Sean Caddle got involved in Elizabeth politics in a significant way in 2012, the mayor’s race, a year removed from the biggest Democratic Primary collision in recent legislative memory. In 2011, the organization otherwise known as the Elizabeth Board of Education fielded a slate against the incumbent Democrats in LD20, a ticket headed by then-state senator Ray Lesniak.
Rafael Fajardo served as chief strategist and field general for the insurgents. Lesniak has then-Assemblyman Joe Cryan on his side, whom he would count on to grab votes in Cryan’s hometown of Union; and Mayor Chris Bollwage of Elizabeth.
Team Lesniak won, but it was a close contest, with Union numbers offsetting a disappointing showing for the incumbents in Elizabeth.
Heading into a mayoral election year, Fajardo and his allies felt buoyed by the ride they gave their arch political enemies and anticipated – on the strength of their having won the City of Elizabeth – another war of attrition with Bollwage.
This time they had a pair of operatives on their side, too: Caddle, and his partner Michael Galdieri.
Their candidate for mayor – Oscar Ocasio, formerly of Bollwage’s office – didn’t come from within the BOE organization, though, and so even before the campaign started, more than a few allies bellied up to the bar on the second floor of the Cuba Club with their heads in their hands as the Rocky theme music blared and Ocasio appeared onstage to kick off the season.
Galdieri was ready to go. His specialty was managing door-to-door field teams.
Day-to-day managing and mail.
Real pros, or that’s what someone said.
But some of the hardened BOE guys saw the two new partners as intrusive, lacking in local institutional know-how, and especially after the war of 2011, didn’t want to take orders from guys who hadn’t taken their lumps on the front lines of one of the most brutal political wars in 20 years.
Plus, again, Ocasio had always been associated with Bollwage.
So there was trouble early. Clearly this was not going to be anywhere close to a repeat of 2011, let alone a Bollwage dethroning. In that atmosphere, Lesniak’s people collared Galdieri and Caddle in a tavern to talk about their future. They could go down like a pair of dummies at the Alamo, or join the winning team and look ahead to real money.
They bailed on the BOE and Fajardo, lugging with them all the intel they had managed to squeeze out of the challengers.
Bollwage would go on to win in a landslide.
Seen statewide – and sniffed out, incidentally, by Governor Chris Christie’s crew – as an operation on the rise in 2011, the Elizabeth Board of Ed suddenly looked vulnerable.
They pushed back hard in conversations at the time.
Ocasio wasn’t their guy. And then look at Caddle and Galdieri. They turned on them. They’d do better next time.
But it was Caddle’s operation that began its ascent, as the operative took on the job of managing the D.C.-based political action committee otherwise known as the Committee for Economic Growth and Social Justice, and bringing in big money to displace – systematically – Board of Ed members at the most granular level of the game.
As Fajardo lost Board of Ed members and felt his empire shrinking (soon power would shift locally on the school board, from Fajardo to Lesniak), Caddle and his PAC and his partner Galdieri branched out from Elizabeth to new fields of political conquest.
Money had been slow for the partners. A source, speaking on condition of anonymity, speculated that Galdieri wanted money from Caddle, and might have seen things he couldn’t un-see, or threatened to expose unscrupulous activity unless Caddle paid him what he owed him from past work. It’s one of several theories floating around in the muck of what surfaced out of the U.S. Attorney’s Office this week. In the good graces of a power broker like Lesniak, suddenly they felt professionally on track, or so it seemed anyway.
The defection from Fajardo’s group proved fortuitous, at least on the campaign trail, as Caddle and Galdieri would have arguably their best run in 2014, with wins in Newark, Bayonne and Trenton.
If the story about money owed is true, Galdieri, one surmises, never got paid. As his partner organized the endgame of their local winning campaigns, he was also organizing the endgame of Galdieri’s life.
Just a week after Election Day, Galdieri was dead, murdered in his apartment by two assassins paid by Caddle.