Can Mr. Smith-ereen Go to Washington?

Powerpop Star Sets Sights on Senate

Pat DiNizio will never forget the day he met his hero, Joe Pepitone. The longhaired Bronx Bomber was signing autographs with fellow Yankees at Palisades Park in northern New Jersey during the '60s. DiNizio—seven at the time, but now a 42-year-old former rock star running for the U.S. Senate against last week's Democratic primary victor, Jon S. Corzine—approached Pepitone to ink a baseball, but the slugger refused. "He said something like, 'Get away, kid,' " DiNizio recalls.

DiNizio's father, a Jersey garbageman cut from the John Garfield mold, persuaded the slugger to grant his kid's wish. "My dad grabbed Pepitone by the scruff of the collar and said, 'Give the kid an autograph, ya' fuckin' creep,' " DiNizio remembers. "Pepitone apologized and signed. He should have been adult enough to know how important kids are. The formative years are very important. A specific event can alter the way you think."

Which is exactly what happened to DiNizio at around the same time as the Pepitone encounter. DiNizio's life changed when he witnessed a rock group at a clambake near his bucolic hometown of Scotch Plains, New Jersey. "They were a surf band and they had all the moves," DiNizio says. "They blew my mind. I was ruined for life."

DiNizio put down his baseball glove, picked up the guitar, and eventually formed the Smithereens. The melodic, ax-driven group enjoyed moderate success a decade ago; their 1990 song "A Girl Like You" went Top 40, and they continue to record and tour. But DiNizio is willing to put the band on hiatus if he wins retiring senator Frank Lautenberg's New Jersey seat.

The big issue for DiNizio—a divorced father of a six-year-old daughter, who lives in Chicago with her mother—is family. "That's what I'm into preserving," he says, after biting into a glutinous gut-buster of a cheese steak in a suburban Philadelphia hoagie shop, while on a Smithereens promo tour. "That's been the backbone of this country for as long as I can remember," he says. "I'm in pain every day over the loss of my family."

In DiNizio's charming tree-lined burg, there are still a number of friendly mom-and-pop stores. Scotch Plains, 35 minutes from Manhattan, is a far cry from Jersey's strip-mall-addled cities. The town still has a shoemaker, a dry cleaner, and a butcher. "Scotch Plains hasn't been ravaged by the Starbucks of America yet," DiNizio says. "I favor small businesses, and I would like to preserve them."

He also wants Internet access for every kid, no more tollbooths, and no more road construction during rush hour. But as a candidate, he'll have a tough road to travel. His competition is former Goldman Sachs chairman Jon S. Corzine, who won the Democratic primary last Tuesday after spending a record-shattering amount—roughly $36 million—out of his own pocket. "It's classic David and Goliath," DiNizio says. "But I'm going to take a shot."

What he lacks in experience, he believes he'll make up for in tenacity: "I'll be the toughest fucking son of a bitch in there." So maybe the Tony Sopranos of Jersey have found their man—a no-nonsense, tough-talking Italian American, backing the oppressed white male. And the bespectacled, mustachioed candidate fronts a gritty rock band (made up of "blue-collar, working-class motherfuckers," he brags) to boot.

Shades of Sonny Bono: "I'm hoping that my rockstar status can help me get in there so I can do some good," DiNizio says. But he has his tenses mixed up. The portly wise guy hasn't even flirted with stardom for years, though sonic endeavors still pay his bills. He's played more than 60 "Living Room Shows" this year in fans' homes and backyards; $2000, way more than a club pays for a night's work, gets you two hours of DiNizio. (Six of the shows were in Jersey. DiNizio took along state Senate petitions, collecting a portion of the more than 2100 signatures he turned in to the state capitol last week.) The enterprising bard also sells tunesmith services over the Internet. Connect with DiNizio at psycholaborations.com (a site featuring his political philosophy), send some lyrics and $350, and he'll turn your poem into a song.

Jim Beam cuts checks for his work as well. And if it seems contradictory to find an office seeker preaching family values on a whiskey company's payroll, DiNizio has a spin: "I'm associated with a corporation that is doing something that no other corporation is doing, which is giving money to needy musicians," he insists. "I'm not selling Jim Beam—I'm giving away scholarships and grant money. I have a stipulation in my contract, which says that I'm not allowed to talk politics while I'm representing Jim Beam. Jim Beam hasn't made any contributions to my campaign, nor will they. It's just a good part-time job."

The rocker entered politics as an 18-year-old Republican committeeman, but now he's on the ticket of the Reform Party, founded by Ross Perot in 1992; the party's current presidential candidate is Pat Buchanan. "I don't think it matters who I'm aligned with," DiNizio says. "I just want to set an example. People just don't trust politicians today, and who can blame them?"

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