TRENTON, N.J. — U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone said Sunday that he's officially in the race to fill the U.S. Senate seat occupied by Frank Lautenberg and can win the Democratic primary against better-known Newark Mayor Cory Booker by running on his progressive congressional record.
Pallone planned to hold a news conference Monday announcing his intentions. He spoke exclusively to The Associated Press on Sunday night.
"At the end of the day, we're all going to run on our records," said Pallone, who has been in Congress since 1989. "I believe my record of 25 years in Congress and the legislation that I've sponsored and the initiatives I've worked on show I'm the best person to get the job done."
Meanwhile, South Jersey political leader George Norcross III put his considerable influence behind Booker Sunday night.
"I think he's a winner," Norcross told The AP. "He represents a new type of Democrat — fiscally conservative, socially progressive." Norcross and Booker both support the end of lifetime teacher tenure, expansion of charter schools and other urban school reforms.
Pallone, 61, who had banked $3.7 million for a future campaign as of the end of March, said his progressive record on issues such as the Affordable Care Act, mass transportation funding and Superfund cleanups more closely mirrors Lautenberg's positions than his opponents. He and Lautenberg frequently worked together on legislation, with Lautenberg sponsoring a bill in the Senate and Pallone sponsoring it in the House.
He is the third well-funded Democrat seeking to carry on Lautenberg's liberal legacy in a state that has not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate in more than 40 years. Booker, 44, a rising star in the Democratic Party with Hollywood friends like Oprah Winfrey and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, formally declared his candidacy on Saturday. The understated Rep. Rush Holt, 64, a former research physicist, also announced his intention to compete for the seat.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver told fellow Democrats at a meeting Sunday night she was planning to run. Her boss, Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, was in Booker's cheering section at his campaign kickoff in Newark.
Lautenberg, 89, died June 3, setting off a scramble for the seat. A reliably liberal vote, Lautenberg had not planned to seek another six-year term because of failing health and was due to retire in January 2015.
Republican Gov. Chris Christie appointed state Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa to the Senate temporarily and called special primary for Aug. 13 and general election for mid-October for the remainder of the term. Another election will be held in November 2014 for a full six-year term.
The quick election schedule gave candidates only until Monday to enter the race. The only Republican who has announced so far is Steve Lonegan, the 57-year-old conservative former mayor of Bogota who has twice run in his party's gubernatorial primaries.
Pallone begins the race with support from teachers and public-sector and trade unions. He also likely has early organizational support from three of the state's 21 counties, which could be a considerable asset in an accelerated race.
"My hallmark has always been grassroots — getting out, meeting the people, explaining to the people what my record is and how I'm going to solve problems," Pallone said. "A lot of this will be grassroots."
Holt also has a record of support for environmental initiatives and rail and transit security funding.
The congressman was courted as a late-season addition to the U.S. Senate ballot in 2002 after Sen. Robert Torricelli abruptly dropped out of the race five weeks before the election. Ultimately, Lautenberg came out of retirement to take that spot.
There was scuttlebutt that Pallone was interested in running for governor in 2005, but he was one of the first to publicly endorse U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine for the seat when Corzine announced he was running.
When Corzine became governor, he sought to be appointed to his vacant Senate seat. But Corzine chose Rep. Robert Menendez, and Pallone decided against challenging him in a primary.
Holt had also expressed interest in Corzine's seat.
Pallone served on the City Council in Long Branch, his hometown, and on the state Senate before he ran for Congress in 1988.
He is associated with liberal causes. He has trumpeted his role in helping pass President Barack Obama's 2010 health care overhaul bill, has pushed for beach restoration and has advocated coastal environmental protections. Pallone has also had strong labor support dating to the 1990s when he bucked lobbying from then-President Bill Clinton and voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The labor support helped him defeat tea party candidate Anna Little, who challenged him in 2010 and again last year.
Associated Press writer Geoff Mulvihill contributed to this report from Haddonfield.