Franks Plans To Step In
Quick Reversal in New Jersey
-- G.O.P. Was Worried by Negative News Reports
Originally appeared in the New York Times on Thursday, April 26, 2001
By DAVID M. HALBFINGER
TRENTON, April 25
Acting Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco abruptly quit the New Jersey governor's race today, citing weeks of what he called devastating media coverage of his past business and legal dealings. Former Representative Bob Franks is to take his place on Republican ballots in the primary on June 26.
"I've had it," Mr. DiFrancesco told reporters this afternoon, only three days after he formally announced his candidacy. "These past several weeks have -- almost seemed like several years, quite frankly -- have really dealt a blow to me and my family, and I think it's too difficult."
The decision was clearly wrenching for Mr. DiFrancesco, a lawmaker for 25 years who had been positioning himself for a gubernatorial run since being elected president of the State Senate by his peers in 1992. And it immediately recast the dynamic of this year's race for governor, with the entry of Mr. Franks, who lost only narrowly to Jon S. Corzine in last year's United States Senate race despite being outspent 10 to 1.
Mr. DiFrancesco's withdrawal was the latest and biggest surprise in what has been a political year full of twists and turns, intrigue and scandal in New Jersey, from the resignation of Gov. Christie Whitman to the federal campaign-finance investigation of Senator Robert G. Torricelli to calls in the State Senate for the impeachment of a sitting State Supreme Court justice on charges that he misled lawmakers about racial profiling.
There was so much afoot in Trenton, in fact, that Speaker Jack Collins postponed until Thursday his announcement as to whether he would let impeachment proceedings begin against the justice, Peter G. Verniero.
Mr. DiFrancesco, who became acting governor on Feb. 1 when Mrs. Whitman left to run the Environmental Protection Agency, supports abortion rights and gun control measures and appeared ready to inherit her spot at the helm of the moderate wing of the state's Republican Party. With the immense powers of incumbency at his disposal, he was expected to coast through a primary contest with Bret D. Schundler, the mayor of Jersey City, who had little party support and was widely considered too conservative for New Jersey's moderate electorate.
But with the governor's powers came a level of scrutiny that Mr. DiFrancesco, who had never run for statewide office before, said he, his wife and daughters found terribly unfair and, ultimately, intolerable. "At this moment in time, this campaign is not for me, and it's not for my family," he said today to a handpicked group of reporters who were summoned to Drumthwacket, the governor's mansion in Princeton.
He singled out as most damaging and hurtful to his campaign, and to him personally, a report in The New York Times last week that he had been accused in 1998 of repeatedly violating legal-ethics rules while he served as the lawyer for his hometown government in Scotch Plains. Earlier articles had detailed questionable business transactions, including Mr. DiFrancesco's acceptance of $225,000 from the state's largest home builder to pay off a personal legal judgment in 1996.
But he did not say what exactly had triggered his decision to leave the governor's race. And several people who have spoken to him in recent days say that it was the cumulative toll of the criticism he had received in recent weeks, rather than any one thing, that led to it. They said his wife, Diane, had been particularly affected and had been urging Mr. DiFrancesco to withdraw for some time. Asked if she cared to comment today, Mrs. DiFrancesco, sitting beside her husband, simply said no.
Mr. DiFrancesco complained that news coverage of the governor's race had been one-sided so far. And he was right, to an extent: the focus on his financial and legal background had eclipsed both his own campaign platform and Mr. Schundler's. A Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers Poll last week found that one-third of state residents had followed such reports, and that of those, 62 percent believed that Mr. DiFrancesco had done something illegal or unethical.
Those troublesome indicators, coupled with widespread -- if very possibly unfounded -- concern that still more revelations would materialize to hurt his candidacy, increased the pressure on Mr. DiFrancesco to bow out. Republican senators and county chairmen openly voiced fears that his weakness at the top of the ticket could cost the party its decade-old majority in both houses of the Legislature this November.
Indeed, on Monday, when the primary was delayed by three weeks to June 26, over Democratic opposition, Republican legislators were careful to push back the deadline by which Mr. DiFrancesco could withdraw and have a three-person "committee on vacancies" pick someone to run in his place.
And tonight, the Republican establishment appeared to be falling into place behind Mr. Franks. A member of the vacancies committee, George Gilmore, the Republican chairman in Ocean County, said he expected that it would unanimously choose Mr. Franks on Thursday. And 19 of the 21 Republican county chairmen, meeting in Princeton, voted to support Mr. Franks in the primary.
In a statement late tonight, Mr. Franks confirmed that he would announce his candidacy on Thursday afternoon in Kenilworth. "My campaign for governor has just begun," he said.
Mr. Franks's entry into the race will dramatically alter the primary and could potentially make for a more competitive general election. James E. McGreevey, the mayor of Woodbridge who nearly defeated Mrs. Whitman in 1997, is running unopposed in the Democratic primary.
Having faced Mr. Corzine in last year's hotly contested Senate race, Mr. Franks, a former assemblyman and four-term congressman, is better known than Mr. Schundler, for example. And his absence from Trenton since 1992 would seem to throw a wrench into Mr. McGreevey's campaign strategy, built with Mr. DiFrancesco in mind, of running against Republican "insiders" who have controlled the State House for most of the last decade.
Both Mr. Schundler and Mr. McGreevey appeared taken aback by today's developments. At a news conference at his campaign office in West Orange, Mr. Schundler seemed flustered and irritated by repeated questions about Mr. Franks.
"I don't think Bob Franks is as ready to step into this election as you might think," he said, adding that his supporters would not abandon him "just because Bob Franks wants to be the machine candidate, anymore than they were willing to vote for Don DiFrancesco."
"Whatever happens, I'm confident I'll win," Mr. Schundler said. Richard McGrath, Mr. McGreevey's spokesman, said that even with Mr. Franks atop the Republican ticket, "they can't change the eight-year record of failure in Trenton."
"The real change New Jersey needs is not to replace one political insider with another," Mr. McGrath said. "We need new leadership to make government more accountable and responsive."
Mr. DiFrancesco said he would stay on as acting governor for the rest of the year but would not file to run for re-election to his Senate seat. He sounded upbeat nonetheless. "I don't want anybody to think this is a tragedy in any way," he said. "There is life after politics."
He said he hoped to use his remaining months as acting governor to carry out his legislative agenda of increased property tax rebates, modest water-quality improvements and expanded access to health insurance -- poll-tested measures that made up the core of his campaign platform. Above all, he said, he hoped to redeem himself in the eyes of the newspaper-reading public. "I have a little work to do," he said. "I've got to demonstrate to people that I am not a profit-taking person in any way." He added later: "I think I can overcome this, because I haven't done anything wrong."
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