U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, was one of several hundred people in Atlantic City’s Palm restaurant on a recent Friday afternoon, and almost everyone there seemed to know him.
He was constantly stopped as he and his wife, Tina, made their way through the noisy rooms, shortly before the midday fundraiser for Gilda’s Club of South Jersey, which they co-chaired.
After nine terms in office, LoBiondo, 66, is enough of an established local institution that his and his wife’s portraits are among the field of local stars caricatured on the restaurant’s walls. Their portraits smile from about 10 feet up in the entry hallway.
LoBiondo is running for his 10th term in a race in which he has barely acknowledged his challenger, Democrat Cassandra Shober. He has instead attended events like the fundraiser throughout the sprawling district and has spurned debates for the second election in a row.
“I don’t choose to talk about my opponent,” LoBiondo said at the event, when directly asked how the district would be different with Shober. “I know how I respond to the district. I know that I put the constituents first, that every decision I make is based on what it means to the district, who likes it in the district, who doesn’t like it in the district and how the people in the district will respond.”
LoBiondo grew up in Vineland, in a family that operated a trucking service delivering Cumberland County produce to the shore. After 16 years there, he won a seat on the Cumberland County Board of Chosen Freeholders in 1984. He was elected to the state Assembly in 1987.
LoBiondo lost his first bid for Congress, but in 1994 was part of the wave of Republicans that grabbed the House majority for the first time in 40 years.
Like other Republicans that year, he supported a six-term limit and restrictions such as limits on committees and supermajorities for tax increases. Shortly after he was elected, he told The Press of Atlantic City, “Term limits cut to the heart of what our national political system has become and what it should be. By enacting term limits, we can get back to the idea that members of Congress are to be citizen legislators, not career politicians.” He then was co-chairman of a congressional committee to round up the necessary votes.
He backed away from the term-limit pledge in 2003, saying he had underestimated how seniority could work to the district’s advantage. To this day, opponents cite the promise in their attacks.
On another recent day, LoBiondo sat in on WIBG-AM 1020 with host Larry Trulli. The first call came from “Tom from Lower,” who chastised LoBiondo for staying in office and avoiding any debates.
LoBiondo said he takes full responsibility for his actions, saying he answers to his constituents. He acknowledged initally pledging to serve no more than 12 years, but he said the district has returned him to office. “If the people decide they want one of my opponents,” LoBiondo said, “God bless them, this is the United States of America and this is how this works.”
LoBiondo has long sought to respond to constituents, appearing on talk shows, attending community events and returning constituent calls well into the night. Politically, he has taken a moderate stance on such issues as the environment, while holding more conservative views on others.
He has voted with Republicans on gun rights and for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He sits on the Armed Services and Transportation and Infrastructure committees and is chairman of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.
LoBiondo misses few votes. House voting records show he has missed just 26 of the more than 12,000 votes Congress has held since 1995 (about 0.2 percent), and none since 2008. The website Govtrack.us said the median voting record from 1995 to the present missed 2.5 percent of votes.
The website OpenCongress.org reported LoBiondo votes with his party slightly more than 84 percent of the time. It made him the 10th most likely to veer off from the Republicans, a trait that has angered some on the right.
In 2009, he was one of the so-called “Cap-and-Trade Eight,” eight congressional Republicans who broke ranks with their party to support an Obama administration proposal. The bill would have limited the amount of carbon dioxide that could be generated, then set up a market-based program for businesses to trade the credits.
That vote generated hundreds of angry calls and emails, staffers said later, after right-wing groups identified LoBiondo as a Republican In Name Only, or RINO, and circulated his picture and office phone number on the Internet.
The proposal died in the Senate under threat of filibuster, and LoBiondo later said he would not support it again.
While some Atlantic City boosters have supported legalizing sports wagering in the resort, LoBiondo said current law leaves Congress’ hands tied. After New Jersey voters passed sports wagering in a referendum, he sponsored legislation to legalize it. Unlike other proposals that would permit sports betting only in New Jersey, LoBiondo’s bill would open it up nationwide, because, he said, that was the only way to get the votes.
He said he liked Gov. Chris Christie’s proposal to forge on with sports wagering, provoking a confrontation with federal officials and potentially overturning existing law.
LoBiondo also backed legal Internet wagering. “It’s not going to be a savior for our problems,” he said, “but it would be an asset to use.” A plank in this year’s official Republican platform opposes Internet gambling, but he said, “I don’t know who refers to that when they’re dealing with this.”
LoBiondo said he expected Internet wagering would eventually be federally regulated. “If the federal government is seeing a problem and understands the problem they’re creating by not doing this, and they’re allowing 50 states to do their own thing, and (it’s) uncontrolled and unregulated at the federal level … it’s a commonsense thing, and hopefully common sense will prevail.”
He was optimistic about the future of the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or Next Gen, which seeks to move the nation to a satellite-based air-traffic system. Egg Harbor Township’s William J. Hughes Technical Center is the nation’s primary NextGen facility.
Now, he said, he is enthusiastic that the Hughes center will be picked to help the federal government develop how it will address unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, in U.S. airspace. They could be a tremendous benefit, he said, if, for instance, you’re an organ donor or recipient.
“I don’t know how this is going to look,” he said. “There needs to be a serious protocol with serious protections, but it’s got to get started.”
He acknowledged that the years in the nation’s capital had changed him, but he said they had enabled him to better address the region’s problems. He said, “I’d like to think that I’ve been smarter with solving problems, better with solving constituents’ problems.”
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