Ray Lesniak supposedly once called in a rival and had him sit in dumbfounded silence while he got Al Gore on the phone and chatted amiably, proving that he had muscled himself up in Union County to the point of having instantaneous Old Executive Office Building access.
On Monday, Lesniak – a party power broker who helped make Jim McGreevey Governor and through the years with a combination of guile, passion and legal brains withstood the torments that toppled other party leaders in the senate – formally retired from the legislature.
“I abolished the death penalty signed by Governor Corzine with the support of Republican Senators Martin, Bateman, and Allen, and my Democratic colleges; ended mass incarceration in NJ prisons by abolishing mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes and, working with Governor Christie, expanded eligibility for treatment instead of prison, for criminal offenders addicted to drugs,” said the retiring senator. “Senator Weinberg and I were in the vanguard of equality for the LGBT Community, along with Assemblyman Ben Mazur and LGBT icon Steven Goldstein, and my partner, Civil Rights Commissioner Salena Carroll.”
He noted other successes, too, but didn’t hearken back to his 2011 reelection, when the political organization otherwise known as the Elizabeth Board of Education beat him and his slate in Elizabeth and came as close as they ever would to turning him out of office. “I had just undergone double knee replacement surgery,” a relived Lesniak told InsiderNJ in the aftermath, insisting that he would use the next election to prove 2011 was a skin-of-the-teeth fluke, which he did, in 2013, handily winning the Democratic nomination; before riding into the sunset with a kamikaze 2017 run for governor.
Now he’s gone, leaving an altered senate landscape in his wake, suddenly mutually occupied by this-chamber-ain’t-big-enough-for the-both-us Union County successors Senator Nick Scutari and Senator Joe Cryan, who on Tuesday, a day after Lesniak’s farewell, officially occupied the top of the 20th District totem pole abandoned by the man affectionately known as Ray Ray.
There was some irony there.
They had gotten along – in the beginning – and even through 2011.
They were both political animals, of course, so they had to watch each other. Cryan considered Lesniak a mentor of sorts.
But Cryan came from politics, son of the iconic Irish transplant Essex County Sheriff John Cryan, who built a party organization from Newark tavern sawdust and Roscommon sweat equity. A natural leader, party organizer and fighter – each day begins with an assessment of which way the windmill punches will fly before his feet hit the deck, in the words of one insider – Cryan to his Union Twp. followers to this day was the person most responsible for shoving hard against 8-1 Republican county control in the aftermath of the Florio era and reversing engines so Democrats could abide. His work in Union made him unavoidably a political force to be reckoned with – his own miniaturized Essex County modeled on John Cryan templates in a Philip Roth-sized Union County town.
He got to the Trenton dance in 2001, and for ten years tried to get along with the district poohbah from the Elmora section of Elizabeth. In a sense, power layered on power left two guys wired for political infighting with nowhere to go but to finally turn on each other; and following victory by their slate in 2011, Cryan and Lesniak – two former Democratic Party chairs who by every outward indication seemed politically cozy and even personally friendly – turned sour.
The assemblyman saw his numbers in Union Twp. as the main reason why the team won by 800 votes, while Lesniak always reveled in his own voodoo legal arts he used on the Elizabeth Board of Ed – and “their skullduggery,” he said – to keep them bogged down in court and drain them of resources. “They’ll be throwing rocks by the time Ray’s done,” a source told InsiderNJ at the time, in the back of the courtroom in downtown Elizabeth.
After the election, Cryan resented Lesniak’s retreat to South Jersey-Senate President Steve Sweeney world even as the assemblyman stepped up efforts to resist Governor Chris Christie and the South’s stranglehold on statewide party power.
The relationship never really recovered.
So when Lesniak retired, taking his final torch run up the Statehouse steps on Monday, the infrastructure around him and the nest of allies he sustained over the years mostly found easier animal warmth with Scutari.
Scutari had, after all, never defined himself as a political rebel like Cryan.
He had worked with Lesniak.
He could never stop fighting, or so said the people who had absorbed the volume punching out of Union Twp. In Hillside just last month, his allies prevailed in a close election behind the candidacy of Dahlia Vertreese, a union leader with the longtime Essex County-based Operating Engineers Local 68 run by Assemblyman Tom Giblin (D-34), an intergenerational friend of the Cryans going back to the West Ward of Newark. On the other side of that local fight in Hillside this year, surviving Lesniak pal Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-20) ate a loss.
Cryan was on the move.
Senate presidency buzz accompanied him even before he took the oath of office.
Too much political talent.
Still, Scutari had his own political backstory – a story of not being denied.
A tough kid from Linden, Scutari willed his way to power, starting as a member of the Linden School Board, then spearheading Democratic efforts to turn a freeholder board that was 6-3 Republican to Democrat when he ran countywide in the late 1990s to 6-3 Democrat. Ask people in Linden who was the chief lieutenant on the ground in the Democratic retaking of control in Union and they’ll point to Scutari, a protégé of the late Linden Mayor John Gregorio.
Political animal Senator Joe Suliga – so hyperactive not only as a politician but as a businessman that Union sources still talk about the armies of his ice cream trucks driven by Suliga employees – cracked up in Atlantic City in 2003, his actions prompting party leaders, among them Senator Dick Codey, to hit the eject button and look for an alternative to a guy who allegedly had a sexual harassment entanglement.
Linda Stender of Fanwood was the easy replacement.
A forceful way to turn the page on Suliga.
But Scutari had other plans.
By that point seven years on the freeholder board, the ambitious young attorney went to Gregorio and those clotheslined Lindenites looking to rebuild in the wake of Suliga’s shocking meltdown, and told them the senate seat would stay in Linden, that town with the biggest Democratic plurality in the 22nd District.
Scutari wanted senator, not assembly.
Stender dug in, with the state party behind her.
But Scutari solidified Linden, then got the late Al McWilliams behind him in Plainfield and Rick Proctor in Rahway (long before these troubles), and suffocated the suburban-footed Stender.
He beat Scotch Plains Mayor Marty Marks for the senate seat and began an ascent that put him on a 2016 short-list to succeed Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) if Sweeney became governor or returned, and defined himself as a caucus leader with his chairmanship of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee.
Suliga died in a 2005 traffic accident.
For 14 years, Scutari managed to get along with Lesniak, enjoyed the muscle flexing that all of them did for a decade, and stayed out of the fray as Cryan’s war footing with the senator began to harden over the course of the past five years.
When Lesniak retired, Cryan’s people more or less figured Scutari would yield to the new boss, as they offloaded the last vestiges of Lesniak world. But Scutari, hounded for years by a mangled Linden politics, secured control of his town and refused to stand down. His allies point to him as the guy who helped secure the senate seat for Cryan, which Cryan’s people deride as folly.
Absent the late powerful Union County Democratic Party Chair Charlotte DeFilppo of Hillsdie, and with a chair installed power now in Assemblyman Jerry Green who is close to slate mate Scutari but lacks the on-the-ground power he claimed once in his home city of Plainfield, Cryan and Scutari have the jitters.
Someone has to be the man.
Now, in an early power play, Scutari allies claim he has the votes to make his chief of staff, Ed Oatman, county manager, the successor to the best friend of Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage, a fierce Lesniak ally.
Cryan’s people have their heads in their hands. “A political science major, Oatman has never managed more than two people in his life – this is serious business,” a source told InsiderNJ.
Newly minted Cryan kicked newly minted Kean University Trustee Oatman with a bill drop this week that would impose term limits on college trustees at Kean, a major redoubt of party patronage, even as Scutari appeared to be ready to move ahead with leveraging Oatman into the manager’s spot, a move that opens up a landing zone for Lesniak’s chief of staff, Tony Teixeira, and tightens the ship against Cryan incursions.
The spoils of war underway – notwithstanding Cryan’s apparent upper-hand on picking the next prosecutor – would require more war, a party source said, with regret, seeing no end in sight for now to the Lesniak-deprived landscape, and likening Scutari v. Cryan to an Old West saloon brawl, Union County-style.
The winner would not only run Union County, but occupy a stronger statewide position for a future run at the senate presidency.