Nice Guys Finish Third
"Counting the new Senatorial Democratic Chicks," reads the header of a 1934 political cartoon by Clifford K. Berryman of the Washington Star. Eight chicks, newly hatched, sit in a box: Maloney of Connecticut, Minton of Indiana, Radcliffe of Maryland, Moore of New Jersey, Donahey of Ohio, Guffey of Pennsylvania, Gerry of Rhode Island and Truman of Missouri (yes, Harry.) Holding a ninth egg, with a bespectacled man's head sticking out of it, its shell cracking, a farmer, "Jim," says to "Miss Democracy," "You may have to set a while longer on this one, Auntie!"
The bespectacled man in the cartoon was Senator Rush D. Holt, Snr. of West Virginia. The reason he needs more time in the nest is, at age twenty-nine, he's still months away from being able to legally serve in the Senate. An FDR liberal at the time of his election, by the end of his first and only term, Holt Snr. would be a rabid, isolationist conservative. Eventually, he would be a Republican. When he sought the Democratic nomination for a second term, Holt Snr. finished third.
Today, 79 years after it was first published, the cartoon hangs on the office wall of Representative Rush D. Holt, Jr. Holt is seeking the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate in the special election which will fill the seat of the late Senator Frank R. Lautenberg. If current polls reflect the final outcome, Holt, like his father, will finish third.
It's nearly 8 p.m. and the halls outside of congressman Holt's office are empty and quiet. Holt's office is empty, too. A vote is underway on a series of amendments to the 2014 Energy and Water Appropriations bill for which Holt has, at the last minute, traveled to Washington from New Jersey.
Holt's Legislative Assistant had appeared, let me into the office to wait, and then vanished. Every surface is piled high with papers and every shelf crowded with books: All ten volumes of "The Thomas Jefferson Papers"; books about science; "Mosques From All Around the World"; books about government. A large bowl filled with bags of gummy candy, like the kind you hand out to trick-or-treaters on Halloween, sits on a coffee table. Hanging in a closet are dozens of button-down shirts.
Holt walks through the door, arms full with more papers, and introduces himself as just "Rush." He's thin and appears younger than his sixty-four years, his (mostly) gray hair notwithstanding. He speaks as though he is always delivering good news and has a habit of using the phrase "on balance" when discussing an issue.
"Have you eaten?" he asks. He hasn't -- and suggests that we walk down to the National Democratic Club: "Maybe I'll have a piece of pie."
Rush Holt is a busy man. Lautenberg's death, on June 3, at the age of 89, wasn't a shock -- his illness wasn't a secret. But etiquette, and decency, dictated that candidates keep their pre-campaigns slow and secret until the seat was actually vacant. Now any preparations his would-be successors might have already made have moved from that slow, hidden walk to a public sprint.
On June 4, Governor Chris Christie announced, to much flak, that the special election was to be held on October 16. Holding a second, separate election in addition to the scheduled general November election - in which Christie is up for a second term - will cost the state an estimated $24 million. Holt seems slightly in awe of the governor's audacity as he speculates about what, specifically, drove Christie's "self-serving" decision. "I believe one of the reasons was, he wanted his name at the top of the ballot; he didn't want the federal election on the ballot above him… I mean, maybe it was vanity. I assume it was also a calculation that he would do better, and he wanted to have a really strong showing so that he could run for president. That was his thinking, I'm sure." About Christie, he later added, "I don't know how he gets away with as much as he gets away with."
When Lautenberg announced in February that he would not be seeking reelection, the names of all of the contenders in the current Democratic primary were mentioned as possible candidates - except for Holt's. The Mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, filed papers to run for Lautenberg's seat in January - a move that, at the time, Lautenberg's senior aides called "disrespectful." Asked about his aides' comments, Lautenberg said, "I have four children, I love each one of them. I can't tell you that one of them wasn't occasionally disrespectful, so I gave them a spanking and everything was OK." The comment was spun into dozens of "Lautenberg Says Cory Booker Needs a Spanking" headlines, which had the neat effect of elevating Booker to become Lautenberg's primary rival and most likely successor. Sure enough, in the Monmouth University poll, Booker is currently polling at 52 percent. Also in the Democratic field are Representative Frank Pallone, who is polling at 10 percent, and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, at three percent. Holt is wedged between Pallone and Oliver, at eight percent.
Rush Dew Holt, Jr. was born in Weston, West Virginia. His father, who was first elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1931, died when Rush was six years old. "I learned a lot from him," Holt tells me. "I didn't learn practical politics, but I learned how much good a person can do in politics. After my father died, for years, for decades, I would run into complete strangers who, figuring out who I was, would say how much my father meant to them, or how much he helped them, or what it meant to them to see an honest, conscientious politician like my father." Although at first, he tells me, he "resisted the idea" of following in his father's footsteps.
Holt Sr. was last elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1954. When he died the following year, his wife assumed his position until the end of his term in 1957, immediately after which she was appointed as Secretary of State in West Virginia - becoming the first woman to hold the title. She served until 1959. "She didn't present herself as a trailblazer," Holt says. "She was - I now understand - raising three kids, as a single mother, and being the first woman to do a number of different things. I've always admired her, I really have."
In 1966, Holt graduated from Landon, a private prep school in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside of the District of Columbia. He received his B.A. in physics from Carleton College in Minnesota and both an M.D. and P.h.D. in physics from New York University. There was never any question as to what Holt wanted to do: "I was going to be a scientist. And I was."
While completing his PhD at NYU, he became a member of the physics faculty at Swarthmore College, where Holt, a Quaker, also taught religion and public policy. From there, he went to the State Department where he monitored the nuclear programs in Iraq, Iran, the former Soviet Union and North Korea. Beginning in 1989, Holt was an Assistant Director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, which is the largest alternative energy research center in New Jersey.
"It had crossed my mind, from time to time, that I might make a good legislator," Holt tells me. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a nail-clipper. "But if that was my career goal," he traces the nail clipper over each of his fingernails, "I was kind of slow getting around to it. I didn't get into congress until I was fifty - I like to think of that as mid-career." He puts the clipper back into his pocket without having clipped a nail.
Holt's personal political involvement began in student government and transitioned to volunteering for local and congressional campaigns in Colorado, Minnesota, Arkansas and "really, wherever I was living at the time."
In 1996, Republican incumbent Dick Zimmer from New Jersey's 12th congressional district gave up his seat to run for the United States Senate. Holt entered the race for the Democratic nomination. With 24 percent of the vote, he came in third place. Lambertville Mayor David DelVecchio won the nomination, going on to lose to Republican Michael Pappas whose campaign focused largely on opposing abortion rights and gun control.
In 1998, Holt secured the congressional nomination and with it, the general consensus that he had no chance of election. But, as Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray would later tell me, Holt "has keen political instincts." Insisting that the man should be separated from his policies, throughout his campaign, he stuck by President Clinton. Meantime, the incumbent, Pappas, stuck by the conventional wisdom of the spring and summer of 1998, that Clinton would probably be out of office by the 1st day of the new year and that the Republicans would score massive gains in that November's midterms. That is when Pappas became one of the last Republican congressmen to try a Clinton-related stunt on the floor of the House.
On July 21, 1998, Pappas revealed that he had written a song. To the tune of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," he sang in support of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr:
Twinkle, twinkle, Kenneth Starr
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
Just ten days before the election, trailing Pappas by 20 points in the polls, Holt launched a campaign ad called "Mike Pappas: Out of Tune; Out of Touch." Holt won by five thousand votes.
(Pappas told me that he had nothing to say about the New Jersey special Senate election or Rush Holt. I asked him if he would take my phone number in case he thought of something he would like to say.
I asked him if he had a pen.
I gave him the area code and paused.
I gave him the exchange.
I gave him the last four digits.
I'm confident he didn't write down my phone number.)
Holt and I are still looking for a place to talk. After determining that the National Democratic club with its loud music and raucous crowd of elderly lawmakers is too noisy, Holt leads us a few yards away, down a cement path, to the National Democratic Headquarters. "You used the word 'fiddles' in your response to President Obama's climate change speech," I say as we determine that the building is closed. "And I thought 'Nero fiddled while --'" "'While Rome burned,'" he hays in unison with me as he fights to open the door, pushing the handicapped automatic-door button repeatedly. "Congress fiddles," he says as the door finally opens. "Hi, we want to do an interview, can we go in there?" Holt asks a cleaning woman as he points to an empty conference room.
As a vacuum drones nearby, Holt explains to me that he believes he is "the most liberal member of Congress" - an assessment shared by the National Journal. Although, "that was a little bit of an alphabetic artifact because Barbara Lee and Pete Stark, I think, and some others, were tied with me, but I was earlier in the alphabet, so I was listed first." As Holt gets up to move the mop and bucket that are keeping the conference room door open and allowing the sound of the vacuum in, he dismisses Pallone; "I would argue I am clearly more progressive than he is." He doesn't bother to address Oliver. Instead he thinks "of my race being with Cory Booker."
"I'm Rush Holt," begins Holt's first senate campaign ad, "and I'll be the first to admit, I'm no Cory Booker."
Booker is the very prominent mayor of Newark. He is known for his social media prowess and heroic, often live-Tweeted actions, like saving a woman from a burning building, shoveling a constituent out of a snow-covered driveway and rescuing cats from trees and dogs from crates. He has appeared with Oprah and he has delivered nearly half a dozen commencement speeches. Booker is so visible that when he gave only one TV interview in April of this year, his relative absence from our screens was addressed by New York Magazine.
"The work of the Senate is not done 140 characters at a time," Holt's ad said, taking a jab at Booker's constant presence on Twitter. The work of the Senate, he continued, is "done with time on task. None of the problems facing this country are solved quickly with a fine speech, no. It's solved with diligent work." He later added, "I Tweet in moderation."
Hitting Booker on his celebrity is "an argument not worthy of Rush," says Democratic strategist Brad Lawrence of Message and Media, who worked with Holt from his 1998 campaign until his most recent congressional race. He now works for Booker. Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray seems to agree, "The celebrity attack is not getting him anywhere," he tells me. "New Jersey doesn't know Cory Booker all that well, but he has a national reputation so they expect that he has substance." Continuing, "the attack would have to be that Booker is empty behind his celebrity, but Holt will not go deep into the dirt to attack him. He's not willing to sling the mud."
If Holt is known at all in New Jersey, it is because of his science background, advertised with "My Congressman IS A Rocket Scientist!" bumper stickers. When the stickers were initially proposed to Holt, he vetoed the idea. He is not, after all, a rocket scientist; he is a nuclear physicist. "My Congressman COULD Blow Up The World If He Felt So Inclined, But He's A Liberal, So Don't Worry About It!" would have been a more accurate declaration, albeit a less catchy one. Nevertheless, the bumper stickers were made.
"I would be," he tells me, "the only scientist in the Senate." Scientists, he explains, "tend to believe that not all solutions are equally good, and so they tend to look for the best solution. The other thing about scientists is, we are trained, always, to say that the facts have the last word. I, probably more than most, demand evidence in my decision making."
Though Holt has needled Booker, he has not impaled him. His campaign has, largely, been one of ideas. For Wall Street reform, he has suggested a "transaction tax," which is "a small speculation tax applied to each share of stock bought or sold." The policy could generate, Holt claims, $43 billion a year. For climate change, he's offered a tax on carbon emissions. For education; doubling the maximum Pell Grant from $5,550 to $11,100.
He is passionately against domestic surveillance, having just recently proposed a bill to repeal the Patriot Act. "Bush and our country, out of fear, with President Bush leading the way, did some things that I have called 'un-American,'" Holt says. Would he use that same phrase, "un-American," to describe what the Obama Administration has done by continuing the Bush Administration's policies, I asked. "Yes, I think so."
"There aren't two classes of people, one class above suspicion and the other class subject to suspicion. America doesn't do that," he says, emphatic. "The two principal ideas in the Fourth Amendment! One, that enforcement and intelligence operatives have to prove to an independent judge that they know what they're doing, so they can't just run off on hunches or wild goose chases. The other, that they can't cast suspicion on people without good reason…" He finally takes a breath. "That's what really makes America; it is one of the founding pillars of America. It is why, for centuries, some immigrants have come to this country to avoid the knock on the door in the middle of the night…We've never tolerated that in the United States. It is a kind of inequality that is unacceptable."
I try to nudge Holt into saying that the New Jersey primary is a metaphor for style versus substance in American politics. He won't be drawn.
Instead he says, "If your whole record is commencement speeches, It's a little hard to know where you are on the hard choices facing our economy…I have, I think, an A+ rating from the Humane Society. I haven't arranged with a television crew to film me petting or saving an animal."
A slight smile. "I'll leave it at that."