Lesniak’s Toughest Race Ever – and Some Elizabeth Political History

Prodded by InsiderNJ, state Senator Ray Lesniak (D-20) said the most difficult election he ever had – by far – was in 2011. But it wasn’t his only difficult election.

Six years ago, the Elizabeth Board of Education under the leadership of Rafael Fajardo ran the best organized Democratic Primary against an entrenched incumbent in a decade and almost defeated Lesniak. But for court cases that kept the Fajardo team bogged down in court and drained their resources and big turnout numbers in Joe Cryan‘s hometown of Union, Lesniak’s senate career would have ended then.

The senator – retiring from the legislature this year and running for governor on his way out – always cited his double knee replacement surgery as one of the main reasons why he couldn’t maintain a better work rate on the campaign trail that year. He also acknowledges some complacency.

“Of course, two years later we made things right,” Lesniak added, noting his convincing 2013 win over a depleted Board of Ed.

The deeper political history of the Elizabeth political product is just as interesting.

As a young upstart assemblyman he opposed Elizabeth Mayor Tom Dunn in 1980. Neither Lesniak nor Dunn had the line in that election. The late Union County Democratic Chair Charlotte DeFilippo backed David Conte, who placed third. Dunn barely beat second place finisher Lesniak,who found himself off the line when he ran for reelection to the assembly in 1981.

Lesniak won off the line.

“I had the support of organized labor and I was well known as an environmental champion,” he recalled. “The best thing that ever happened to me was losing that mayoral election, because, yes, I love the legislature.”

In 1983, the late Senator John Gregorio fell on a corruption conviction, prompting a special election, which Lesniak won to claim the senate seat. Then in 1991, while serving as state party chairman, the senator backed J. Christian Bollwage to run against his old nemesis Dunn.

Bollwage defeated Dunn.

“I financed that campaign,”‘ Lesniak said. “If Chris hadn’t won, the loss in the state’s fourth largest city would have been significant for me. I would have had to resign as state party chair.”

Lesniak’s old slate mate Union County Sheriff Joe Cryan – fellow veteran of that 2011 war – is running for Lesniak’s seat this year in the senate.


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