HIP LEFTY CARTOONIST Garry Trudesu has made heroes of few Republicans. New Jersey's Millicent Fenwick, artfully portrayed as the aristocrat-legislator Lacey Davenport, is one of his exceptions. Adding welcome bursts of mature wit to the rambunctious world of "Doonesbury," Davenport pursues Washington no-good-niks with persistence and good taste. After vigorously lecturing a mobster friend of Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan for making late-night death threats, she wonders aloud whether she has "hurt the poor man's feelings."
Running for the Garden State's open Senate seat, Rep. Fenwick has unashamedly capitalized on the personal charm which long ago captured national attention. The patrician accent is as genuine as the pearls on her neck and the concern she voices for the common man, distant though he may be from her lifestyle and upbringing. No one in New Jersey, with the possible exception of certain construction industry heavyweights, dislikes Fenwick.
Yet a race which looked like a runaway as recently as mid September has, according to the polls, ended in a photo-finish. Frank Lautenberg, a moderate Democratic businessman from Montclair, has succeeded in raising serious questions in voters minds about sending a 72-year-old gadfly to the Senate merely because her heart's in the right place and it's sort of cute when she smokes her pipe and reminisces about the years between the Great Wars.
Like her fictional counterpart, Fenwick has consistently scolded her colleagues about official wrongdoing during her four terms in the House. She has spoken out in favor of benefits for the elderly and sympathy for the poor and minorities. Despite New Jersey's dependence on heavy industry, she has taken farsighted stands on environmental issues--although, as in other areas, she has not been a prime mover behind significant legislation. In fact, Fenwick can claim few substantive accomplishments as a representative. Her chief solo achievement has been to win a minor revision in tax laws which previously penalized married people who both work.
Fenwick's reputation as the friend of the working and lower classes becomes somewhat ambiguous in light of her record since 1980. Like most Republicans, she backed every aspect of President Reagan's economic package, including massive tax cuts, huge in creases in defense spending, and reductions in federal budgets for social programs.
Lautenberg has also hinted at another blotch in the adoring Lacey Davenport portrait eccentricity and age Himself a careful, some times dull speaker, Lautenberg last month came right out and called his opponent an "eccentric" for her habit of rambling aimlessly during debates and reducing discussions to anecdotal comparisons. His wording was strong, but his point valid. In addition, many worry that Fenwick would as best be able to serve one full term if elected, while Lautenberg 58, clearly could represent the state for longer than that.
The New Jersey contest has revolved around Fenwick and her image for good reason Lautenberg has no previous experience as a politician and Republicans have predictably harped on his lack of a public record. But the Democrat has made use of the image game too.
The young Lautenberg, he stresses, learned about capitalism while growing up in the back of a candy store, got a GI Bill education and launched a 30-year career in the gritty world of New Jersey industry, emerging as the millionaire chairman of the Board of Automatic Data Processing, one of the state's largest corporations. "I helped build a small company of five employees into one of 16,000." Lautenberg is fond of noting when discussing increases in unemployment attributed to Republican leadership.
He tosses aside the "no-experience" charges a bit too casually The Senate after all can't be retooled like your average factory. But Lautenberg's skill as an organizer and creative thinker has been proven in the unforgiving world of private sector competition. His liberalism is tempered by a healthy sense of realism and understanding of how business works in New Jersey and the nation. The Lautenberg campaign at first merely a struggle to introduce his name--illustrate the candidate's capacity to transfer profit-making instincts to the game of politics.
Many long time liberal fans of Millicent Fenwick will find it difficult to vote against her today. It seems a shame to force one of Congresses most spirited and engaging characters to retire. But there is good reason why the New Jersey race has tightened up so drastically and for what the state's Washington delegation might lose in style it would gain in hard driving legislative representation.