Peter W. Rodino Jr. (search), a little-noticed Democratic congressman until he led the House impeachment investigation of President Nixon (search), died Saturday. He was 95.

The raspy-voiced son of an Italian immigrant, Rodino died of congestive heart failure at his West Orange home, said Christine Bland, a spokeswoman for Seton Hall University Law School (search), where Rodino was a professor.

Rodino spent 10 years working his way through law school at night and after one unsuccessful campaign, won election to Congress in 1948. He was re-elected 19 times.

Rodino was named chairman of the House Judiciary Committee just months before the panel began its historic impeachment hearings in 1974.

"If fate had been looking for one of the powerhouses of Congress, it wouldn't have picked me," Rodino told a reporter at the time.

Political pressure had been building over charges that Nixon had abused his presidential powers to cover up connections between the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters and his 1972 re-election effort. The hearings resulted in the first vote in favor of impeachment of a president in 106 years.

Rodino often would say his claim to fame prior to the Watergate hearings was sponsoring the bill that made Columbus Day a national holiday.

However, he also authored the Judiciary Committee's reports on which the civil rights bills of 1957, 1960, 1964 and 1968 were based. He helped secure House passage of immigration reforms that did away with quotas in 1965 and was instrumental in the passage of the fair-housing law in 1966.

Rodino "spent his whole life fighting for people's rights," acting Gov. Richard Codey said Saturday. "This man, throughout his long and storied career, had the occasion to take part in many of the highs and lows of our country's immediate history. He was unafraid to take on the tough battles for citizens of our country."

Former Democratic Majority Leader Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill had faith in the man from Newark. In his book "How the Good Guys Finally Won," writer Jimmy Breslin quoted O'Neill as telling a group of Washington insiders at a July 1974 dinner: "When the rest of us are all forgotten, Peter is the guy who is going to be in history."

Democrats, Republicans and the national press praised Rodino's fair handling of the impeachment hearings, which helped produce a bipartisan majority. The committee approved three articles of impeachment against Nixon, finishing its work on July 30, 1974.

Nixon announced his resignation 10 days later. His successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned Nixon for any federal crimes he may have committed.

"I was appalled when I learned of the issuance of the pardon," Rodino recalled in an October 1992 interview with The Associated Press. "When I heard that, I almost went bananas. I couldn't believe President Ford could have done that. I thought either Nixon was dying or something and Ford was doing it as an act of mercy. Or otherwise, President Ford had just misread the whole thing."

Although Rodino often would remark that "the system works," he was bothered that Nixon never admitted any wrongdoing in the Watergate break-in and cover-up.

"Redemption is good for the soul. I feel he should come all the way and acknowledge the fact that he blatantly deceived the American people; that would be real soul-cleansing," Rodino said in the interview.

Rodino received his law degree in 1937 from what became Rutgers Law School, after writing a novel he couldn't sell, selling songs and insurance, and working in a factory that made cigarette lighters.