McGreevey Resigns: McGreevey resists pressure from own party to leave now

The Star-Ledger | August 17, 2004



With some of his strongest former backers now working for his quick ouster, Gov. James E. McGreevey showed up for work at the Statehouse yesterday morning, and his allies said he was digging in for a fight.

Four days after McGreevey disclosed he had an affair with another man and would resign effective Nov. 15, he faced increasing pressure from within his own Democratic Party to leave immediately so U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine can run for governor in a special election.

Three party bosses worked yesterday to enlist legislators, county Democratic chairmen and leaders of organized labor to join in the call for a fast exit. But McGreevey showed no signs of changing his timetable.

“This is about who controls the party. There’s no way they’re driving us out,” one high-ranking Democratic official allied with the governor said. “The last thing we’re going to do is let these warlords get the last piece of meat.”

The revolt in the governor’s party has been growing since he declared Thursday that he is gay and will resign because of an affair, which administration officials said involved former McGreevey aide Golan Cipel. The next day Cipel publicly accused McGreevey of making repeated unwanted sexual advances.

The governor’s dramatic news conference followed what Cipel’s lawyer, Allen M. Lowy, has said was more than two weeks of negotiations between himself and McGreevey’s emissaries to avoid a lurid sexual harassment lawsuit.

That group included state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, one of McGreevey’s top political backers; William Lawler, a Washington, D.C., criminal lawyer representing the governor’s office in a federal probe of a Democratic fund-raiser; Michael DeCotiis, McGreevey’s chief counsel; and Timothy K. Saia, a Livingston lawyer with ties to both Lesniak and Cipel.

Lowy said the talks grew increasingly heated and frantic in the days leading up to McGreevey’s startling announcement.

The Manhattan lawyer said he also perceived threats in the comments made by some of McGreevey’s representatives.

During the week of July 26, Lowy said, DeCotiis and Lawler told him there would be “a lot of investigation into my client” and questioned Cipel’s immigration status. Lowy said Cipel, an Israeli citizen who arrived in the United States in September 2000, remains a legal resident on a work visa.

Lowy said Lawler also mentioned he “had some friends in the FBI.”

Asked about Lowy’s claims that threats were made by McGreevey’s attorneys, DeCotiis responded for both himself and Lawler.

“I would just characterize his statement as bizarre,” DeCotiis said. “We referred the matter to federal authorities for them to look at. I have no further comment.”

Separately, Lowy said, Cipel received threatening letters in the mail, though Lowy did not elaborate or suggest who sent them.

The lawyer contested a claim by administration sources that Cipel demanded $50 million at the outset of negotiations to stop a harassment suit against McGreevey.

“I told them that, as far as I know, a jury can award him five dollars, five thousand dollars, fifteen thousand dollars, five million dollars or fifty million dollars. I don’t know,” Lowy said.

Saia said he became involved in the talks in the final week. “I saw a train wreck coming and tried to get the parties to talk.”

Yesterday morning, McGreevey went to his office in Trenton and called his senior staffers together to talk about their plans for the next three months. He planned to huddle today with the man in line to succeed him, Senate President Richard Codey.

Corzine, meanwhile, is expected to return to New Jersey today after a fund-raising trip for Democratic Senate candidates that has taken him from Los Angeles to Miami. His aides said he plans to reach out to New Jersey political players and plot out his next step.

The senator has worked to stay above the fray but has made it known he would run if McGreevey left early and Democratic leaders drafted him, party officials say.

If McGreevey remains in office past Sept. 3, the state constitution calls for Codey to serve as both Senate president and acting governor through next year. If the governor resigns sooner, a special election would be held the same day as the presidential vote, Nov. 2.

The debate over the timing has escalated into a high-stakes power struggle, one that some Democrats compared to the 12 days in 2000 when McGreevey and former U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli went to war over the Democratic nomination for governor. But many of the political players who supported McGreevey that time are working against him now.

Former state Sen. John Lynch, who was McGreevey’s political mentor, Rep. Robert Menendez (D- 13th Dist.), who leads the party in Hudson County, and South Jersey power broker George Norcross III are pulling out all the stops to pressure the governor to go.

Senate Majority Leader Bernard Kenny, who is also Hudson County Democratic chairman, Assemblywoman Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and organized labor leaders were among the previously loyal McGreevey supporters who called the governor’s office yesterday and pressed for his immediate departure, party officials said.

“We do it very respectfully and with great sadness,” said Kenny. He said he called two dozen Democratic leaders in Hudson County and they agreed McGreevey should give way to a Corzine candidacy.

Middlesex County Democrats allied with Lynch planned to go public tomorrow with the McGreevey- must-go message.

But McGreevey has three things on his side.

He has the unwavering support of the party leaders in two key counties – Sen. Ray Lesniak in Union, and Codey in Essex. Codey, who has feuded with both Lynch and Norcross, would gain broad statewide power as acting governor.

McGreevey also still has the power of the governor’s office, and for the next three months could exact political revenge on defectors.

And the decision of when to go is his, and his alone.

“Frankly,” spokeswoman Kathy Ellis said, “they can camp out in their sleeping bags outside the governor’s office door. We’ll be here until Nov. 15.”

Lynch and Norcross adamantly oppose a Codey governorship of any length – so much that there have been discussions about trying again to dump him as Senate president, thereby blocking his promotion to acting governor, two party officials said.

Yesterday, the political climate remained, in the words of Cumberland County party chairman Lou Magazzu, “fluid” and “ever-changing” as players all over the state were put under pressure to choose sides.

Also yesterday, two independent lawyers affiliated with Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign filed suit in federal court seeking a ruling that “a vacancy exists in the office of the governor,” requiring a Nov. 2 special election. The attorneys, Bruce Afran and Carl Mayer, said McGreevey’s planned November departure “is intended to deprive the voters of the state of New Jersey of the right . . . to elect a chief executive.”

Republicans have made that argument since McGreevey’s stunning announcement Thursday. Republican Donald DiFrancesco, who served as acting governor for a year after Gov. Christie Whitman resigned to join the Bush administration, said yesterday that if McGreevey did not resign immediately, New Jersey would suffer “second-class” status by having an acting governor.

“He wants to resign but he wants to wait until there’s no election. That’s not right,” the Republican said.

DiFrancesco also said he had considered it “shocking” when McGreevey named Cipel his homeland security adviser. DiFrancesco said he had lined up former FBI Director Louis Freeh to hold a similar position – unpaid.

Appointing Cipel, he said, “was terrible judgment. It was really a shocker to me.”

Democrats and Republicans say the pressure on McGreevey will only mount as the week goes on.

Tom Wilson, a former DiFrancesco spokesman who watched his boss’s political future unravel in 2001 amid conflict-of-interest allegations, said McGreevey, as a besieged lame duck chief executive, is in a nearly impossible position.

“He’s rapidly in danger of becoming an island. You can’t survive as an island there,” Wilson said.

When McGreevey left Trenton and returned to the governor’s mansion in Princeton around 3:30 p.m. yesterday, he found 11 protesters with homemade signs in the street out front. One, held by Susan Pizzi of Princeton, read, “It’s the Corruption, Stupid.”

Another protester, Carolyn Hoyler, who lives one block from the mansion, waved a poster that declared, “Get Out of Our House.”

_____________________________________________________________________________________________ Staff writers Mark Mueller, Ana M. Alaya and Tom Hester contrib uted to this report.

PHOTO CAPTION: 1. Surrounded by State Police officers, Gov. James E. McGreevey leaves the Statehouse yesterday afternoon. 2. Loralee Strauss casts her sentiment for a special gubernatorial election during a gathering of Princeton residents outside Drumthwacket yesterday. Next to her is Cameron Hoyler. CREDIT: 1. AMANDA BROWN/THE STAR-LEDGER 2. PATTI SAPONE/THE STAR-LEDGER

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