WEST ORANGE – The numbers make the case undeniable (nearly 300K registered Dems, with the biggest county by county plurality), but a ceremony here on Friday made another case for why Essex dominates: reverential memory for its own history.
It helps perhaps when the late Ray Durkin forms the basis of that memory.
A beloved Essex County Democratic (and state) Party chairman, Mr. Durkin, with good humor, wisdom and irrepressible strength of character, mentored the next generation of party members who would go on to succeed him and lead, among them sitting Party Chairman LeRoy Jones.
Annually, his friends and party faithful gather to honor his memory, now marking eight years since his death, in a ceremony that if anything has, with the passage of time, gathered meaning.
Held this year at the Highlawn, which spectacularly overlooks New York City from Mr. Durkin’s scrappy party stomping grounds, this year’s memorial celebration featured a cross-section of party faithful buttressed by better-than-expected Joe Biden midterm election results.
Ray Durkin loved all levels of party politics (he helmed Mike Dukakis’ ill-fated 1988 convention; even playfully embraced Bill Richardson’s 2008 candidacy; and significantly championed Donald Payne to succeed Pete Rodino in Congress), and he no doubt would have loved the occasion of this year’s celebration, as Democrats turned out numbers good enough to buoy Biden and save a majority in the U.S. Senate.
His friends still love him.
Sam Elliott-lookalike and longtime Democratic Party backroom ninja Tom Barrett made sure they reminded one another of that abiding respect and love, as he presided at the event, a star-studded Essex County extravaganza.
Among those in attendance:
Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo;
former Governor Jim McGreevey;
Former state Party Chairs Tom Giblin and John Wisniewski;
Essex County Clerk (and Ray Durkin’s son) Chris Durkin;
U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11);
Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-28);
County Commissioners Brendan Gill, Patricia Sebold and Leonard Luciano;
Millburn Mayor Maggee Miggins (whose Christmas Carol for the crowd received a rousing ovation);
Democratic State Committeeman (and InsiderNJ publisher) John Graham; storied defense attorney Joe Hayden; former Bergen County Democratic Chairman Lou Stellato; former gubernatorial candidate Michael Murphy; former Orange Mayor Joel Shain; and many, many others.
In the words of Joe Hayden: “It’s always nice to share stories about good people, especially when they bounce back from adversity and help people. There is so much negativity out there in the world. It is important to remember the honorable and the good.”
In this case, the honorable and the good were another way to pay tribute to the memory of a man who made his mark in these parts: Ray Durkin, Democrat of Essex County.