Experience Isn’t Everything

Frank Pallone's Uphill Fight

Congressman Frank Pallone is in a tough race to be the next senator from New Jersey. He talks to Ben Jacobs about the campaign.

Mel Evans/AP

Frank Pallone doesn’t want to be president. After all, he’s having a hard enough time becoming a senator.

The 13-term Democratic congressman from New Jersey is running in the special election for the Senate seat vacated by the death of Democrat Frank Lautenberg in June against Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who canceled a trip to Iowa last week.

The good news for Pallone is that polls currently have him in second place in a crowded field that includes fellow Congressman Rush Holt, State Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, and Booker. The bad news is that in this campaign, second place still means that he’s almost 40 points behind the Newark mayor.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Pallone, a gentle, soft-spoken man who seems like he’d be more comfortable collecting stamps at home than favors in Jersey politics, still radiated a measured confidence about his chances. “My basic message is that I am the experienced candidate that can get things done” he told The Daily Beast. Pallone shied away from almost every opportunity to contrast his record with that of Booker who, with over 1.4 million Twitter followers, has become a celebrity. Instead, the New Jersey congressman reminisced about his accomplishments and discussed his progressive political philosophy in hopes that voters might care.

In Pallone’s view, “My whole purpose really is to try to help working families to find better jobs and get better benefits and look out for the little guy." While he touts his role writing the Affordable Care Act in his campaign ads, the piece of legislation that he mentioned to The Daily Beast as a prime example wasn’t Obamacare. Instead, it was a far more mundane bill from 2000, the BEACH Act. The legislation, which Pallone co-sponsored with Lautenberg, set federal standards for coastal water quality. It required regular monitoring for pollutants and bacteria and required that those test results be published online. After all, clean water not only means that those swimming don’t get sick but keeps the beaches open to protect the tourism industry, which is particularly important to Pallone, who lives on and represents the Jersey Shore.

Pallone’s only direct criticism of Booker was over the Newark mayor’s refusal to participate in debates. While Booker has held a number of “Run With Cory” events that allow voters to jog with him, he has steadfastly declined to participate in all but two debates, only one of which will be televised. In fact, while his three opponents held their most recent debate in downtown Newark on Thursday, Booker was down the road holding a fundraiser. Pallone found this unconscionable, particularly in an abbreviated two-month campaign. “It’s not fair to the voters” said Pallone, “because they need to hear from us, and they need to have interaction between us so they can judge us and see where we stand on the issues and see what we’re going to do when we’re elected, and he’s just been absent from all the debates so far.”

The voters though don’t seem to mind and, in fact, even the constituency most likely to respond to Pallone’s complaints, newspaper editorial boards, have shrugged them off and overwhelmingly backed Booker. Although Pallone is confident that “the message is getting out, ” it seems few are listening. And, with 10 days left before the August 13 primary, there isn’t much time left.

After all, while Pallone may be the candidate who “get things done for the average person,” that doesn’t seem to be enough to get the average person to vote for an average candidate.