"A lot of people from the worlds of entertainment and show business have made highly successful transitions to public office," says Pat DiNizio, the lead singer of the Smithereens. "Fred Grandy was an actor on The Love Boat, and he became a beloved congressman." DiNizio, who's running for a New Jersey seat in the U.S. Senate, hardly has the stature of an Aaron Spelling star -- his power-pop band scored its last Top 40 hit, "Too Much Passion," in 1991. But he's already mounting a punk-rock-populist version of the Straight Talk Express, in the form of a nationwide "living-room tour" of solo concerts in fans' homes.
After considering an independent bid to replace the retiring Frank Lautenberg, DiNizio, who grew up in Plainfield and still lives in nearby Scotch Plains, decided last year to run on the Reform Party ticket. He's certainly embraced its agenda. "I don't want to get specifically into too many of the issues," he says. "But something has got to change. I'm doing this for my daughter: I cannot abide a society where first-graders are shooting each other in school."
Like his party colleagues, DiNizio is committed to campaign-finance reform, and he cites Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura as an inspiration. "If you look behind the swagger," insists DiNizio, "he has some interesting things to say." Unlike Ventura, DiNizio held office before joining the Reform Party. "When I was 18, I was a Republican Party committeeman, but I accomplished nothing," he recalls with a level of candor a consultant would consider ill-advised. To bolster his anti-Establishment cred, he recently expunged all references to the two-term stint from DiNizio2000.org (the Website's sections are still named after Smithereens songs).
DiNizio will face stiff competition in November: Former governor Jim Florio and financier Jon Corzine are competing for the Democratic nomination, and four Republicans have already declared. Still, New Jersey Reform chairman Ira Goodman thinks he's the man for the job. "We like people who are regular, everyday, ordinary citizens," he says. Despite his rock-star past, Goodman says, "he's contributing to society. He pays taxes. He's got a job."
DiNizio, who will interrupt his tour for occasional rallies-cum-club gigs in Jersey, deflects speculation that what he's really campaigning for is publicity. For one thing, he says, he's hired veteran Ohio pollster Vic Rubenstein as campaign manager. For another, he has relevant experience. "Very few people know what it's like to be onstage in front of 10,000 people who want to tear your clothes off -- I've been at that point a few times," he says, with a politician's flair for overstatement. "I've already known power. I've already been rich. It's not about any of that stuff.
"Someone sent me an e-mail that said, 'Don't you think you should have run for mayor first, or dogcatcher?' " he says. "But if I spent twelve years working my way up the ladder, that would make me part of the problem, not part of the solution."