WEST ORANGE, N.J. -- Former US Representative Peter W. Rodino Jr., a little-noticed Democratic congressman until he led the House impeachment investigation of President Nixon, has died. He was 96.
The raspy-voiced son of an Italian immigrant, Mr. Rodino died yesterday of congestive heart failure in his West Orange home, said Christine Bland, a spokeswoman for Seton Hall University Law School, where Mr. Rodino was a professor.
Mr. Rodino spent 10 years working his way through law school at night and, after one unsuccessful try, won election to Congress in 1948. He was reelected 19 times.
Born and raised in Newark, he often referred to his roots in conversations. He later moved to Maplewood.
Mr. Rodino was named chairman of the House Judiciary Committee just months before the panel began its historic impeachment hearings in 1974.
For two years after the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Hotel, political pressure had been building over allegations that Nixon had abused his presidential powers to cover up the connection between the break-in and his 1972 reelection effort. The hearings resulted in the first vote in favor of impeachment of a president of the United States in 106 years.
''If fate had been looking for one of the powerhouses of Congress, it wouldn't have picked me," Mr. Rodino told a reporter at the time.
In an interview last year, Mr. Rodino could still recall verbatim the events of the time surrounding Nixon's resignation. He said he wanted to share his memories with others, especially young people, so the lessons learned from Watergate would never be forgotten.
''People today just don't know what happened, and they should," he said.
Mr. Rodino would often say that his national claim to fame prior to the Watergate hearings was sponsoring the bill that made Columbus Day a Monday holiday.
He also authored the Judiciary Committee's majority reports upon which the civil rights bills of 1957, 1960, 1964, and 1968 were based. He helped secure House passage of immigration overhauls that did away with quotas in 1965 and were instrumental in the passage of the fair-housing law in 1966.
''Congressman Rodino spent his whole life fighting for people's rights," Acting Governor Richard Codey said. ''This man, throughout his long and storied career, had the occasion to take part in many of the highs and lows of our country's immediate history. He was unafraid to take on the tough battles for citizens of our country."
US Senator Jon Corzine voiced similar sentiments.
''We have lost a great man, a great New Jerseyan, and a great American," he said. ''I had the most profound respect for Congressman Rodino's wisdom, fairness, honesty, and sense of justice. He emerged a leader during one of the most difficult times in our nation's history, and he was more than equal to the task."
Democrats, Republicans, and the national press hailed Mr. Rodino's fair handling of the impeachment hearings, which helped produce a bipartisan majority. The committee approved three articles of impeachment against Nixon, finishing its work on July 30, 1974.
Nixon announced his resignation 10 days later. His successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned Nixon for any federal crimes he may have committed.
''I was appalled when I learned of the issuance of the pardon," Mr. Rodino recalled in an October 1992 interview.
''When I heard that, I almost went bananas. I couldn't believe President Ford could have done that. I thought either Nixon was dying or something and Ford was doing it as an act of mercy. Or otherwise, President Ford had just misread the whole thing."
Although Mr. Rodino often would remark that ''the system works," he was still bothered that Nixon never admitted any wrongdoing in the Watergate break-in and coverup.
Mr. Rodino received his law degree in 1937 from what became Rutgers Law School in Newark, after writing a novel he couldn't sell, selling songs and insurance, and working in a factory that made cigarette lighters.
He made a name for himself as an Essex County lawyer representing Italian immigrants and was asked to run for the state Assembly as a Democrat in 1940. He lost.
Rodino enlisted in the US Army during World War II and served in North Africa and Europe, leaving the service as a captain. In 1946, Mr. Rodino lost a bid to unseat veteran US Representative Fred Hartley, a Republican and coauthor of the Taft-Hartley Act. When Hartley retired a term later, Mr. Rodino won election to the House of Representatives.
During his 40-year tenure in Washington, Mr. Rodino's North Ward district was changing. The Italians, who had once been in the majority and held the power, were moving out, replaced by blacks and Hispanics. Mr. Rodino came under increasing pressure to step aside, so a black could represent the district.
In 1986, Mr. Rodino won a tough Democratic primary fight with then-Newark city councilman Donald Payne, who is black. The Rev. Jesse Jackson campaigned for Payne, and Newark's mayor, Sharpe James, backed the councilman. At the time, 54 percent of the voting population was black. Two years later, after Mr. Rodino decided not to run again, Payne became New Jersey's first black congressman.
After he left Washington, Mr. Rodino taught at Seton Hall University Law School in Newark and joined his son's law firm in East Hanover.
His congressional mementos and papers are stored and displayed in the Peter W. Rodino Jr. Law Library at Seton Hall Law School. The Rodino Institute for Criminal Justice at Jersey City State College also is named after him, as is the federal office building in Newark.
Mr. Rodino leaves his second wife, Joy; a son, Peter W. III; his daughter, Margaret Stanziale; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.