Retiring Roekema Sparks Bitter Battle for Her New Jersey Seat

Rep. Marge Roukema of New Jersey is retiring from the House after 22 years on the job, but the outspoken political maverick's quiet departure screams of her typically independent manner.

Running full throttle to replace Roukema is Scott Garrett, a former state representative whom Roukema barely managed to beat in the last two primary elections. Republicans who hoped to get an endorsement from the retiring representative found the 11-term congresswoman holding her tongue as she hung on to memories of their earlier bitter rivalry.

"It's an extraordinary, excruciating dilemma," Roukema said in August at the option of endorsing a man she once called a "right-wing extremist"; endorsing his opponent, Democrat Anne Sumers; or not endorsing anyone. Roukema ended up withholding her endorsement.

That has Sumers taking full advantage of Roukema's silence. In a recent mailing, she wrote, "If you like Marge's moderate, independent spirit, you will love Anne Sumers."

But what makes a winning formula in the 5th Congressional District is an elusive blend Roukema managed to master but others may find hard to follow. 

The teacher and homemaker who became the gentlewoman from New Jersey often voted with her GOP colleagues on fiscal issues, and served most recently as vice chair of the Financial Services Committee, where she was favored by big banking and insurance interests. 

Her social record, however, reflects her pro-choice, pro-gun control, left-of-center social views, much to the chagrin of her conservative colleagues.

Nonetheless, heavy hitters Vice President Dick Cheney, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge and House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, her sometimes-nemesis, all came to fete the retiring Roukema this week at a Capitol Hill luncheon.

"We hate to see you go," said Cheney, who Roukema called her mentor during their 1980-1988 stint in the House together. "She came here to make a difference, and for 11 terms she's been a leader."

"[She has had] the same compassion, same dedication and same commitment," for two decades, said Ridge, who also served with Roukema from 1982 to 1994. "We admire you. We love you."

Armey, with whom Roukema often disagreed while the two worked together on the Education and the Workforce Committee, said the congresswoman "drove me crazy," but he would miss her anyway.

"I immediately came to the conclusions that, Marge, I don't want to be here without you," said Armey, who is also retiring at the end of the 107th Congress.

Despite Armey's teasing comments, many credit Roukema's loss of the banking committee chairwomanship -- a seat for which she had been in direct line of succession -- to her less than harmonious relationship with conservative members of her party.

Roukema was passed over for the chairmanship in favor of Rep. Mike Oxley, R-Ohio, when the Banking and Financial Services Committee was morphed into the Financial Services Committee in 2001. It was this snub that political observers say led her to retirement -- a footnote that was not mentioned in the lighthearted affair on Wednesday.

It's also Roukema's ongoing conflict with conservatives that has Democrats banking on a win to succeed her. Kim Ruby, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the election of Garrett as the GOP nominee was the wrong choice by Republicans.

"The Republicans have given us an opportunity here. [Garrett] is far too conservative and out of step with the modern constituency," Ruby said.

Campaigns & Elections oddsmaker gives Garrett a 58-percent edge in the November election, and national Republicans say they aren't worried. Bush carried the district in 2000 and Garrett has proven himself campaign-worthy in the last two attempts to beat Roukema.

"Ultimately, a liberal like Anne Sumers isn't going to win here," said Carl Forti of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "I would say we're watching this race but we're really not concerned."

Political observers say neither party should feel too confident.

"[Garrett] is more conservative, obviously, than Anne Sumers, but it is premature to give this seat to Democrats," said Nathan Gonzalez of the Rothenberg Report, who added that New Jersey is starting to trend Democrat. "We have it leaning to Republican. Anne Sumers, she needs to prove herself as a candidate. Will it be a landslide? Probably not ... but this district is more conservative."