Lautenberg Picked in New Jersey; Familiar and Beloved Face for Jews

The Senate’s minyan could soon welcome an old familiar face.

Former Sen. Frank Lautenberg was named Tuesday to replace Sen. Robert Torricelli as the Democratic candidate in New Jersey.

If he survives legal challenges to his candidacy, Lautenberg will face Republican Doug Forrester in the Nov. 5 election.

But the road to the ballot box for Lautenberg, 78, who served three terms in the Senate from 1982 to 2000, will not be smooth.

Torricelli, who dropped out of the race Monday amid ethics questions, withdrew two weeks after New Jersey’s Sept. 16 deadline for altering ballots.

The state’s Supreme Court agreed to hear oral arguments Wednesday on whether to allow someone to replace Torricelli’s on the ballot. Experts said any decision likely would be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

If the court decides to hear an appeal, t would have to decide the case quickly, since the election is Nov. 5.

The situation is different from the 2000 presidential election drama, when the U.S. Supreme Court had to decide whether to order a recount in Florida, according to Kenneth Gross, an election law expert. In this case, the high court would need to find a reason justifying a review of the state law.

One scenario being floated is for Torricelli to resign and New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey to appoint Lautenberg in his place and postpone the election. In such a case, there would be more of a need for the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene, Gross said.

If Lautenberg’s name does makes it on the ballot, Jews in the Garden State, who voted for Torricelli over his Jewish opponent, Dick Zimmer, in 1996, are expected to support Lautenberg as they did in the past, say Deomcratic Jewish observers.

“Frank is a known quantity for all of New Jersey, but for Jews especially,” said Ben Dworkin, the Democratic party chairman in Teaneck, N.J., and a national council member of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “He’s not just a friend of Israel; he’s an outspoken leader.”

Dworkin believes Jews will give their “overwhelming” support to Lautenberg because of his positions on Israel and on domestic issues such as the environment, gun control and abortion rights.

No one is willing to predict specific positions Lautenberg might take as a possible war against Iraq approaches. Before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Lautenberg voted against authorizing military force against Iraq.

Lautenberg not only was one of the first Jews elected to the U.S. Senate, he was the first Jew ever elected to statewide office in New Jersey. A staunch supporter of Israel, Lautenberg has actively embraced Judaism and Jewish causes.

In 1974, at age 50, he became general chair of the United Jewish Appeal, the youngest person to hold the title.

Lautenberg “has a long history of standing in the right place to support the strongest U.S.-Israel relationship,” said Lonny Kaplan, a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who is involved in New Jersey politics.

During his Senate terms, Lautenberg spoke forcefully against Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s policies and against anti-Israel incitement in the Palestinian Authority and Arabic-language media. He also co-sponsored legislation allowing American victims of terror to collect damages from the frozen assets of countries that sponsor terrorism.

Also of importance to the Jewish community was Lautenberg’s work to assist immigrants, resulting in a 1990 bill requiring immigration officials to take into account historical persecution when judging an applicant’s refugee status.

The Lautenberg Amendment allowed some 350,000 to 400,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union to gain entry into the United States without having to prove they were individually persecuted.

Lautenberg decided before the 2000 election not to run for a fourth term.

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