Former Sen. Robert Torricelli spent 20 years in public life and is no stranger to political controversies, dropping out of the race for Senate in 2002 amid allegations that he improperly accepted gifts from a campaign contributor, businessman David Chang. Torricelli discussed the current potential scandal Sen. Bob Menendez faces with NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider, saying he hopes residents don’t rush to judgment on Menendez who is committed to the well being of the state. Torricelli also talked about his relationship with Gov. Chris Christie and how he believes the one problem that needs to be solved in the country is education.
Torricelli said Menendez is committed to good in the state and has fought for New Jersey. “I would only ask people don’t prejudge what you read in the newspapers. It’s easy to make allegations. The allegations made against me — which I still see repeated all the time — 99.9 percent of them proved not to be true,” he said. “It’s easy to do. Give him the benefit of time and let’s see how this evolves.”
If given the opportunity again, Torricelli said he probably would have gone through with his reelection campaign, but at the time he was tired after 20 years in public office and wanted a different life. “I had never made any money in my life. I only knew public office. I’d gone through a rough patch,” he said. “And my parents were getting older. And I just thought it’s time to have a life.”
Many have questioned whether New Jersey is well represented in Congress. While Torricelli said the state pays more in taxes than it gets back, largely because of its high incomes and not as much federal spending as in other states, that’s not the reason for the state’s involvement. “We’re not in the union for financial reasons,” he said. “We’re in the union because we believe in the United States.”
In terms of New Jersey Congress members, Torricelli said there have been stronger and weaker times for the state, but he looks at the state’s members in a positive light. “For the things I personally believe in, things like the environment, Frank Pallone is a really excellent member of Congress. For influence on things like trade and tax policy, Bob Menendez has as strong committee assignments as you’ll see anywhere,” Torricelli said. “We have good members of Congress.”
According to Torricelli, he and Christie are friends. He was a member of the Senate when Christie became U.S. attorney. “He was good about asking me through the years if I was proud of the job he did and by and large I was,” Torricelli said. “I don’t agree with everything he does as governor, obviously. We’re in different parties and we have different philosophies, but what I like is someone in public life, we know where they stand and they have an intellectual honesty about what they want to do. And for all those reasons I like Chris.”
Torricelli believes Christie has a legitimate shot at becoming the Republican nominee for president in the future, but said it might be difficult in the polarized Republican Party since Christie is more moderate socially than many others.
While Torricelli said Christie made the right decision in embracing President Barack Obama on his trip to New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy, he admitted Christie will probably pay a price politically for that move.
If Torricelli were still representing New Jersey, he said he would tackle the issue of education in America, saying solving that problem would eventually solve the other problems facing the nation. “A well-educated young population over time will deal with your deficit, your economic competitiveness, it deals with crime, it deals with investment. It’s the silver bullet for the future of American life,” he said.
There are many varying opinions about how to better education in New Jersey and the country. Torricelli said many people have good ideas and there isn’t one specific answer. “Education in America does need competition. Competition between public and private colleges has served this nation very, very well. Charter schools have a definite role to play in raising the standards of public education,” he said. “It’s expensive, but funding education to make sure we’re getting the best possible teachers and then keeping them in education is absolutely vital.”
The largest failure in education, in Torricelli’s view is the lack of family involvement. He said when he was a child, if parents didn’t attend conferences and meet the teachers, it was embarrassing for students. While he admits times have changed, he said parental involvement is extremely important.
“I know mothers and fathers now both work and I know sometimes they’re working two and three jobs,” Torricelli said. “And life’s a lot harder than it was. But being involved in your child’s education, knowing the teacher, ensuring that your child’s doing their homework, knowing that they’re committed to their education, how could there be a higher priority in life?”