Frank Pallone, it seems, is everyone's favorite protégé.
And that's how he likes it. Reluctant to challenge the political status quo, Pallone has patiently climbed his way up the House leadership over two decades, declining several opportunities to gamble on a Senate run.
Now, he said, is the time to pounce. "I can be effective in getting things done. My whole history in Congress has been trying to find solutions to problems to help people," he said, ticking off accomplishments such as closing ocean-dumping sites and helping to write the Affordable Care Act.
"Those are the kinds of things that I strive to accomplish that help the average person and the little guy and make a difference in people's lives."
Pallone, 61, is laid back and confident. A lifelong resident of Long Branch, Monmouth County, he was first elected to the city council there in 1982, then made his way to the state Senate the following year.
Now a 13-term Capitol Hill veteran, Pallone appears just as comfortable discussing constituent concerns such as a rigid law regulating fisheries as he does dissecting the policy implications of complex national issues such as charter schools and health-care reform.
Supporters say he knows the ins and outs of policies like few other lawmakers.
"If you ever go to a congressional hearing, you'll see a congressman reading a script that a staffer just stuffed in their face," said Jim Donofrio, executive director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, which endorsed Pallone last month. Pallone, he said, goes to hearings prepared and can speak to the topic without a script.
Pallone, a former coastal law specialist, is working to amend a law that fishermen say has imposed arbitrary limits on the number of black sea bass that can be caught.
"This is where Frank Pallone is different from people of his own party, so to speak: They're afraid to take on the environmentalists when they're wrong," Donofrio said last month in Atlantic City, where he met with Pallone to announce his organization's endorsement.
Pallone says he is a strong advocate for environmental causes in New Jersey. Most recently, he has railed against the Obama administration for allowing seismic testing in the Atlantic Ocean.
Such testing, Pallone says, is the first step toward offshore drilling for oil and natural gas. The administration has said it will not allow drilling off the New Jersey coast, but Pallone fears that New Jersey waters could be affected by a spill farther south.
"After BP, we know that just because something happens in Louisiana, the oil ends up on the shore in Florida," he said, referring to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. "If you had a spill in Virginia or Delaware, it's going to end up here."
Pallone is also a reliably liberal vote, with a 97 percent lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters and 100 percent from Planned Parenthood.
He takes pride in being a behind-the-scenes player - helping, for example, to author the health-care legislation as former chairman of the health subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The Lautenberg family praised Pallone for such efforts, saying he would be best suited to carry out the late senator's legacy as a "workhorse, not a show horse," a thinly veiled shot at Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the front-runner in next Tuesday's primary.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and U.S. Rep. Rush Holt also are seeking the Democratic nomination, and former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan and physician Alieta Eck are running on the Republican side. The special election is Oct. 16.
Pallone has taken a key role in helping frame the Democratic Party's message in Congress, said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics.
"Most people have no idea who their congressman is. But they do have a sense of whether they like or dislike the Democratic Party," Dworkin said. "That's not, like, the PR committee. It's a big deal. Majorities are won or maintained because of the messaging. He's been very active in that."
But if Pallone has been active in shaping his party's message, he has passed on several opportunities to pursue a higher-profile public role - a stark contrast with Booker, who announced he was exploring a possible bid for U.S. Senate before Lautenberg said he would not seek reelection in 2014.
In 2003, for example, when Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli decided not to seek reelection when he became engulfed in a campaign-finance scandal, party leaders looked to Pallone to run.
But Lautenberg, who had taken a two-year respite from the Senate, decided he wanted to return.
With low name recognition and facing a significant cash disadvantage against the Republican challenger, Doug Forrester, Pallone decided Lautenberg would have a better chance to win and keep the seat in the Democratic column.
"It was basically deferring to him," Pallone said. He passed on another chance in 2005 when Sen. Jon S. Corzine ran for governor.
But 2013 is different. Unlike in past years, Pallone does not have to risk his House seat to run. And with the Lautenberg family's blessing, it's more like 1988.
"I've been accomplishing a lot in Congress over the last 20 years," Pallone said. "I don't think anyone can compare with that record."
Frank J. Pallone Jr.
Hometown: Long Branch, Monmouth County
Education: B.A., Middlebury College; M.A., Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University; J.D., Rutgers University
Family: Married, three children
Experience: 13-term congressman
Key causes: Helped write Affordable Care Act; social safety net
Contact Andrew Seidman at 856-779-3846, email@example.com or @AndrewSeidman on Twitter.