Gizzi on Politics August 3, 2009

Behind the New Jersey Scandals

At a time in the 1980s when Democratic pols in New York were under intense fire, comedian Joey Adams quipped that attendance at the state Democratic Party dinner meant “if you’re indicted, you’re invited.”

These days, Adams’ words seem very applicable to the Democrats in New Jersey. Just over a week ago, the Garden State was jolted by the spectacular arrest of three Democratic mayors, including Hoboken’s newly inaugurated allegedly “reform” Mayor Peter Cammarano, III and a raid on the office of Democratic State Community Affairs Commissioner Joseph Doria, Jr. Newspapers, newscasts, and the blogs nationwide seemed fixated on the bizarre stories of crooked rabbis, kidneys for sale, and cash bribes.  

There was also one obscure Republican legislator arrested, but with 44 people charged with corruption and most of them Democrats, this is being played in the press as a Democratic scandal. Less known, but possibly more important, one former campaign consultant from New Jersey told me last week, “is that Democrats here have always counted on a big turnout in heavily Democratic Hudson County to win statewide and 19 of the 44 Democrats implicated in the scandal are part of the Hudson County operation.”  

And the scandal is clearly taking its toll on Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, who is locked in a desperate re-election battle this fall. A just-completed Public Policy Polling survey shows Republican challenger Chris Christie holding a 50%-to-36% lead statewide over Corzine. Among independents, the same survey showed Christie leading Corzine by a handsome 54%-to-26% margin. The Republican nominee, a former U.S. attorney, also gets 86% of the Republican vote while holding Corzine to 64% of the Democratic vote.  

At a time when Republicans nationwide are concerned about the appeal of their candidates to minority groups, Christie is scoring especially well against Corzine on this front. Among blacks — long considered the most solid of Democratic constituencies — only 64% told Public Policy they would vote for Corzine. Moreover, Hispanic voters said they are going with Christie over Corzine by a margin of 50% to 33%.


An embattled Corzine finally tapped his choice for the newly created office of lieutenant governor last week: 74-year-old State Sen. Loretta Weinberg of Teaneck in Bergen County. She is an arch-rival of county Democratic Chairman, and frequent Corzine irritant, Joe Ferriro. As was often noted in the press, Weinberg lost $1.3 million of her life savings in investments with Bernard Madoff.  

Christie’s running mate is Monmouth County Sheriff Kim Guadagno, a onetime federal prosecutor and the first woman to hold the law enforcement job in her county. Guadagno says she “supported a woman’s right to choose an abortion,” but also says that the number of abortions in New Jersey needs to be reduced (Christie is pro-life). The 50-year-old sheriff also heads one of 11 law enforcement agencies in the nation given permission to initiate deportation proceedings against illegal immigrants accused of serious crimes.  

Because of the New Jersey’s bad economy and the recent scandals, signs at this time point to a Christie win. However, pundits and pols in the state still recall the 1977 race, in which Republican State Sen. Ray Bateman was considered a cinch over Democratic Gov. (1973-81) Brendan T. Byrne, who had signed a new state income tax into law. But Bateman spelled out in detail just what he would do as governor and thus permitted the Democratic incumbent to put him on the defensive. Byrne won easily. Right now, Christie gets much higher marks for his campaign than Bateman did at this point. But multi-millionaire former Goldman-Sachs head Corzine is already on television with attack spots while Christie (who accepted state matching funds for his campaign and is therefore not eligible for public funding until the fall) is not on the airwaves at all.  

Right Revolts over Obama Republican’ Nominated In NY-23  

Most of the news from New York’s 23rd U.S. House District last week focused on the surprise decision of Democratic State Sen. Darrell Aubertine not to run for the soon-to-be-vacant seat of Republican Rep. John M. McHugh, who will shortly resign to become President Obama’s secretary of the Army.  

But there was also a firestorm among Republicans in the district, which stretches from Oswego to Lake Champlain and has been held by the GOP since the Civil War. With the exit of nine-termer McHugh (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 74%) necessitating a special election later this year, leading local Republicans made a controversial choice as their candidate in that race: State Assemblywoman DeDe Scozzafava of St. Lawrence County, who is pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, and liberal on just about everything else, according to the New York State Conservative Party.  

It is no exaggeration to dub Scozzafava an “Obama Republican.” According to the Conservative Party’s most recent ratings of state legislators, she scores 15 on a scale of 100 — just a bit below the 10% scored by the Assembly Speaker, Manhattan Democrat Sheldon Silver.  

There was also controversy swirling around the way in which local party leaders chose Scozzafaza to run in the special election (the date of which has not yet been determined). The Republican nominee was selected from a field of nine candidates at a closed-door meeting of the party chairmen from the 11 counties in the 23rd.  

Although state election law does not provide a primary mechanism, there was criticism from grass-roots activists that this exclusive system blocks input from the party mainstream and that the nominee of the county chairmen is not necessarily the choice of activists. (After a similar system led to the nomination of Assembly Republican Leader Jim Tedisco for the 20th District seat of Democratic then-Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand after she was appointed to the Senate earlier this year, he went on to lose the special election to Democrat Scott Murphy.)

New York is one of the few states in which candidates can appear on several different ballot lines and have the combined votes count for them. Row D, the ballot line of the 47-year-old Conservative Party, has long been crucial to the victory of Republicans from statehouse to courthouse.  

But Scozzafava won’t be getting it. State Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long told reporters that her nomination by the Republicans “creates a problem for the Conservatives.” At first, all signs were strong that the Conservatives would give their nomination to James Kelly of Wilmington, a retired New York City detective and past member of the Conservative Party’s state executive committee.  

There was also discussion of a candidacy on the Conservative line by U.S. Army Reservist Jon Alvarez of Hannibal, N.Y., now stationed in Iraq.

But as we were going to press, talk began to emerge of a bid by Doug Hoffman, a CPA and successful small businessman who is also a longtime Republican leader in Lake Placid, N.Y. The 58-year-old Hoffman was one of the eight opponents Scozzafava faced for the GOP nomination. Last week, he had a meeting with the Conservative Party leaders within the 23rd District and also met State Party Chairman Long.

“I’m leaning toward, without a doubt, supporting Doug Hoffman for the Conservative line,” Long told me. Conservatives believe that Hoffman’s widespread contacts in the local business community and the dissension among Republicans over Scozzafava’s nomination could make him a formidable for contender in a three candidate race.

While there are questions whether Alvarez can raise the money and have enough political troops to be a contender, it is inarguable that he would be the lone right-of-center candidate in a contest with two liberals. With Aubertine out, Democrats are talking about a number of second-tier contenders, among them former State Attorney. Gen. John T. Sullivan, former U.S. Attorney Daniel French, State Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, and Plattsburg lawyer William Owens.