Champion of openness flexes some backroom muscle
The Star-Ledger | November 18, 2001
By DAVID KINNEY
Jim McGreevey campaigned for the New Jersey governorship by criticizing “business as usual” in the Statehouse: the shadowy deal-making, the special interests, the “empty promises” of its politicians.
But even as his victory party was in full swing Election Night, McGreevey was privately pushing his choice for Assembly speaker, and he got a little help from two longtime political bosses.
His maneuvering triggered an 11-day intra-party brawl more bitter than any the Legislature had seen in 10 years.
Election-season alliances were cast aside and new deals cut. Rep. Robert Menendez (D-13th Dist.) accused the governor-elect of betrayal.
Legislators said the governor-elect called them and threatened dire consequences if they defied him.
The unusually public fight may have provided a preview of how things will get done in the McGreevey administration: In short, much the way things have always gotten done in Trenton.
And instead of showcasing McGreevey as the governor of a new openness, the days after the election fed fears that two of the most adept backroom politicians in Trenton – outgoing Sen. John Lynch and South Jersey power broker George Norcross – would hold considerable sway in the new administration.
“I don’t understand what causes them to have the inordinate influence that they have,” Assemblyman William Payne (D-Essex) said at one point. “I certainly wouldn’t want to have them calling the shots for me.”
It started Election Night when McGreevey walked off the victory platform at the East Brunswick Hilton, pulled aside Albio Sires, a first-term Hudson County assemblyman, and told Sires he wanted him to be the next speaker of the Assembly.
For 12 years, Assembly Democrats have been led by Joseph Doria (D-Hudson), a savvy, battle-tested politician. For the past four years, South Jersey Democrats led by Assemblyman Joseph Roberts (D-Camden) sought to oust him. Each time, the Doria faction narrowly prevailed.
And this year would be no different, in Doria’s view: McGreevey had promised his support.
It didn’t turn out that way.
By the beginning of last week, Doria and Roberts appeared headed for another close fight in the new 44-member Democratic caucus. But Doria’s support was fading.
The day before the election, Assemblywoman Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) called him to say she would not support him any longer, even though Doria had promised her a top post in the Assembly and the chairmanship of the Health Committee.
At 9 a.m. the day after election, McGreevey gave Doria the news over breakfast at the Sheraton Hotel in Woodbridge. He could not support Doria for speaker. He wanted “consensus” and “a leadership team that works.” Sires, a virtual unknown compared with the others, was his man.
Roberts quickly gave in, but it was only two days ago that Doria relented. It had taken days of viciousness to settle the matter.
“This week feels like 10 years,” said one Assembly member when it was all over Friday.
Leading the way for McGreevey and his Sires solution were Lynch and Norcross.
Lynch, a former Senate president who is retiring from the upper house this year, is McGreevey’s longtime patron. He is seen as the man who in six years took McGreevey from obscurity as a Middlesex County mayor to being the top New Jersey Democrat. He is the governor-elect’s closest adviser.
Norcross, the former Camden County Democratic leader and now a sort of überboss in South Jersey, helped deliver McGreevey votes south of Trenton. He is also one of the party’s top fund-raisers, delivering millions for Democratic candidates over the years.
Though McGreevey says he was backing Sires to build consensus, many Democrats believe he was bending to the will of the two older politicians.
If Norcross and Lynch have one thing in common, those sources say, it’s their hatred for Doria.
Lynch’s grudge goes back a decade, when he was the Senate president, Doria was speaker and Jim Florio was the governor.
Lynch held Doria responsible for painting him in a corner by helping to pass Florio’s $2.8 billion tax hike. Norcross’ beef began in 1997, when his business partner, Roberts, was blocked from leadership by Doria.
Sources said Lynch worked hard this past week to corral wavering legislators behind McGreevey, threatening them with primary challenges during the 2003 elections, vowing to make sure their bills would be buried, saying they could expect no favors in the budget.
None of the legislators who heard from the pair was willing to discuss the conversations on the record.
Among those said to have received special attention were four Essex County Democrats in the Assembly – Payne, Wilfredo Caraballo, Craig Stanley and Donald Tucker.
Tucker, who came out in support of Sires, later took McGreevey’s offer of a leadership post, speaker pro tempore. He had not said he would support Doria.
Payne, a Doria supporter who could not be swayed, took offense at a plan being thrust upon them by the governor-elect.
“My God, I’m not a puppet. None of these people are puppets,” he complained.
Weinberg, the early defector, won one of the top four leadership positions in the Assembly.
Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex) said she thought things would be different when McGreevey won: “People would sit down and there would be compromise. I never thought it would get to this. This is not good. Everybody’s upset.”
Doria suggested McGreevey has fallen too much under the influence of Lynch and Norcross.
“He is being led astray by forces not under his control,” Doria said during the height of the leadership battle last week. “We cannot allow for the dictates of one faction to control the process.”
Norcross shot back that Doria was “the longest serving minority leader of either party in the history of New Jersey.”
Lynch could not be reached for comment.
McGreevey “has to shake this image that he’s controlled,” one top Democratic official said. “It’s tricky. These people feel they have a right of ownership.”
WOUNDS TO HEAL
Many Democrats say the battle has left the governor-elect with an unsettled party and a lot of bad feelings to soothe.
“He’ll certainly have to put some salve on these wounds,” Essex County Democratic Chairman Tom Giblin said.
McGreevey would not comment late last week, but an aide close to him dismissed the prospect of bitter divisions in the coming years: “We need each other,” the aide said. “In the end, the family will come together.”
Many of those who bucked the governor-elect fear reprisals.
“He’s going to have to fight uphill to make those guys believe him,” one Democratic leader said.
Donald Sico, executive director of the Assembly Republicans for a decade, says the fights “leave bitterness with your party faithful, and when you have slim margins, that’s not helpful.”
With Democrats leading the Assembly by a 44-36 margin, Sico said, “He can exact retribution on exactly three Democrats. After that, you don’t have the 41 votes” to get anything passed.