With the recent decision of New Jersey Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine to appoint Democratic Rep. Robert Menendez to the Senate seat Corzine held before assuming the statehouse last month, the Hudson County-based U.S. House district that Menendez has held since 1992 is now vacant. According to a ruling by the non-partisan New Jersey Office of Legislative Services last week, there is no statutory requirement for the governor to call a special election in the now-open 13th District. The Hudson County Democratic organization did not want a special election. Had there been one this year and the heavily Democratic district been carried by the long-presumed front-runner, Democratic Assembly Speaker Albio Sires, the organization would have been forced to spend money on the resulting extra elections to fill the vacancies Sires would have created by resigning from his dual offices of assemblyman from the 33rd District and mayor of West New York, N.J.
Thus, less than two weeks after Corzine told the Newark (N.J.) Star Ledger, "I don’t really like, just on a common-sense basis, that the people in that district are not represented, that we lost what we would hope is another vote for sanity in Congress," the governor has decided to leave the 13th District vacant for the rest of the year and thus deny House Democrats what he considers that "vote for sanity."
For close Corzine ally Sires (who himself did not want the special election), what this probably means is that he will have to wait only a few months longer to move to Washington. With more than $350,000 in his campaign kitty and the support of the Hudson County Democratic organization, the 54-year-old Sires is the overwhelming favorite in the all-important Democratic primary in June over Joseph Vas, a fellow state assemblyman who doubles as mayor of Perth Amboy (and who very much wanted a special election).
By itself, the succession of one liberal Cuban-American Democrat by another in Congress in a slam-dunk Demo-cratic district is not much of a story. But there is one intriguing aside to the Sires saga: The likely Democratic congressman started his political career as a conservative Republican and sought office with the strong support of nationally known conservative leader Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR).
In 1986, Middlebury College graduate and political newcomer Sires accepted the seemingly worthless Republican nomination for Congress in the 13th District against entrenched Democratic Rep. (1978-92) Frank Guarini. Among those who campaigned for Sires was Norquist, who told me, "1986 was the first year of our taxpayers’ pledge [in which the signer vowed in writing to oppose new or increased taxes]. … More than 100 incumbents signed the pledge that year, and Sires was one of the first challenger candidates to do so. Not only did he sign the taxpayers’ pledge, but he asked me to come up and do a campaign event with him, which I did."
Sires lost badly to Guarini. He later switched to the Democratic Party and won the mayoralty of West New York in 1995. He won his assembly seat in 2001 as fellow Democrat James McGreevey was winning the governorship and Democrats were winning control of the Garden State Assembly with a 45-to-25 seat margin. With McGreevey’s support, newly minted legislator Sires was elected assembly speaker in a four-candidate race. His Republican background and association with Norquist notwithstanding, Sires has been a reliable supporter of McGreevey’s big-spending proposals as the most powerful assemblyman in Trenton.
"It’s sad when ideas and principles are stepping stones rather than guidelines," mused Norquist about Sires, "He’s had a descent and fall that’s been very rapid. He not only switched sides and joined the bad guys — he rose to become Lucifer."