Albio Who? Political soap opera grips the Democrats

The Star-Ledger | November 12, 2001



Election night, in the East Brunswick Hilton: Democrat Jim McGreevey had just finished a raucous victory speech exhorting his cheering supporters, “Let’s get to work!”

Assembly Democratic Leader Joseph Doria (D-Hudson) and his aides stood smiling in a hallway outside. Some of them smoked cigars. The Democratic Party had just taken control of the Assembly for the first time since 1991, and Doria’s people cheerfully addressed the party’s longtime leader in the Assembly by a new title: “Mr. Speaker.” McGreevey had promised, they said.

Around the same time, in another part of the Hilton, the governor-elect walked into a meeting room and quietly offered the speakership to someone else: Albio Sires.

Albio who?

Even Trenton insiders said they didn’t know much about the man who, over the course of a few hours, went from an entirely undistinguished first-term assemblyman and recent Republican convert to the leading candidate for the third most powerful post in the state, the man in charge of the 80-seat Assembly.

“I’m sure he feels a little bit like Cinderella,” said one Democratic legislator. “He’s just been invited to the ball.”

“This is something, isn’t it?” Sires said on Friday, marveling about what he’s gotten himself into. “Oh, boy.”

The unfolding Democratic fight for the Assembly speakership has turned into a story of betrayal, party-boss politics and the haziness of personal alliances.

Over the weekend, McGreevey and his people twisted arms to put together votes for his ticket: Sires, with Assemblyman Joseph Roberts (D-Camden) as the majority leader. Supporting this ticket are two top Democratic bosses, outgoing Sen. John Lynch (D-Middlesex) and former Camden County chair George Norcross.

Doria worked the phones himself, with help from his backers: U.S. Rep. Robert Menendez (D-13th Dist.) and U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine.

Two sources close to the governor-elect said Sires now has the votes he needs, and McGreevey wants to smooth over his suddenly sour relationship with both Doria and Menendez. Both are irate over what they insist is a governor-elect reneging on a deal to back Doria.

Finally in control of the house after 10 years, Democrats have landed in another high-stakes standoff.

Shaping up as the chief combatants are McGreevey and Menendez – even though McGreevey considered Menendez a close enough ally to invite him to stand beside him on the stage election night.

Sires said Menendez had flown back to Washington before McGreevey offered Sires the job. Sources close to Menendez said this week he knew nothing about McGreevey’s plan to dump Doria. Menendez had given Doria his unequivocal backing, and when he heard of the Sires solution, he flew back to New Jersey to intervene, the sources said.

Several top Democrats said McGreevey feels loyalty to Menendez for sticking with him when U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli considered a challenge against McGreevey for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination last year. He feels he owes nothing to Doria, who did not publicly back McGreevey during the attempted coup.

McGreevey’s choice of Sires – like Menendez, a Cuban from Hudson County – was a way of satisfying the congressman. But as of Friday, sources said, Menendez was still irate: He hung up on the governor-elect after a shouting match. Sources close to Doria and Menendez say Menendez will hold a news conference tomorrow, flanked by several Hudson County Democrats, to publicly pledge his support for Doria.

Those close to Doria say he is unwilling to accept a deal to step aside, and some said they fear Doria may reach across the aisle for votes: The 36 Republicans could align with as few as five Doria supporters to elect him speaker in what would count as a major defeat for McGreevey.

Doria, as current Democratic leader, gets to schedule the vote. It would be a secret ballot, meaning Assembly members could promise one man, vote for another and face no repercussions.

“I never thought getting the majority would create such havoc,” Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) lamented. “It’s ludicrous.”

This fall, when it became clear Democrats could win control of the lower house, the jockeying began between Doria and Roberts.

On the trail, McGreevey sometimes said he wanted to see Doria become speaker, his shorthand way of telling voters he expected Democrats to take the Assembly. Sources close to both Doria and Menendez insist McGreevey gave them his word.

McGreevey says he never promised Doria his support, sources close to the governor-elect say, but promised to back a speaker from Hudson County.

So when he walked off the stage Tuesday night after giving his victory speech, McGreevey had come up what amounts to a middle course: A Hudson County speaker, for Menendez, but a speaker not named Doria, to please Lynch and Norcross.

As Doria’s people celebrated in the Hilton Tuesday night, Sires stood with them. Then a McGreevey aide came up and told him the governor-elect wanted to see him. McGreevey walked into the hotel room and told Sires he would be the man to heal the Assembly’s rift and avert a nasty fight that could taint the new era of Democratic leadership, Sires said.

Sires immediately agreed: “The governor asked me. What could I do?” he said.

He wasn’t the only one shocked: “Everybody was blindsided by this,” said Tom Giblin, Essex County Democratic chairman.

No one, perhaps, more than Roberts. By Wednesday afternoon, even Roberts – one-half of McGreevey’s vision of a Sires-Roberts ticket – had no idea about the Sires solution.

Around 2 p.m., he and his candidate for majority leader, Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer), met with Bergen County Democrats at the Stony Hill Inn, a restaurant in a Revolutionary War-era house in Hackensack, to drum up votes for themselves.

Roberts and Coleman left that meeting to drive to the Robert Treat Hotel in Newark, where they were to woo Essex County Democrats.

En route, sources said, Roberts learned by phone McGreevey had pulled the rug out from under him.

Doria had scheduled a leadership vote for Thursday, and while sources close to him said he knew of the Sires candidacy, he believed he had the 23 votes to win the speakership. Then McGreevey intervened: He asked for a delay, which would give him time to round up votes for Sires.

The Democrats voted narrowly – 23-21 – to side with McGreevey.

Doria’s people were livid, and Doria and the governor-elect exchanged angry words, those in the room said.

Sources close to Roberts said he is dejected at having come so close to becoming the speaker, only to have it slip away. But serving as the majority leader under an inexperienced Sires would give him power to shape the agenda, and he was said to be open to McGreevey’s plan.

Publicly, Roberts said he thinks “Albio Sires is a serious-minded individual who has an ability to make a great contribution to our caucus.”

Others were not so certain. Sires cannot even boast a particularly prolific record: He’s sponsor of just 19 bills in his first term.

“Albio’s a great guy,” said Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), whose desk in the Assembly well is next to Sires’. “But he’s only had one term under his belt. I don’t even know if a fourth-termer like myself could run the institution.”

Sires, 50, who owns a title insurance agency, has not done much to position himself for the speakership.

He got his start as a Democrat, but switched to the Republican Party in 1986 for a congressional run. In 1995, he became mayor of West New York as an independent, and in 1997, he endorsed former Gov. Christie Whitman over McGreevey.

He became a Democrat again in 1999 to run for Assembly, but at the time called himself a liberal Republican in the mold of former Gov. Tom Kean.

Sires said he can be rightly criticized for knowing little of parliamentary procedure in the Assembly.

But, he said, “The problem does not seem to be ‘Can I make difficult decisions or not?’ I’ve made difficult decisions in West New York.”

The predominantly Hispanic city of 45,000 saw its crime rate and its average tax bill go down under Sires.

To those who say he is not the right man for the job, he replied: “This is the time to shoot Sires, let’s face it. But if the governor is willing to forgive and forget and ask me to be speaker, I don’t understand why this criticism surfaces.”

Democrats saved their most serious criticism late last week for McGreevey.

He should not have gotten embroiled in a legislative fight, some of them said. When he did, he should have had his alternate plan together, to avoid a public fracas, others added.

And it looked bad that he appeared to be doing the bidding of the political bosses, Norcross and Lynch. Both were seen hanging around the meeting room during Thursday’s fight.

Now that he’s involved, he needs to resolve it – soon, they added.”They’re going to have to do it fast,” one Democratic lawmaker said. “They can’t let this go on. People will be jumping off bridges, killing each other.”