The insiders who go back to that fateful political year of 1986 recall the mistake Essex County Executive Peter Shapiro made when he put up Steve Edelstein against incumbent Essex County Democratic Chairman Ray Durkin.
It was a diner booth war that went back to Shapiro’s disastrous run for governor a year earlier. People have differing memories on the subject but more than a few say Shapiro told party members in his own county that if they fully backed his gubernatorial run in 1985, he’d stand down from running for reelection countywide in 1986.
Maybe Shapiro felt that the party reneged on the support they said they’d put behind his challenge of Republican Governor Tom Kean, but after having lost (badly) to Kean, Shapiro surprised Democrats when he announced his intentions to run again for county executive.
The power players – Durkin among them – began examining options.
The arguably best or obvious Democratic establishment player to take on and take out Shapiro appeared to be Freeholder Jerry Greco. But Greco – who looked all in early – got cold feet and told Durkin he didn’t want to run for county executive after all.
Durkin then turned to Freeholder (and future Assemblyman) Tom Giblin, who appeared comfortable with the possibility of challenging Shapiro and had been taking more than some big toe dips in West Essex in preparation for going countywide.
Giblin looked like a good bet, but there was one big problem. Newark North Ward Democratic leader Steve Adubato, Sr. didn’t want him. Having gotten more than a few of his people into Shapiro’s county government, Adubato wanted the incumbent back in office.
Deprived of Greco, deprived of Giblin, the Democrats opted not to run anyone against Shapiro that year.
But a week after the primary, Shapiro – perhaps in a payback move after having caught word of Durkin’s intriguing -planted Edelstein in the path of the sitting party chairman. Durkin beat Edelstein, and worse for Shapiro – nursed the irritation of having been challenged by the young county executive.
The party was fractured heading toward the general.
When former surrogate (and former Democrat) Nick Amato emerged on the Republican ticket for county executive, many Democrats fed up with Shapiro had an easy time casting a vote for him. Amato would lose the City of Newark by just 3,000 votes as he beat Shapiro countywide.