When Frank X. Herbert was asked to run for the 25th district state Senate seat, he knew it was just to fill the Democratic slot on the ticket. Still, the former state Senator from Bergen County said he was excited at the prospect of running for office again.
But three weeks after signing on, Herbert, 76, was diagnosed with benign hypertrophy in his prostate.
“I spent the whole month of April with hoses up my yinyang,” said Herbert. Then his wife started having health problems, and then he fell in his garage, injuring his right thumb. Just today he went to the dentist for a root amputation of one of his teeth, coming back with a mouthful of sponges.
“It’s like the troubles of Job,” said Herbert, who’s anxious to start campaigning after being “stuck in sand” with bad luck over the last few months.
Herbert, who served one term representing district 39, has been around the state’s political scene long enough to be realistic about his chances against incumbent state Senator Anthony Bucco in a district where Republicans outnumber Democrats 2-1. But Herbert has also been around long enough to know that freak occurrences do happen in politics.
“You’re probably saying ‘Is this guy crazy? How comes he’s running?” said Herbert. “Well, I’ve done it before.”
He’s done it many times, in fact. His political resume is a roller coaster of wins and losses. He lost his first election ever as a Waldwick Council candidate, only to come back and win a seat the next year. He rode the anti-Nixon wave to become a Bergen County Freeholder in 1973, only to lose that seat in the 1976 general election. And he credits riding Brendan Byrne’s coattails to his upset state Senate victory against Republican Richard Markert in 1977, only to be defeated in 1981 by Gerald Cardinale, who has remained there ever since. (Herbert challenged Cardinale again in 1983, losing by about 1,000 votes).
In 1994, he did the Democratic Party a favor by stepping in to run as a write-in candidate to make sure that white supremacist candidate John Kucek did not become the party’s nominee. In the general election, he won 29% against Republican Rodney Frelinghuysen.
While Herbert, a retired English teacher who now lives in Rockaway Township, hasn’t pulled off a general election victory in thirty years, he’s under no illusions about just how tightly Republicans control his current district. But he does plan to campaign actively anyway, even if he can’t expect to get a lot of money from the county Democratic Party.
Currently, he’s writing letters to his friends, trying to raise some cash. And for the first time, he may spend some of his own money on the race.
“I see a sliver of hope. Number one, the national problems couldn’t get worse,” said Herbert, who thinks that the national climate might just be similar enough to the 1973 one that helped propel him to a freeholder seat.
While Herbert acknowledged that his district is heavily Republican, he took issue with Bucco’s vote against the state borrowing $400 million to fund stem cell research and his anti-tax pledge.
Few politicians would run on a platform of raising taxes, but that’s one thing that makes Herbert unique. In 1977, he managed to win his state Senate race in support of a graduated state income tax.
“I think it puts him into a hole when the state needs money. I’ve always been an advocate of a gradual increase in the state sales tax, of course that would be used against me,” said Herbert.
In the off chance that he does get back to Trenton, Herbert has a rather unique idea for his first priority: donate a portion of toll road income to stopping fare increases on New Jersey Transit, an agency that he helped create during his time in the Senate (Herbert said he used to be occasionally referred to as “The Father of New Jersey Transit.”) Of course, that probably won’t be possible if Gov. Corzine’s monetization plan comes to fruition, something Herbert said he opposes.
Reached for comment, Bucco said that he voted against the stem cell research bill for fiscal reasons, since he didn’t think it was a good idea for the state to borrow millions of dollars. And although Bucco’s seat is considered safe, he said he’s taking the race as seriously as any other.
“I am not sitting back. We’re going to run our full campaign as we always do,” said Bucco.
Former Assemblywoman Greta Kiernan, who served with Herbert in the 39th district, joked that Herbert was fond of lost causes.
“He feels he has a role. He can speak eloquently on issues,” said Kiernan. “He’s not a zealot – he’s an articulate and intelligent man who thinks there are things to be said in the public dialogue.”
Herbert said he draws inspiration from Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who’s seven years his senior. But even if he wins, Herbert is not sure he will keep serving into his 90s, as Lautenberg apparently plans to do. But for now, despite the health issues, he said he feels great.
But Bucco might consider himself lucky that Herbert’s recent operation has held him back from vigorous physical activity.
“Up until my recent operation, I was thinking of challenging him to a 200 yard dash. I think I’d beat him.”