torricelli watched his bid for a second term unravel after prolonged scrutiny into his relationship with a wealthy Bergen County businessman who showered him with gifts and campaign cash.
Two years after he raised millions to help Democrats pull even in the Senate, and just months after political strategists counted his seat as safe, Torricelli was gone from the race.
The Bergen County politician – who frequently boasted of his reputation as a politician who fights to the end – dropped out after facing poll numbers showing him suddenly trailing Forrester by double digits. A Star- Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers Poll released Saturday showed he had fallen behind by 13 points. National Democrats’ internal polls confirmed that, one Democrat said yesterday.
In a rambling speech in which he often seemed to recite his own political obituary, Torricelli said he would not let it be said he put his own interests above those of his party. He said the outcry over his past mistakes made it impossible for him to wage a debate on other issues. He knew, he said, that a loss in New Jersey could cost his party its control of the Senate. He would rather leave the race and serve out his term.
“I will not be responsible for the loss of the Democratic majority in the United States Senate,” he said. “There is just too much at issue.”
His campaign had struggled to contain the series of damaging disclosures about the gifts that campaign donor David Chang gave him, and the favors Chang said Torricelli did in exchange.
Questions about Torricelli’s ethical fitness for re-election hopes began in 2000, when Chang pleaded guilty to illegally donating more than $53,000 to Torricelli’s Senate campaign. Chang began cooperating with the long- running Justice Department investigation of the Democrat, telling prosecutors he showered Torricelli with cash, a Rolex watch, suits and other gifts in exchange for official favors.
But in January, deciding that Chang would be a weak witness, prosecutors ended the probe without charging the senator.
In July, his own Senate colleagues sent his campaign reeling. The ethics committee “severely admonished” Torricelli for taking a 52-inch TV, a stereo, three pairs of earrings and two bronze statues from Chang.
The Democrat had long denied taking anything from Chang, and the harsh reprimand gave the Republicans fodder for a series of vicious TV ads battering Torricelli about his honesty.
Torricelli apologized in a $2 million televised mea culpa , but things got worse last week: A letter prosecutors had filed with a judge in May was made public. The letter outlined Chang’s cooperation in their investigation and asking the judge to hand down a lenient sentence. The prosecutors said the information Chang provided against Torricelli was credible.
That afternoon, WNBC in New York aired an uninterrupted 38-minute report on the Torricelli-Chang ties.
On Friday, Torricelli spent the day trying to calm Democrats’ jitters, assuring them he remained neck-and-neck with the Republican.
But on Saturday, the Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers poll didn’t make his case any easier.
On Sunday, Torricelli convened with Gov. James E. McGreevey and U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine at Drumthwacket, the Governor’s mansion. The topic of discussion: how to breathe new life into Torricelli’s troubled campaign. But the topic turned to whether Torricelli should stay in the race, several Democratic sources said.
When Torricelli left late Sunday night, he was still in. By yesterday morning, he was talking about quitting.
Throughout the day, rumors flew through New Jersey and national political circles.
Early in the afternoon, Torricelli quietly filed the necessary paperwork with Attorney General David Samson.
He delivered an emotional, private farewell to his campaign staff in New Brunswick, then drove to Trenton and, surrounded by McGreevey, Corzine, his ex-wife and current adviser Susan Torricelli, and his closest supporters, gave it up.
“There is a point at which every man reaches their limit. I’ve reached mine,” Torricelli said, his voice cracking.
“It’s time for me to reclaim my life,” the 51-year-old senator said during his 22-minute speech at the Statehouse. “I’ve done my duty for my country.”
Torricelli said he spoke to former President Bill Clinton in England yesterday.
“I told him in his darkest days that what I admired about him was, you never give up, you never compromise, you never stop, you never give up. The phone connection wasn’t the best, but I could hear his voice crack,” Torricelli said, adding later: “I apologize to Bill Clinton that I did not have his stamina.”
Torricelli complained that he could not get his message out with the focus on ethics. He said he was debating “a faceless foe that I cannot find” and lamented the “minds I cannot change.”
“This is a political campaign devoid of issues. I can’t talk about war and peace or our economy or the environment, the sanctity of the constitution, the things that have guided my life. If I cannot be heard, someone else must be heard,” Torricelli said.