For Andrews, maverick role is nothing new

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"Sometimes you agree with people. Sometimes you disagree with people," says U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews, shown entering the Senate race in April.

U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews was rubbing elbows with New Jersey's Democratic Party elite at the Sky Lark Diner on Route 23 in Elizabeth.

On Feb. 5, during the wait for presidential-primary returns, he was bonding with Gov. Corzine, Democratic Party chairman Joseph Cryan, Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr. of Camden County, and U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of Monmouth County as they cheered on their candidate, U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Twelve weeks later, Andrews was sitting in another Jersey diner - under dramatically different circumstances.

On April 30, it was just Andrews with his small entourage as he pursued his surprising campaign to unseat U.S. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg in Tuesday's Democratic primary. He was waiting for a tuna melt at the Hollywood Diner in Woodbury.

Captured on video by his campaign's new media guru, Jay Lassiter, Andrews was playfully estimating that he burned 5,000 to 6,000 calories a day on the campaign trail.

But nobody is playing around in this campaign.

The son of a secretary and a shipyard worker, Andrews has been in and out of favor with his party during his career in politics. These days, he's taking on Lautenberg after promising to be his campaign cochairman.

Andrews, 50, is running a scathing television ad pointing out that Lautenberg would be older than 90 when the term he seeks expires in 2015. Lautenberg has been running ads since April 14 slamming Andrews for coauthoring the Iraq war resolution in 2002.

Andrews now opposes the war; Lautenberg appears to be in good health. And the attacks and counterattacks keep coming.

This with-the-in-crowd, out-on-his-own pattern is nothing new in Andrews' political life.

The best man at his wedding was George Norcross III, who paid for a fireworks show at the Camden aquarium, where the wedding was held. When Norcross was coming into his own as a Democratic leader in the 1980s, Andrews helped engineer his takeover of the Camden County Democratic Committee.

But then in 1997, when Norcross had developed a reputation as a political boss, Andrews publicly distanced himself. Andrews was running for governor and wanted to make himself appear independent from the South Jersey power broker. He lost.

In this race, though, he has Norcross at his side.

"Sometimes you agree with people. Sometimes you disagree with people," Andrews said. "I'm very happy and proud that George is my friend in this race. We have a long and deep relationship, and I'm really happy we've found a way to work together."

After losing the 1997 Democratic gubernatorial primary to Jim McGreevey, Andrews disappeared from the political social scene, partly to spend more time with his family and partly because his loss by 2 percentage points deeply disappointed him.

"I reacted to the disappointment of losing in 1997 by withdrawing too much. It was a mistake, and I realized it in the early part of this decade," he said. "I went back and rebuilt old bridges and built new ones."

Andrews credits his bridge-building for getting him modest support for this race in some of Lautenberg's North Jersey strongholds. He also had the help of his on-again, off-again friend Norcross.

Although Andrews' candidacy has irritated party leaders, with all six other Democrats in New Jersey's House delegation asking him to get out, few dispute his intensity, rhetorical skills and focus.

"I'm amazed he never speaks from notes," said U.S. Rep. Phil Hare (D., Ill.), who serves on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions subcommittee that Andrews chairs. "When he talks, everybody listens. He has a commanding presence."

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.) said Andrews had been especially helpful on education initiatives, including what Fattah called his own "signature success" in Congress - establishing a program that set aside about $2 billion a year to help low-income middle school students get ready for college by paying for early tutoring, advanced classes, and other college-prep expenses.

Fattah said Andrews had cosponsored that bill. He added that Andrews also had helped get language addressing school-funding inequities into a bill.

"In every instance in which I have interacted with Congressman Andrews, he's been knowledgeable and effective," Fattah said.

Andrews said his legislative agenda included votes against trade agreements that would export U.S. jobs, the shepherding of a bill allowing unions to organize workers more easily, and provisions to ban logging in an Alaskan wildlife preserve.

He has taken heat from Lautenberg in this race and from McGreevey in 1997 for siding with Republicans in Congress to support their fiscal agenda. His coauthorship of the Iraq resolution has enabled Lautenberg to launch his most pointed attacks.

Also in the House, Andrews has been getting earmarks, or discretionary grants, for his wife's employer, the Rutgers University School of Law, since 1999. Lautenberg said the funding had come at the expense of other Rutgers initiatives.

Lautenberg has been especially critical of Andrews' choice to have his wife, Camille Spinello Andrews, run for his House seat in the First District, which covers parts of Camden, Burlington and Gloucester Counties.

When residents of Andrews' district go to the polls Tuesday, they may vote for Spinello Andrews, but party leaders have made it clear they will ultimately pick the nominee - and it may not be her. Some analysts wonder whether her husband is really holding on to the seat for himself so that if he loses Tuesday, he'll still have a job.

On the campaign trail since April 2, Andrews has been calling out Lautenberg to appear in a network debate. The two are schduled to meet at 8 p.m. tomorrow in a debate on the New Jersey Network, but it is expected to attract few viewers.

Andrews attributes his combative style to his upbringing.

"Blue-collar kids don't get anywhere if they don't learn how to fight," he said in an interview. "You just learn if you want something, you have to fight for it."

The only child of a shipyard worker and a secretary, Andrews grew up in Bellmawr. He still remembers the feelings he had when his father lost his job at the old Camden shipyard. Andrews was 14.

"I was old enough to understand something really stressful was going on in our family but not old enough to know what to do about it," he said.

His mother had to look for work, and he remembers her worrying about not having the right clothes, being afraid of working on an electric typewriter, and competing against younger women.

Those feelings of class inferiority surfaced when Andrews studied for his bachelor's degree at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., where he found himself surrounded by a sea of preppies.

After college, he got a law degree from Cornell University, spending his weekends in the library. Childhood friend Scott Purdy of Glendora said he and Andrews had planned a month for a visit. Andrews needed the warning because he wanted to bank some study time before goofing off with Purdy.

After law school, Andrews landed a job at the politically connected law firm Archer & Greiner in 1982. Four years later, he was the last of 41 people approached to run for Camden County freeholder. Democrats were at a low point after Gov. Thomas H. Kean's sweeping 1985 reelection. But Andrews won and soon became freeholder director.

After Jim Florio was elected governor, Andrews ran to replace him in the House in 1990. He has been easily reelected every two years since - sometimes without opposition - and the seat is considered one of the safest in the country for Democrats.

One of Andrews' first high-profile efforts was his campaign to keep the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard open. During the effort he met a young widow, Camille Spinello, and fell in love. They married in 1993, a year after his mother died, and are raising two teenage daughters - one an athlete, the other an actress.

If Andrews wins the primary, it is likely all will be forgiven and the party will support him to hold on to the Senate seat. If he loses, party bosses have threatened that a few thousand calories a day may not be all Andrews is burning in this campaign.


U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews

Age: 50.

Hometown: Haddon Heights.

Political affiliation: Democrat.

Education: Bucknell University (1979) and Cornell University Law School (1982).

Political experience: Elected a Camden County freeholder in 1986 and 1989. U.S. representative for the First District since 1990.

Family: Wife Camille and two daughters.

SOURCE: Associated Press


Contact staff writer Cynthia Burton at 856-779-3858 or cburton@phillynews.com.