NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. says he was trying not to sound like a policy nerd as he explained how stop-gap federal funds allow HIV and AIDS patients with no other means to access housing, medications and groceries.
But it was quickly apparent that Pallone likes discussing details of legislation he supports like the Ryan White Care Act, named for a boy who contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion and later died.
"I do worry sometimes that a lot of people think the AIDS crisis is somehow less or disappeared," the congressman told AIDS outreach workers and community organizers at the Hyacinth Foundation in Newark, where he'd come to announce legislation to maintain program funding until the act is reauthorized. "We have to continue our assault on this disease and on barriers to care, and that's why I think it's so important we reauthorize funding ... and continue robust funding."
Pallone, 61, has been elected to the House 13 times. Now he is staking his toughest campaign to date, a quest for U.S. Senate, on his resume: a quarter-century in Congress, ardent supporter of the Affordable Care Act, fighter for cleaner oceans and air. He's known as a tireless if low-key representative who, as one recent report put it, "was delivering generators to storm victims in his district long before (Newark Mayor) Cory Booker was shoveling snow and tweeting about it."
A native New Jerseyan who has never strayed from his roots in Long Branch, at the northern end of the Jersey Shore, Pallone is betting that his experience in Congress will win him support among primary voters, who tend to be better informed than the general public.
"I believe government can make a difference in people's lives," he said. "Based on my experience and the fact that I've been able to get things done in the House ... I can do that much more as a senator. My being one of 100 means I can do more than if I'm one of 435."
Some believe Pallone to be the natural heir to the open seat. Supporters include the family of Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died in office in June and who the winner of an Oct. 16 special election will succeed. Lautenberg's family endorsed Pallone as the candidate most likely to protect and continue the late senator's legacy of advocacy for the environment, mass transportation and people who need government aid.
Three other Democrats are standing in his way, including Booker, whose celebrity status has given him a commanding lead according to polls. Pallone and fellow Congressman Rush Holt are not well-known outside their districts, nor is Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, the only woman in the race.
Gov. Chris Christie set party primaries for Aug. 13, giving candidates just nine weeks to campaign. Pallone, who expressed interest in running in the regular election next year, began the accelerated campaign with a $1 million advantage over Booker. But Booker quickly overtook him in fundraising, snatching up $4.6 million in June to Pallone's $160,000.
Whoever wins the Democratic primary is likely to be elected to the seat in October; New Jersey voters have not sent a Republican to represent them in the Senate in more than 40 years.
A married father of three with a law degree from Rutgers-Camden, Pallone and his wife split their time between Long Branch and Washington. He represents the sixth congressional district, which stretches from South Plainfield to Asbury Park. His consistently liberal voting record has earned him a rating of 97 percent with the League of Conservation Voters and 100 percent with Planned Parenthood.
He unassumingly scribbles his own notes on a legal pad, keeps his word about returning messages and drives a Chevy Impala. At the HIV/AIDS event, he chatted with staff about their specific jobs before the cameras started to roll. At an event with gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono in Trenton on Thursday, he was cheerleader-in-chief, championing her economic plan "forward-looking" and "optimistic" and taking a shot at Christie for rejecting $3 billion in federal funds to help build a new rail tunnel from New Jersey to New York.
Pallone has been on the short list for Senate twice before, but both times the nod went to someone else. This time he's running, but his candidacy in this race is less of a risk. If he loses, he still has his House seat along with its senior committee assignments on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and its Subcommittee on Health.