Bob `Torch' Torricelli Burns In The Senate

New Jersey's freshman senator is making quite a name for himself

How do you spell chutzpah in Italian? On Capitol Hill these days, it's "Torricelli."

As in freshman Senator Robert G. Torricelli. Take campaign-finance reform. The flamboyant New Jersey Democrat has embraced the cause with his usual gusto. As a member of the Senate Donorgate panel exposing the 1996 fund-raising scandals, he readily concedes that he's been taken aback by the scope of alleged abuses. Torricelli even goes so far as to say it's now a "close call" whether Attorney General Janet Reno should seek an independent counsel. And he has gotten behind the McCain-Feingold bill, which would overhaul election-finance rules. "The system cannot be defended," Torricelli declares.

He should know. The 14-year House veteran raised $9.2 million for his '96 Senate race, the fourth-highest among Senate candidates. And despite blasts at out-of-control fund-raising by both parties, Torricelli--considered a master at hitting up ethnic groups--is still dialing for dough. As vice-chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, he has helped rake in $11 million for the first seven months of the year, nearly twice the DSCC's take in the same '95 period. It's enough to make Republicans shout: "Hypocrite!" But Torricelli just shrugs: "You have to succeed at the rules as they're written."

Succeed he has. In a club that expects freshmen to be seen but rarely heard, the 46-year-old Senate newcomer is breaking the unwritten rules. In just nine months, he has rocketed to prominence by putting himself and his causes in the spotlight with the flame-throwing partisanship that earned him the nickname "the Torch."

Already, political strategists are buzzing that Torricelli is sure to move up the leadership ladder quickly, and could be a post-millennium contender for the White House. Impressed by his fund-raising prowess, Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) created the DSCC job for him, a rare honor for a freshman. Last winter, Torricelli made headlines by publicly agonizing over whether to vote for a balanced-budget amendment he had previously endorsed. (He ultimately cast the nay vote that killed the measure.) And it was his idea for Democratic senators to hold an all-night vigil this summer to publicize GOP efforts to stall a flood relief bill. Two days later, the bill passed. "I have never seen somebody who moved so seamlessly from the House to the Senate," says Senator John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.). Adds Daschle: "He deserves the attention."

MAVERICK. Despite cozy ties to the Democratic hierarchy, Torricelli is a maverick on policy. As a House member, he bucked his leaders by supporting the Persian Gulf War. More recently, he endorsed GOP plans for tax-free savings accounts for medical expenses and education. Liberal on social and environmental issues, Torricelli is an economic conservative who has long backed cuts in estate and capital-gains taxes. That stance, he says, reflects his pragmatism and baby boomer outlook: "For my generation of middle-income people, the ability to save money to prepare for retirement is becoming more than an interest; soon it will be an obsession."

With such eclectic views, it's not surprising that his circle of confidants extends from House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), a champion of liberalism, to Jude Wanniski, a GOP supply-side guru. Wanniski hails Torricelli as a "Jack Kemp Democrat" for his pro-growth stance.

Although Torricelli is likely to oppose renewal of Presidential "fast-track" authority to negotiate trade pacts that Congress can't amend--a top business priority--he nonetheless gets high marks from some New Jersey execs. "He's always recognized that improvement of the environment and economic development are not mutually exclusive," says Larry Codey, president of the Newark-based utility Public Service Electric & Gas Co. Torricelli is a career pol who served as an aide to former Vice-President Walter Mondale. But he says he relates to business as a "frustrated entrepreneur" who might jump to a second career in the private sector someday.

For now, Torricelli is focused on his legislative agenda. Besides campaign-finance reform, he's advocating voluntary national education standards and tighter food safety rules. He hopes to win a seat on the Finance Committee, where he would work to further shift the tax burden from investment and savings to consumption. A pet idea: eliminate taxes on savings-account interest.

SCORCHED-EARTH TACTICS. Despite so many GOP-friendly positions, Torricelli's scorched-earth tactics have made him more than a few Republican enemies. Many GOP lawmakers haven't forgiven him for leaking intelligence in 1995 that linked a Guatemalan colonel on the CIA payroll to the murders of an American innkeeper and a guerrilla leader. At the time, the divorced Torricelli was dating Bianca Jagger, the human rights activist and former wife of Mick. "He's more interested in getting press attention than in getting things done," scoffs a GOP Hill staffer.

Sometimes Torricelli can make even Democrats wince. As the Donorgate hearings opened by focusing on Asian-American contributors, he poignantly recalled watching Senator Estes Kefauver's 1951 televised hearings into the Mafia, which cast Italian-Americans in an unfavorable light. His comments became a Beltway joke when reporters figured out that Torricelli was a newborn at the time. Since then, he has toned down his rhetoric at the hearings and is prodding the AFL-CIO to testify about its political donations and ads.

But don't look for a mellower Torricelli as Campaign '98 heats up. For starters, it will be payback time for Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.), who faces a tough reelection fight. As ex-chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, D'Amato gave millions to Torricelli's '96 GOP opponent, then-Representative Dick Zimmer, for what became one of the ugliest slugfests of the year. "It's business," not personal, Torricelli insists. To win back the Senate in 2000, the Democrats must capture the seat. "Al D'Amato's problem is that he's in the way," says the Torch. With Torricelli in line for a majority leadership post, that's a precarious place to be.

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