Roots of the War: Lesniak and the Buono State Party Chair Precedent

Lesniak opposed Buono's choice to lead the party.

Former Senator Ray Lesniak (D-20) did a tour of duty as Demoratic State Party chairman (1992-1994), brought in to protect Governor Jim Florio after the historic mid-term backlash put the governor on unsteady legs and revealed a surge against him that ultimately washed him on out of office. Lesniak also surfaced in 2013 at the center of a party leadership conflagration, which bears a resemblance to a party fight going on right now, which could even be described as a shocking resemblance, if not for the overlapping players and party structures still jockeying for dominance.

“I was feeling my oats,” Lesniak said, reflecting on the aftermath of the 2013 Democratic Primary in LD20, which he won by 4,500 votes, two years after the Democratic Primary fright of his lfe nearly cost him his seat. After coming as close as they would ever come to dethroning Lesniak in 2011, the Fajardo win of the party regrouped with a different game plan, which didn’t include going against Lesniak’s district mate Assemblyman Joe Cryan (D-20).

Lesniak squeaked by in 2011 in part owing to Cryan’s organizing in his home town of Union Twp., so the fact that the senator could convincingly stare down Fajardo two years after Fajardo’s ticket won Lensiak’s hometown of Elizabeth, and do it essentially on his own, made him feel like he had donned seven league boots.

That was the background of what was going on when the Democrats’ 2013 nominee for governor, state Senator Barbara Buono (D-18), announced her choice of Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell (D-31) to serve as chair of the state party organization.

Earlier today, InsiderNJ asked Lesniak about current political circumstances, wherein the party establishment that furnished the Economic Development Authority (EDA) tax incentives that benefited the business interests of South Jersey Power Broker George Norcross III, opposes the state party chair choice favored by Governor Phil Murphy, who formed the task force examining EDA tax incentives, which led to investigations by the AG and the FBI.

Hasn’t selection of the state party chairman always been at the discretion of the governor?

“It always has been – with a few exceptions,” Lesniak said.

He reflected on Governor Brendan Byrne’s selection of Dick Coffee to lead the party, prior to Coffee opposing Byrne’s reelection. He considered his own attempt as chair to help Florio get reelected.  “We lost by a point,” the retired senator said with a laugh, “but we kept important names out of the primary.”

The governor gets his pick, Lesniak said, because the governor usually controls the machinery of government. And there are exceptions to that rule, too.

In 2013, after he won his own primary, and after Buono won her primary, Lesniak placed a phone call to Senate President Steve Sweneey (D-3). Sweeney had formed an alliance with Governor Chris Christie on the issue of pensions and benefits overhaul, which O’Donnell, a career firefighter married to a teacher, opposed. “I called up Sweeney and said, ‘Are you looking for a candidate to run against Jason O’Donnell?'” Sweeney said he was thinking about it.

O'Donnell
O’Donnell

“Think about me,” said Lesniak, sponsor of the Economic Opportunity Act of 2013, posted by Sweeney, which contained the controversial tax incentives worked on by an unregistered lobbyist employed by Parker McKay, the law firm of Norcross’ brother, and affirmed by then-Governor Chris Christie.

A few of the names have changed, but essentially the same group that now backs Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman Leroy Jones for the chairmanship over the wishes of Murphy having his own chair (John Currie) shortly thereafter released their support for Lesniak over Buono’s choice O’Donnell.

One of the key players who stuck with Buono through the political ordeal and break from the precedent of a governor or nominee for governor having his or her own party chair was future U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12).

Buono and Watson Coleman showed up around that time at a Roselle rally thrown by then-Mayor (and future Assemblyman) Jamel Holley. Lesniak was there, too. The whole scene felt a little like a dance at the gym, with allies on both sides tension-filled against the backdrop of the statewide fight.

“I met with Buono and Watson Coleman,” Lesniak recalled. “They offered me to be finance chair.”

He didn’t want it. Sweeney called Lesniak and said they had a slim majority of support for him, which they hoped to build on before the end of the day. Then Buono called in with the offer of a compromise candidate, the former senator recalled. That was Currie, chair of the Passaic County Democratic Committee, and coming the 2012 Democratic Primary win of his county ally U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9).

“Sweeney said, ‘What do you want to do? And I said, ‘let her have it.'”

So Buono ultimately got her choice, InsiderNJ asked.

“She did,” Lesniak said. “It was a compromise choice.”

When asked about current circumstances, and Murphy – like Buono before him – denied his own selection of a chair to lead the Democratic Party, Lesniak said, “Under normal circumstances, the gubernatorial candidate gets his choice.

“Barbara Buono didn’t get her choice,” Lesniak added.

Incumbents that year didn’t run with Buono, as Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and state Senator Brian P. Stack backed Christie over his Democratic opponent, and Republicans in South Jersey districts watched in horror as Christie avoided them rather than run coordinated campaigns in districts occupied by key allies, including Sweeney in LD3.

The difference now, a source close to the developing drama told InsiderNJ, is that unlike Currie then, who emerged as the alternative to O’Donnell v. Lesniak, “there is no [state chair] Plan B”to the fledgling candidacy of the Essex County Democratic chair. Jones is the establishment play, and only Jones, the source insisted. As the Essex County Democratic Committee chairman, Jones also wields considerable power as that chairman whose support is next to critical for a statewide Democrat. Just ask former Essex County Democratic Commitee [and former State Committee] Chairman Tom Giblin.

So there is no compromise play at the moment, which means, a source said, that if both sides are all in, and one wins, that side will not only have a redistricting leg up, but convey the advantage dimensions in a Democratic Primary fight, pitting Murphy – if he’s still here and not in the cabinet of a Democratic president – or an ally from what is now, for lack of a better term, the Murphy wing of the party, against a party alternative lined up with the senate president.

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