Rush Holt: The congressional physicist
Employees of the University constitute his top group of campaign contributors, and students have been summer interns at his office. With a potentially contentious reelection campaign shaping up for 2010, Holt would benefit from further support from members of the University. Over his political career, he said, there have been “students and faculty and staff very involved in my campaigns as volunteers, canvassers and advisers.”
But Holt emphasized his focus on shaping constituents’ attitudes, not just their votes. His primary goal has been to “involve people in their government and to reduce the cynicism about government,” he said.
Holt’s likely opposition to reelection this November will be Republican Scott Sipprelle, who was endorsed by the county Republican organizations for the June primary election against David Corsi.
Sipprelle has criticized Holt for adhering too closely to his party and not addressing the nation’s “fundamental economic issues.”
“He has voted 99 percent of the time with his party,” Sipprelle added. “Does that sound like someone who is trying to reduce cynicism?”
The University, which is located in New Jersey’s 12th congressional district, was the physicist’s political launching ground. Before his 1998 election, Holt served as assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, a job he began in 1989.
Holt said that his focus in Congress mirrors the work he did in the laboratory. “The reason I went to work at the PPPL was because of my interest in protecting the environment,” he said, noting that research there is directed at sustainable energy sources.
But Holt came to believe that energy problems required political — not just technological — solutions.
“The number one insult to our planet is the way we produce energy. The way we have been doing it for many decades is unsustainable,” he said. “It not only makes us dependent for the lifeblood of our economy on people that don’t have our best interests at heart, [we are also] changing the very climate in ways that are costly and deadly.”
In recent years, Holt has attempted to translate his beliefs into legislation. In 2007 he co-sponsored the Energy Independence and Security Act, which set new efficiency standards for automobiles and federal buildings and increased government funding to biofuel production and alternative-energy research. Last summer, Holt voted for the House’s comprehensive climate change bill. Earlier this month, Holt and fellow New Jersey Democratic representative Frank Pallone introduced a bill aiming to increase the amount of money oil companies must pay toward damages incurred after oil spills.
Holt has also supported increased federal funding of scientific research, which has directly benefitted the University and the PPPL. Last year, the entities received $27 million and $19.4 million, respectively, from research spending in the stimulus bill.
These priorities have come under attack by Holt’s opponent, who set up his campaign headquarters just minutes from campus on Alexander Road. “If you look at Rush Holt’s record, it’s always ‘spend more, tax more,’ ” Sipprelle said. “All he wants to do is create growth in the government sector. That’s what has brought us to the tipping point that we’re at now.”
In the economic downturn, Holt said the stimulus bill has directly helped create and retain jobs. Going forward, he said the government should take steps to prevent economic catastrophe. “Well, the federal government can’t give everybody a job, but it can do some important things,” he explained. “The government can and is in the process of putting in place regulations and procedures to increase stability for the future.”
Sipprelle countered that Holt’s lack of legislation specifically addressing “our fundamental economic issues” suggest “that he doesn’t have an understanding in those issues or he doesn’t have an interest in those issues.”
Currently working at his venture capital firm in Princeton, Sipprelle warned that at the current rate of government spending, future generations will have to pay huge debts. “We’re in the process of bankrupting our country. I think that’s immoral,” he said. “Both Republicans and Democrats are responsible. Businesses won’t expand; they are terrified at the cost of government regulation and taxation [and] the jobs that we’re creating are low-paying jobs ... That’s scandalous. And this happened on [Holt’s] watch.”
In reaction to his challenger, Holt’s reelection campaign has emphasized Sipprelle’s career on Wall Street. “It’s not news that a Wall Street multimillionaire would give himself a bonus, but it means that he’ll have the resources to try to distort Rush’s record of getting things done for Central New Jersey,” Holt’s campaign manager Sarah Stewart said in an April 16 e-mail to supporters.
“[Holt is] not working for the lobbyists. He’s not fighting to protect big banks and Wall Street. And he doesn’t get big checks from them. He has a broad base of support from real people with shared values,” she said.
Sipprelle called the attack “predictable,” and refused to apologize for spending his “hard earned” money to offer voters “a new choice to challenge the status quo.”
“The Democrats have handed out the playbook and Rush Holt is a party guy, so he’d attack the Republicans for being rich and being ‘Wall Street,’ ” Sipprelle said.
The Cook Political Report has named this election one of 68 competitive House races this year. As David Wasserman, Cook’s House editor, explained, “Any time a challenger pledges or raises half a million dollars in the first quarter of a campaign, it’s bound to be a race to watch.”
Wasserman, whose first campaign activity came as a 12-year-old volunteer for Holt, added that he still sees Holt as the favorite, both because of Holt’s identity and because of the district’s demographics, which have become more Democratic following redistricting in 2002. Holt represented a “Republican country-club district” when he was first elected, Wasserman said, but now he represents a more liberal district thanks to the addition of parts of Trenton and the removal of areas of Hunterdon County.
Wasserman also said it will be difficult for Sipprelle to capitalize on any anti-incumbent sentiment that will characterize the election because Holt does not give the impression of “the consummate Washington insider.” The congressman “doesn’t seem like your typical polished politician. He’s a research physicist who still has trouble giving a stump speech,” Wasserman explained.
Holt also inspires confidence among his many supporters from Princeton. Philosophy professor Paul Benacerraf, who has contributed many times to Holt’s campaign, said he has known Holt since before he entered politics. “I think he’s an intelligent, capable and scrupulous person,” he said. “He hasn’t to my knowledge, at any rate, slipped once ... I really expect great things from him over the long run.”
On his goal of reducing cynicism toward government, Holt said that he generally feels he has “made progress here in central New Jersey.”
But in recent months, the Tea Party movement has fostered some doubt. “If in a self-governing country you say the government is the enemy, you’re attacking yourself; we’re attacking ourselves,” he said.
Yet increased student involvement in politics has offered some reassurance for the congressman. “Given the stakes,” he said, “it is hard to be too involved, and those inclined can find good reason to be very involved.”