Corrections or additions?
In a Twinkle, Holt’s in Congress
This article by Joan Crespi was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on January 13, 1999. All rights reserved.
Mr. Holt goes to Washington. Make that "Dr. Holt."
Rush Holt, the former administrator at the Princeton Plasma Physics
Lab who has a Ph.D. in physics from New York University, has moved
into his new office in the Longworth Building in Washington, D.C.,
representing New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District.
Holt already has many of the perks of his office, including money
to hire a staff, and assignments to the Budget Committee and to the
Committee on Education and the Work Force. "Two good assignments,"
he says. "Especially for a freshman Congressman. I’m really delighted.
Education is central to my career and to this district, and in this
Congress we will be re-authorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education
Act. And the Budget Committee lays out the government’s priorities
by allocating resources.")
And this Saturday, January 16, from 1 to 6 p.m., there will be an
open house to celebrate the opening of Holt’s New Jersey District
Office at 50 Washington Road, Princeton Junction. But who is Rush
Holt? He’s lean, fit (from tennis, swimming, and chopping wood), and
looks younger than his 50 years. Holt comes from a political family.
He’s the son of a senator with the same name, but West Virginia’s
Senator Holt died when Rush was 6. His mother, Helen, now a gently
vibrant 85, was a biology teacher with a masters in zoology. Like
her son, she also shifted careers: she was the only woman Secretary
of State for West Virginia, then moved to Washington and a job with
Holt is a resident of Pennington. He has taught at Swarthmore and
Princeton. He’s a solar physicist, has a patent for a solar energy
device, and until he began this campaign, he was assistant director
at the Plasma Physics Laboratory. He was a Congressional Scientist
Fellow and an arms control expert for the U.S. State Department. He
is married to Margaret Lancefield, a doctor and medical director of
the outpatient charity clinics at Medical Center of Princeton. They
have three grown children from her first marriage and two grandchildren.
And in the 1970s, he was a winner on "Jeopardy" five straight
What do others say? His opponent called him "a liberal." A
letter writer called him "a Renaissance man." He has contributions
from 16 Nobel Prize winners. One man noted "he has all the virtues
of a Boy Scout . . . but he knows politics." So what does the
Boy Scout know, and what are the politician’s positions on the issues?
Rush Holt wants smaller classes, believing they provide
a better learning environment, would hire 100,000 new teachers, particularly
elementary school teachers, believing the early years are "crucial."
He supports $10 billion in interest-free federal loans over the next
10 years for school construction. He wants kids to keep learning over
the summer and supports innovative programs in the public schools,
stating that "a strong public school system [is] a cornerstone
of American democracy." He would back "a small number of charter
schools to experiment with new educational programs."
He wants the information superhighway in all classrooms in order to
prepare students for the 21st century workforce, stresses a strong
focus on science education for both boys and girls, and wants students
exposed to career opportunities in science and technology, with the
brightest students recruited as teachers. He sums up: "Experimental
schools, access to technology, and year-long learning options."
(Holt co-founded New Jersey’s School Science Advisor Program to bring
scientists and public school teachers together to stimulate science
Holt would ban assault weapons. Children need to be
protected from gun violence, Holt says, noting that over 30 students
and teachers were killed in 1997 in school-related violence. In 1995
firearms killed 5,254 American children (the figure includes homicides,
suicides, and accidents). Holt believes that "Congress should
require `gun-free school zones’ around every school," should adopt
a "zero tolerance" policy for guns in schools, and "should
re-authorize the Brady law to keep guns out of the hands of criminals
and the mentally disturbed." Holt will work "to keep guns
away from children" — statistics show that every two hours
a child is killed by a firearm — and for firearm safety for all
New Jersey residents. He will promote the "mandatory use of trigger
safety locks," believes all new firearms should be "equipped
with personalized safeties to assure that only the gun owner can fire
the weapon," and says that "politicians must not be swayed
by big money."
As a physicist, Holt knows quantum mechanics, but more
as a scientist he’s concerned about global warming and the loss of
biodiversity. He wants Congress to reauthorize the Clean Water Act,
believes the federal government must advance efforts to curb non-point
source pollution, a major cause of surface and ground water pollution
and air pollution in New Jersey, and he supports farmer and grassroots
citizen education on reducing residential runoff. Future generations
deserve clean water, clean air, a clean planet, he says. "I will
not stand by idly and watch our generation leave a wrecked and poisonous
environment to our children." (Holt chaired the board of trustees
at the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, one of the state’s
leading environmental organizations.)
Open space, once it is taken over by suburban sprawl, can never be
regained, Holt states. "Time is running out." He would "preserve
the few areas of open space we have left." He supports the state
plan that directs development into planned centers and away from open
space areas, wetlands, and farmland. He wants to kill "takings"
legislation which allows developers to circumvent local land use procedures
and to sue cities and counties in federal court at government expense.
He would increase monitoring of the Delaware River to decrease dissemination
of PCBs. And he wants the entire span of the Delaware River from the
Delaware Water Gap to Trenton made part of the wild and scenic river
Holt would take on the insurance industry for an HMO Patients’ Bill
of Rights. Specifically, Holt’s plan for comprehensive health care
reform includes having doctors and patients rather than insurance
companies make medical decisions, making HMOs legally responsible
for their actions, ensuring that patients have access to specialists
when necessary, allowing patients to have prompt appeal of their HMO’s
decisions, ensuring the right to a second medical opinion, providing
coverage necessary for emergency room care, and ensuring women access
to a gynecologist and the right to choose that doctor as a primary
Holt supports women’s right to choose, saying "Congress
should not be able to legislate over a woman’s body . . . this is
a private matter better left to be decided in the home rather than
the Capitol." But he would have Congress promote preventive measures
to avoid unwanted pregnancies, believes in sex education as an "essential
tool in lowering unwanted pregnancies," and would have HMOs be
required to cover the costs of birth control products. (He has served
as a trustee for the Planned Parenthood Association of Mercer Area.)
The United States and other democracies "must continue
to encourage direct negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians"
to achieve a lasting peace, Holt says. He believes Israel "must
seize the opportunity of the Oslo peace process." Such a peace
— with secure borders and an end to terrorism — would also
"greatly strengthen the democracies’ leverage with other Middle
East nations," he says. Holt also supports continued foreign aid
to Israel (following Israel’s proposal for reduced economic support
while maintaining essential military aid over the next decade). And,
as part of the peace process, he says, the United States should endorse
Jerusalem as Israel’s spiritual and diplomatic capital and move our
embassy there. Finally, "both the United States and Israel should
strengthen their shared efforts to combat terrorism."
Holt believes that the federal budget surplus should
be used to save Social Security first — the surplus even comes
from the Social Security tax — and not for tax breaks for multi-national
corporations and the wealthy. "This is the best example of loss
of trust in government," Holt says. "Social Security is one
of the landmark programs of the 20th century and Republicans and Democrats
alike recognize that it has been a great success. Many of the elderly
depend on it for the majority of their support. But the issue is trust:
you won’t find a person under the age of 50 who thinks they will get
a dime. That’s a national crisis. We shouldn’t use the surplus for
other purposes until we have restored trust in Social Security. Social
Security is not bankrupt: it brings in a surplus every year. There
are things that can be done to fix it. But there’s no doubt in my
mind that we will be able to provide social security benefits for
the current working generation and for their children."
The National Endowment for the Arts deserves federal
support, Holt believes. "The arts provide a window on ourselves
and our culture. The arts are not just to make us feel good. In fact,
one of the things that’s gotten the National Endowment in trouble
is that sometimes they run things that don’t make people feel good.
We need to encourage artistic creativity," he emphasizes, "and
some of that is important at the federal level."
Holt says campaign finance reform "is paramount."
He explains, "We can’t begin to deal with problems like health
care and Social Security in a way that wins the trust of the people
until we remove this" — he hunts for the word — "shame
that’s hanging over us. The constant chase for money is just distracting,
and also it undermines trust in the system. We have to move toward
partial federal financing of campaigns, to make the airways available
for campaigning, and to find other government-sanctioned means of
communications. Most of the expenses that went into my campaign went
into communications. That’s what it’s about. There are things that
can be done to remove this chase for money."
Holt backs the Shays-Meehan bill which would put limits on soft money
on the national and state levels and increase disclosure requirements.
Holt calls the bill "sensible and much needed. It helps take big
money influence out and puts the voters back in charge."
Holt would have voted not to impeach on any of the four
articles. But he backs tough censure — an admission of perjury
but with no prosecution after. Mark Matzen, his campaign manager,
tells us that Holt, watching the votes, found it very frustrating
not to have been there.
Holt strongly backs reforms in science education. "Science
education is important for everyone — not just future scientists
but all kids — so that people will understand what it is to frame
questions in a way that they can be answered, tested empirically."
(Whether a missile defense system is technologically feasible is one
such issue.) He also believes biology, chemistry, and physics should
not be separated, one to a grade, but should be taught together, "should
be all mixed up." And he believes we should be teaching science
in a way that’s integrated with other disciplines.
And Holt would increase the emphasis on science in the government.
He’s looking for ways to reward corporations that aid in scientific
research and development and would offer them tax credits. "I’m
a big fan of R&D," he says. "We need research into new sources
of alternative energy because our supplies are in jeopardy or environmentally
damaging," he says. "And we need strong support from both
corporations and government if our productivity is going to grow.
The way our economy is able to provide for its people is through productivity,
and that comes from educational training and new ideas. And new ideas
primarily come from R&D." He adds, "The slogan is no longer
`It’s the economy, stupid.’ It’s `It’s the productivity, stupid.’"
Holt’s campaign victory was an upset. He was told he would never win
the primary, then that he would never win the general election in
a Republican district. "Most of the political establishment didn’t
give me two cents worth of a chance," he says. Only three or four
Congressmen backed his candidacy. And even the "the D-triple C"
— the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — while
it earlier provided a packet of issue papers for $500 in kind —
didn’t contribute any money to Holt’s campaign until the last 10 days,
he says. Yet it was not his upset victory but two very different things
that brought Holt to national attention.
One was a vote counting error that first gave victory
to incumbent Congressman Mike Pappas. Early editions of the Trentonian
announced a Pappas victory and the Associated Press had to run a Kill
Bulletin just before midnight on election night to rescind its earlier
Pappas victory story. Several Democrats objected to obviously incorrect
tally figures, and a recount in the county clerk’s office picked up
the human error.
The other was a commercial.
That commercial: When Holt’s opponent sang his nursery rhyme lyrics
praising Kenneth Starr on the House floor on July 21, 1998, "we
didn’t yet have a cable television budget," Holt says. "We’d
figured we wouldn’t do any broadcast television: it would just be
"Seeing him singing on the floor," Holt says, "made me
think that we should get up on television. We could put it on radio
— and we did — but a lot of people couldn’t quite believe
that that was their congressman singing on the floor. Actually seeing
it made a difference."
In the final weeks of the campaign, Holt filled radio and cable TV
ad spots with the commercial, itself a taping off TV, of Pappas singing
the ditty, with a female voice-over added, editorializing that Congressman
Pappas was "out of tune, out of touch."
It was produced by two of Holt’s political consultants, Brad Lawrence
and Steve De Micco of Message & Media, a New Brunswick firm which
specializes in strategy and media (see http://www.princetoninfo.com/90113c02.html).
"When we actually saw and heard what he said, we couldn’t believe
it," Lawrence says. "I don’t understand to this day what he
thought the point of that was." [Pappas might have been proud
of his singing voice. His web page revealed that he was part of a
Congressional singing quartet.]
"People were of making a joke about the jingle," says Lawrence,
"but we felt there was something deeper going on, that the singing
was sort of emblematic of a larger mind-set of the priorities that
Congressman Pappas was demonstrating down in Washington. Whether you
think the president should be punished in some form or another, it’s
not something you sing a nursery rhyme about. And this was indicative
of the partisanship involved, where the Republicans were using it
to gloat, and at the same time they were not focusing on the people’s
"At first the Pappas campaign tried to say that we didn’t have
the right to use the video and the spot," Lawrence recalls, "but
since the singing had been broadcast on CNN, MSNBC, and C-Span, it
was clearly in the public domain." At most, House members might
have been enjoined from using what went on on the House floor, but
Holt was not.
Were there any fears the commercial might backfire? "Sure, Holt
says. "At every stage of the campaign you’re always treading on
eggshells. When I decided to do this, all the Democrats around the
country were stepping around the impeachment question."
Holt cites another danger. "I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t
doing it in a way that was ridiculing our member of Congress."
He adds, "But I wanted the voters to see that what their member
of Congress was doing was not spending his time dealing with education
and health care and Social Security, these kitchen-table issues that
I’ve been talking about all year."
Some saw a further danger. The commercial kept repeating
the Pappas name. Would voters remember only the name? Some supporters
wanted a Holt commercial saying what he was for. "You give me
another $100,000 and I’ll do it," Holt retorted.
"It was so different you really could not predict the impact of
it," says Lawrence. "To some degree, you had to just go with
All told, the spot ran a few hundred times and cost just over $200,000
for air time. It is neither easy nor cheap to get the word out to
the gerrymandered 12th Congressional District, which comprises all
or parts of five counties and has 67 municipalities. There are eight
daily newspapers, a score of weeklies, five cable systems, and eight
different cable channels. In addition, the district is served by several
New York radio stations and many local radio stations.
The radio commercial cost, Holt says, about $100,000. "But it
would be a close election; we had to go to New York TV." So for
one day — the Monday before the election — the video commercial
ran on CBS and ABC affiliates. That one day cost $50,000 to $60,000,
In the last days the commercial’s editorial was changed, with former
Republican Governor Kean’s voice-over calling Pappas "extreme
on a number of things."
The commercial was so successful — it even came to the attention
of President Clinton — that it gave rise to its own built-in post-election
question. Was a clever commercial responsible for Holt’s election?
The ad helped, Holt agrees, but he fixes the turning point at a year
ago. " As soon as I heard President Clinton’s State of the Union
address last January, I knew this was winnable. Because in that he
talked about issues people really cared about — education, health
care, and the cornerstone of that speech was `Save Social Security
First.’ That speech seemed to me to really speak to people. That was
the turning point," Holt says. "Now, obviously a lot of things
had to work: we had to have good media and good organization and good
mail. People said, `This is a Republican district, you can’t win here.’
But if there was one point where I said, `No, I can win here,’ that
Another turning point, he says, came in the last three weeks: a grassroots
upsurge. "It was something I was hoping for, formal and informal
groups of people, and they were just phoning the daylights out of
the district. They were calling everybody they knew. I kept running
into people who said, `I just wrote a hundred letters to people that
I knew.’ Or `I took my personal phone book and I just started calling
all my friends.’ That made a big difference."
Five of the six mailing pieces, all sent out in October, were built
around Pappas singing the ditty, but these did point out, in a yes
or no format, the many issues Holt was for and Pappas against. (There
was a sixth piece included in a fund raising letter. A short, supposedly
handwritten note from Holt’s wife, it stressed family, pictured Lancefield
and her granddaughter, and spoke of herself and Rush balancing raising
their family with demanding jobs. Then it spoke of "our deep commitment
to make our community and world a better place.")
One other message is clear from all of this. Underlying any successful
campaign, no matter how attractive the candidate and how on target
his message, is money. Holt raised $98,000 from organizations and
PACs; the rest of the nearly $950,000 came from individuals: the average
was a little over $200 per person, he says. Holt estimates that more
than 4,000 individuals contributed to his campaign.
Early in the campaign Holt predicted this would be a million dollar
campaign. Many thought this was bravado, he says. He also thought
he could raise that. "I don’t think I could have won if I had
spent $100,000 less," he says. "$50,000 less? Maybe. It requires
that much money to get the message out. And most of that was for communication
— mail and media." (Campaign staff salaries, he estimates,
were about $150,000.)
Holt is still raising money. In celebration of his election
and swearing-in and to help pay off his $29,000 campaign debt, he’s
invited supporters to a cocktail reception, an hour after the open
house, on Saturday, January 16, at the Forrestal at Princeton ($250
per person, $500 per couple).
But is Holt, endorsed by 16 Nobel Prize winners, too smart, too keen,
too articulate, too principled, too idealistic, too perfect? Despite
his manifest concern for working families and his support by many
and diverse labor unions, does he, himself, lack the common touch?
This past summer he traveled all five counties of the district, walking
door to door and, like a seasoned politician, meeting with voters
at summer gatherings, fairs, and picnics. But then he did something
more. In the days after the campaign Holt began calling financial
supporters to thank them.
One astonished recipient of a call was my husband, a retired pollster
who had sent a contribution and offered one-time suggestions. When
Irv excitedly called to me, I picked up the extension and heard Holt’s
unexpected and profound thanks. His words were interrupted by blurred,
off-the-phone conversation that I couldn’t make out. Returning to
the line, Holt apologized: "I’m on the car phone," he said.
"We were giving an order. I’m at a drive-through at McDonalds."
Junction, 609-683-0003; fax, 609-683-0404. Saturday, January 16, 1
to 6 p.m., a free open house. Also, at 7 p.m. at the Forrestal, a
cocktail reception, $250.
Corrections or additions?
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