Former U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli, who for months has fanned speculation about a political comeback, warned Friday that "the quality of life in New Jersey may become irreversible" if voters do not elect the right person to succeed Gov. Christie in November 2017.
Torricelli, a Democrat who represented New Jersey for 20 years in Congress, until he dropped his Senate reelection campaign in 2002 amid an ethics scandal, said he does not want to run for governor.
But he has openly expressed interest in returning to the Senate, where he served one term after 14 years in the House. Democrats now occupy both New Jersey seats, but Torricelli, 64, has fueled talk of a run since Sen. Robert Menendez was indicted nearly a year ago on federal corruption charges. Menendez does not face reelection until 2018. Sen. Cory A. Booker's term ends in 2021.
"This is my own midlife crisis. I've only said that I feel like I've got one more chapter in life," Torricelli, a Bergen County native who now lives in Hunterdon County, told the Inquirer Editorial Board during an hour-long interview.
Torricelli, who said he had spent the last 12 years in real estate, added: "For my last chapter, I have thought about doing something else in public life."
He said he thought Menendez had a chance of being acquitted, and added that there should not be "any preparation" to replace the senator.
Yet Torricelli sounded like a candidate-in-waiting. During the interview, he bemoaned what he described as the "transactional" nature of New Jersey politics, said he was "frightened" by the state's financial situation, and repeatedly spoke of the "leadership" needed to address the state's pension and transportation crises.
He has maintained a federal campaign account, and, as first reported by Politico, paid $12,300 to a political research firm late last year.
"We've done some research that potentially could help other candidates," he said, adding that the firm had not conducted opposition research on candidates who might one day run in a Senate race.
His visit to Philadelphia followed a meeting earlier this week with the Asbury Park Press editorial board. Torricelli also has spoken with prominent columnists for the Newark Star-Ledger and the Bergen Record.
Officially, he said he was meeting with journalists "simply to ring an alarm bell. Both parties better take this seriously, and we better get this right."
"My entire life's work is now in real estate projects in New Jersey," he said. "I'm enormously frightened that the state financial situation is going to cause a precipitous rise in real estate taxes, causing a decline in value of everything all of us own, and also simply make it just unaffordable."
If Torricelli were to run for an open Senate seat, he acknowledged, he would have to address the ethics scandal that ended his career. Torricelli was not charged with a crime. But the Senate Ethics Committee in July 2002 "severely admonished" Torricelli for accepting gifts, including a television and stereo CD player, from a campaign donor.
The donor, David Chang, had sought Torricelli's aid in business matters. "Rules should be followed, and I violated a rule," Torricelli said. "It doesn't define my life. It's not going to govern the rest of my life. It's a fact. People make mistakes, and I made mine."
He added that he had "worked tirelessly" as a member of Congress and "impacted every corner of the state."
Torricelli did not endorse a candidate for governor, but heaped praise on several potential contenders during the course of the interview.
He said he had watched Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) "grow through the years."
"I think he's providing now a real maturity of leadership," Torricelli said. Asked to provide an example, Torricelli said Sweeney had tried to seek compromise in the state's response to Atlantic City's financial crisis. (Torricelli also disclosed that Sweeney had been helpful with Torricelli's economic development projects in South Jersey.)
Discussing urban redevelopment, Torricelli said Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop had been "extremely successful."
Sweeney and Fulop are expected to compete for the Democratic nomination in 2017.
He called Newark Mayor Ras Baraka an "extraordinary breath of fresh air," and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto of Hudson County "the conscience of the Democratic Party."
"There's a need for practicality to govern," Torricelli said. "But there should always be somebody who's reminding us why we're Democrats."
Prieto has resisted Sweeney's and Christie's calls for a takeover of Atlantic City's government that would allow the state to break labor contracts.
Even so, Torricelli said of Atlantic City, "there's no time for prolonged, principled debates."
Addressing the state's nearly depleted fund for road, bridge, and rail maintenance, he said: "If the State of New Jersey can't pass a gas tax [increase] to deal with our transportation problems, it can't do anything."