Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-19) grew up in a political household in Sayreville, and now all those campaigns, and fights won or lost, tally to the political raison d’etre of a lifetime, as the Democratic politician foregoes his seat in the legislature to take an all or nothing shot at Drumthwacket.
He’s running as the kid you know and guy you grew up with, versus the guy you don’t know who tells you he’s the kid you grew up with – at least that’s what Wiz world says. But the early biography reads somewhat like that of another Sayreville kid – Jon Bon Jovi – who incidentally, relocated to Monmouth County in adulthood and is a fervent Phil Murphy fan.
Wisniewski has his own Jersey story.
It started in and around Sayreville and stayed in Sayreville.
His father was a union man who worked for National Lead, and his son remembers him coming home and taking his work clothes off and putting on a jacket and tie to fulfill his duties as a local elected official.
A student at Sacred Heart High School, John Wisniewski worked on his father’s campaigns and in 1981 served as his dad’s campaign manager.
After 1984, the older Wisniewski didn’t run for office again.
When John Wisniewski finished law school at Seton Hall and began practicing law, he took his own shot at a council seat and lost in 1991 – the same year that 22 out of 44 Democrats lost their assembly seats on the anti-Florio backlash. In 1993, Wisniewski took his first shot at an assembly seat, running on a ticket with Jim McGreevey of Woodbridge for senate and Joe Vas of Perth Amboy for the second assembly seat. McGreevey won by 1,400 votes. Vas lost by 5,000, and Wisniewski lost by 400.
Two years later he ran again and won, displacing Assemblyman Ernest L. Oros and Assemblyman Stephen A. Mikulak, the pair of Republicans who had served two terms.
Now 22 years later, Wisniewski is retiring from the state legislature and running for governor of New Jersey, not as a man with the support of the Democratic Party but in defiance of those machines he once strove- in his capacity as Democratic State Party Chairman – to advance.
If he never actually put it into practice, having never held elected office, let alone local elected office, the Boston-bred Murphy grew up with “all politics is local” drilled into his head by the legendary Tip O’Neill. That political lesson has appeared to elude Wisniewski on several key occasions. A Republican mayor sat on the local throne through a good stretch of the assemblyman’s tenure; and as he led the party into battle on Election Day 2012, calling off the names of the victorious New Jersey Democratic Congressional delegation onstage at the Heldrich Hotel in New Brunswick, the state party chairman’s candidate for mayor lost in Perth Amboy.
Those local fights, enervating and irritating, forced Wisniewski to find other platforms and strata.
The Governor’s Race.
Murphy has Bon Jovi.
But Wisniewski has channeled U2’s career survival skills, albeit, of course, on a small, workmanlike canvas.
A day after his first debate with the other candidates on a stage at Stockton University, the candidate declared victory, and took pains to make his case that the election isn’t over, despite front-runner Phil Murphy’s successful efforts to harvest 21 county lines in a state long defined by political organization.
“Phil Murphy has spent $18 million and a majority of the are people still undecided,” Wisniewski told InsiderNJ. “That’s money he used to provide a barrage of advertising over a long period and he’s still at 24%. While he might be trying to buy people, people are not buying him.
“There is over half an electorate undecided, which shows that the people of New Jersey are unimpressed with what they are being attempted to be sold,” he added. “We will be on TV making our case to the people. If you think New Jersey has been governed just fine – tax cuts for the very wealthy and government for the insiders – fine, but if you believe New Jersey hasn’t done, you should vote for me, because I’ve got a track record standing up to entrenched special interests.”
The best politicians define themselves by the fights they undertake and win. Wisniewski is proud of standing up to the last two governors.
“Jon Corzine wanted to sell the parkway and turnpike, all the way through Chris Christie’s tenure I fought him and issued the Bridgegate subpoenas. I will be a governor who is not afraid,” he said.
A Democratic Party source remembers the day Wisniewski raised his voice in opposition to Corzine’s asset monetization plan, and stunned the chamber.
“It wasn’t everyday that people opposed the governor, and John did, and so in a very detailed, lawyerly and prepared way, and I remember a lot of people looking at one another and we were all thinking, ‘what’s this guy doing, you don’t challenge a Democratic governor’s main issue like this,’ but he was so smart and effective with his arguments, no one could challenge him,” the source recalled.
The assemblyman’s intellectual fervor has intimidated some in Trenton over the years, spawned envy in others, and made the aristocratic Wisniewski probably the last person many would want to have a beer with in their off political hours. But that was precisely what Wisniewski offered Corzine on the 2009 campaign trail in Sayreville – a beer at a Polish social event – when the governor showed up to campaign alongside his old critic.
Now Corzine’s long gone, but those bitternesses for Wisniewski’s opposition to asset monetization still linger among the remnant members of Corzine dwindled brain trust, who still seethe even at the sight of the assemblyman. And there’s no love lost as far as Wisniewski’s concerned, either, as he uncorked a well-timed Corzine cameo. “We elected Chris Christie because of Jon Corzine,” the gubernatorial candidate told a TV audience on Thursday night at the NJTV debate.
“We can’t repeat that movie,” he urged, referencing Murphy’s professional Goldman Sachs roots, the same as Corzine’s.
Groans emanated from the peanut gallery of the Agnes Varis studio when Wisniewski spoke. One source grumbled to InsiderNJ that Wisniewski has made too much money off the public trough as an attorney to have much of an opinion that matters about anything; and still another source, an assemblyman, worried aloud about Wisniewksi’s bills, some of which don’t exactly radiate public interest.
But Wisniewski wants the public to look at the entirety of his record, some of it unconventional, and certainly un-Stack like in terms of never being sustained by a political behemoth back home. In a conversation with InsiderNJ, he underlined those fights against powerful personages from whom others shied away – especially Christie, chopped down to size by the Bridgegate scandal that Wisniewski’s Assembly Transportation Committee investigations unraveled.
Now as he campaigns, the candidate said he sees New Jerseyans afraid of being unable to retire with dignity, and scared by an atmosphere fostered by Christie.
“I see so many people worried about the basic desires and goals in light of how government functions today,” he told InsiderNJ. “In this campaign, they have a candidate for governor who cares about the quality of their children’s education. Those are lessons I learned from representing people as an assemblyman. I was in Princeton Junction, where I talked to a woman who told me her commute into New York City used to be two two and a half hours and with the latest difficulties, sometimes she commutes six hours a day. A person like that is not interested in who’s the executive director of NJ Transit. They just want to get home and when a government can’t provide that for them, it is a major failure, and they will either get a different job or a different home. I talked to another woman who expressed doubt about undertaking education as a profession because she sees teachers under assault, and I see that as a major failure. We ought to be promoting teaching.”
Rankled by Murphy, but also continually jeered at on this fast shortening runway of a campaign by those party insiders who recall with scorn Wisniewski’s rather recent public conversion from impeccable party chairman to ragtag Bernie Sanders revolutionary, the assemblyman sticks relentlessly to his message that his chief rival bought the support of 21 county chairs with over a million in gifts to the party.
“It was the money,” Wisniewski said. “I’ve had conversations with county chairs. They’ve told me, ‘John, I want to support you, but I’ve been told I’ll get financially punished if I dont go with Phil Murphy. That kind of threatening and intimidation and outright bribery are Chris Christie-like tactics.”
On Thursday night at a debate podium in Newark, a smiling and unflappable Murphy shot back at Wisniewski.
“I’m very proud of that support,” he said.
Without it, and with at least two other candidates in the primary running on an anti-Phil Murphy progressive message, it appears Wisniewski must labor mightily – and against all precedent in a Democratic Primary – to muster victory – but he intently contextualizes.
“Bernie Sanders spent zero advertising in New Jersey,” he said, in explanation of his presidential champion’s crushing loss here, “other than grassroots organizing. We have a compelling message and a compelling contrast to win over 50% of electorate that is undecided. We have a very strong message and we will be on TV. My competitor has spent $18 million over two years and has not been able to close the deal. He may have bought the party, but the people are not buying him.”
The sometimes austere attorney who specializes in cutting arguments, distinguished himself in the two debates of the primary season this week. On Tuesday night at Stockton, he unleashed a stinging line on Murphy in a criticism of the front-runner’s proposal for a state bank – “If you want to run a bank, go back to Goldman Sachs”. But Tuesday produced few other exchanges and no face to face encounters.
On Thursday night, at the urging of moderator Michael Aron to ask a question of one of his other competitors, he immediately turned to Murphy.
“You’ve talked about your environmental credentials,” he said, eying his rival at the neighboring podium. “You’ve talked about your endorsements from League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club, and you’ve also talked about your opposition to pipelines and to fracking. Yet in your investment portfolio, you’re invested in companies that actually sponsor and run the pipelines. you’re invested in companies that produce the fracking fluid that contaminates water. How can you really expect the people of New Jersey to believe your environmental credentials when your financial portfolio takes a different position?”
“I mean what I sat about fracking, I mean what I say about the environment,” Murphy said in part in response.
“I would ask those environmental groups to rescind their endorsements, because your words do not match your actions,” Wisniewski said.
It was a moment.
There have been few of them in this campaign cycle.
But if Wisniewski has at times, over a long and arguably complex career, distinguished himself according to those battles undertaken against alpha male occupants of the upper echelons of power, maybe this counted as one of those, even as Murphy – comfortably ahead in the polls by double digits – refused to mix it up or attack Wisniewski.
Win or lose come June 6th, it was another fight in the ledger, another feisty and relevant political highlight – in a career publicly defined by a few of them, enough to make some enemies – and to survive a three decade stretch in the swamps.