Stacko World: InsiderNJ’s 26 BIGGEST Political Diner Room Clashes of the Past 10 Years

The clans of old country Ireland would feud and sometimes it was merely someone getting a headache from a thrown rock that would end it and retire everyone to their stools; in other words, the equivalent of what passes in contemporary New Jersey for politics.

See below:

26. Mark Smith versus Bob Menendez

The Hudson County Democratic Chairman’s decision to back Nia Gill for congress in the 10th District in 2012 set U.S. Senator Bob Menendez’s (D-NJ) firmly on edge. Menendez had told his old pal, Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, that Joe D. could count on Hudson to give Donald Payne, Jr. the line in the Democratic Primary. Then Smith, a former hero cop from Bayonne who never backed down from anybody, selected Gill “on substance.” Payne beat Gill, then Menendez allies put together the scaffolding necessary to hang Smith two years later in the 2014 election.

25. Barbara Buono versus the Democratic Party

When she opposed Governor Christie in 2013, the state senator from Middlesex County – the Democrats’ nominee for governor – met considerable resistance from Democrats either too scared to go against the former prosecutor or wired into the powerful governor’s network.

Pascrell

24. Jeff Jones versus Bill Pascrell

The mayor of Paterson and congressman from what was then the 8th District never really got along. Neither man would ever explain how that relationship went off the rails, but after Jones became mayor in 2010, it used to rankle him when he’d hear back from D.C. that Pascrell – a former Paterson mayor – walked the halls in Washington referring to himself as “The Mayor.” When it came time for an endorsement in the fight of Pascrell’s life – the Democratic Primary of 2012 in a newly scrunched together 9th District where U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman had the edge on paper – Jones was coy. He let the battle lines develop between Paterson’s hometown hero Pascrell and Bergen suburban opponent Rothman. Then one Friday afternoon, as he departed the city for a trip to Baltimore, Jones formally announced his decision to back Rothman. Days later, Pascrell shocked New Jersey when he beat Rothman. Running for reelection in 2014, Jones placed a dismal fourth place in a big field of candidates.

Baraka, left, with Murphy.

23. Joe DiVincenzo versus Ras Baraka

When South Ward Councilman Ras Baraka ran for mayor in 2014, the county executive first tried to ride the candidacy of his ward and longtime ally, North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos. But the Ramos campaign lacked pep early, and so Joe D. threw the towel in on Ramos and instead – with Norcross’ added muscle – went whole hog on Seton Hall University Law Professor Shavar Jeffries. “He will not be allowed to win,” a source told InsiderNJ at the time, a reference to the people-empowered Baraka campaign, amid a blizzard of glossy, pro-Jeffries mail and the work rate of a candidate in Jeffries with one of the most compelling personal stories in NJ politics. DiVincenzo mobilized the entire Essex County political apparatus behind his candidate, but Baraka’s years of grasssroots organizing, pro public schools message, Cami Anderson agony and at least one self-inflicted wound ultimately impaired a very credible Jeffries Campaign. Baraka won by 2,000 votes, dealing a loss to the Joe D. Empire. A few months after the campaign, a peace-seeking executive said he made a mistake by endorsing Jeffries and loved Baraka.

22. Tom Mastrangelo v. John Cesaro

Morris County Republican freeholders Tom Mastrangelo and John Cesaro have nearly come to blows on the freeholder board. There was an incident once where the former held a pen up at Cesaro in a gesture that prompted the latter to file charges. When Cesaro ran for reelection in 2015, Mastrangelo jumped feet first into the opposition camp, but failed to blow his longtime rival out of office. Now, as Cesaro pursues an LD26 Assembly run, word is Mastrangelo is mulling hard his own run in the same district.

Webber.

21. Jay Webber versus Bill Palatucci

InsiderNJ just chronicled this interesting backstory here, what amounts to a lingering grudge match between two sophisticated politics players.

Gilmore.

20. George Gilmore v. the Young Gun GOP chairs

The powerful Ocean County Republican chairman, former Genghis Khan-like chair of the GOP chairs, much like Cronus in the ancient Greek myths gave birth to not yet full-fledged figures eager to take him on and take him out. We’re seeing some anti-Gilmore backlash in this current campaign cycle, as the boss affixes himself to Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, while the Zeus-in-training-wheel chairs (led by Somerset County GOP Chairman Al Gaburo and Burlington County GOP Chairman Bill Layton) zoom around trying to make the most of their connections to undercut him with the candidacy of talented Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-16). The Guadagno Campaign appears to be in backpedal mode from Gilmore now as reports surface about troubles for his law firm.

Jones, right, and Green.

19. Leroy Jones versus Bob Bowser

The chairman of the Essex County Democratic Committee packed the city council with allies opposed to independent Democratic Mayor Bob Bowser, who cut out from the organization and built strong alliances with the likes of Dick Codey, for example, but ultimately could not resist the tide of patronage and cash arrayed against him. When Jones tapped locally unknown attorney Lester Taylor to run against him in 2013, Bowser said Taylor couldn’t even find his way across town. But Bowser wasn’t really running against Taylor. He was running against an organization that took years for Jones – a former assemblyman who grew up in Orange working campaigns as a kid for, among others, then-Mayor Joel Shain – to meticulously construct. Taylor beat Bowser, then Jones removed him as the local party’s endorsed candidate in  time for reelection this year to go in another direction with Councilman (and local karate instructor) Ted Green.

DiVincenzo

18. Richard Codey versus Joe DiVincenzo

This is an extension of Codey versus Norcross (see below), the former senate president always bitterly opposed to those agents of his longtime statewide nemesis. Despite Joe D’s attempt to appease sports nut Codey by naming a recreation center after him, the senate president from the Oranges saw in his Nutley rival the ultimate assemblage of Norcross South Jersey spare parts: a super-sized Lego version of Ivan Drago in the Essex County’s chair.

17. Mark Sokolich versus David Wildstein

When the Fort Lee Mayor refused to back Governor Chris Christie’s reelection in 2013, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey lieutenant Wildstein said he helped devise a George Washington lanes-closing scheme as punishment. In real-time messages revealed as part of the subsequent investigation into the scandal that sank Christie, Wildstein referred to Sokolich as that “little Serbian.” The mayor later went on TV and said Wildstein deserved an old fashioned “ass-kicking.”

16. Aslon Goow versus Joey Torres

Five blocks from each, but a world apart, the two Paterson politicians confronted the reality of having to live in a ward (2) that wasn’t big enough for both of them. As he angled for his challenge of the sitting mayor ten years ago, Councilman Goow erupted when Torres painted cop cars with what looked like Puerto Rican flag colors, and demanded that the fleet be shipped back. Torres threw his wife into races – a May and a special November  – when Goow ran in 2012. Goow beat her. Then the councilman tried to stop Torres’ march when he ran his own race for mayor in 2014. Though he lost, Goow placed  a respectable third. As Goow and Torres tried to kill each other over the last decade, they increasingly arguably treaded dangerously at the edge of being obsolete in a ward where changing demographics made the Bengali community the coming power players. Considering their longtime rivalry, there’s raw irony to Goow’s 2014 mayoral campaign, which actually helped Torres in the end (see the next entry).

Torres, left, with Pascrell.

15. Andre Sayegh versus Joey Torres

“Careful, Andre, people may not be laughing with you but at you,” Torres cautioned the energetic and ambitious School Board President Sayegh back in 2008. after having won the Ward 6 Council seat, Sayegh took a citywide run at Torres in 2010, splitting the vote and helping to elect Jeff Jones mayor of Silk City. Four years later, Sayegh secured the backing of the Democratic establishment, but Goow in the contest (see above) cut into his base, and helped catapult the come-backing Torres. That was only part of the story, however, as subsequent years found the mayor juggling multiple reported scandals and damaging news headlines, the most damming of which alleged his use of city employees for private work. By this point, Sayegh was laughing – at Torres. Furious at the city council and what he presumed was Sayegh’s mischief-making, Torres showed up a meeting of the governing body last month amid the apparent tatters of his political career – and – armed with charts and numbers and exhaustive evidence of his administration’s work and insistence on substance – laid out development plans for the future of Paterson that spun heads.

14. John Currie versus Jerry Speziale

The Passaic County Democratic chairman figured he could count on the hotdogging, high vote-getting Democratic sheriff as he put his countywide ticket together in 2010, a year after Republicans – with Governor Chris Christie topping the ticket – swept Passaic and humiliated Currie. But the GOP got to Speziale first, ripping him from the arms of the Passaic Democratic chairman and situating him in Hudson County with a plum Port Authority job. Currie got his county back in order, beating back Republicans and reasserting his old alliance with a warpaint-wearing U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell heading the Dems’ slate. For his part, Speziale bounced down to Alabama for a police chief’s gig, then came back to his home city of Paterson like Ceasar returning to Rome when Torres beat Currie’s machine in 2014 and installed Bruce Springsteen with a badge as Paterson’s new police director.

Torch

13. Bob Menendez versus Bob Torricelli

What a shame. This should have been a substantive debate between the two guys in recent New Jersey political history best equipped to consider foreign affairs. But it wasn’t, of course. Indicted on corruption charges, Menendez was annoyed lat year when he saw the former U.S. Senator surface at an event overcrowded with Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) types, backslapping and working the room. It had the feel of The Torch cozying up to Menendez cronies before the boss was even cold. When Torricelli had an event at his Hunterdon County home late last year, Menendez – till in the hunt to beat the federal rap – threw a Hudson party mobbed with homage-paying locals.

Booker

12. Cory Booker versus Ron Rice

Booker ran over Rice back in 2006 when he became mayor of Newark in his second try. But the bad blood between mayor and senator lingered. Allied with DiVincenzo and powerful North Ward boss Steve Adubato, Sr., Booker in 2007 backed a slate headed by the late Irvington Freeholder L. Bilal Beasley that tried to get rid of Rice. Rice wouldn’t die, though, and when he survived that contest, he proceeded to make a full-time habit of undercutting Booker in public, and tightening his ties to Codey as a fierce anti Norcross partisan.

11. Steve Fulop v. Norcross

In his doomed 2017 run for governor, the mayor of Jersey City shocked the political establishment when he called

Fulop

out Norcross as a boss in the game for all the wrong reasons. Presenting himself as a Marine who put himself in harm’s way for his country, Fulop tried to play into Norcross fatigue among those veteran homunculi in the legislature. What he underestimated, however, was the extent to which Norcross controlled those people through jobs, contracts and political connections. By the time it was over, Fulop was out of the governor’s contest – and so was Norcross’ charge, Sweeney, as third party Phil Murphy, a retired Goldman Sachs executive, took advantage of the North-South collision to squeak through and make himself the Democratic front-runner for governor.

10. Adrian Mapp versus Jerry Green

Mapp was unsuccessful when he ran for mayor of Plainfield in 2009 as the standard-bearer of the anti-Green New Democrats. Chairman of the local Democratic Party, Green backed incumbent Mayor sharon Robinson-Briggs. By 2013, Mapp had done considerable local legwork and Robinson-Briggs run afoul of the boss. Green backed Mapp, who won the mayoralty. The two men’s relationship, however, unraveled again once Mapp occupied City Hall, the next four years a battlezone of council contests and county committee fights. Mapp lost the 2014 council tilts, but picked up county committee power, nudging Green out as local chairman by 2015. As he seeks reelection, Mapp again has Green’s support for mayor, and Green has Mapp’s support for the assembly; but both of them must pay attention to those estranged political family members who may have grown tired of the two warlords who clank away at each other for four-year chunks, only to make peace amid the wreckage in time for their mutual reelection efforts.

9. Joe Doria versus Anthony Chiappone

The former Speaker of the assembly (and mayor of Bayonne), Doria hated watching old local nemesis Chiappone gain a place on the HCDO ticket in 2007, complaining that Chiappone’s lone piece of legislation in his previous iteration as an assemblyman (2004-2005) was to have authored bear protection legislation. “Have you ever seen a bear in Hudson County?” Doria fumed. In 2009, Doria – serving as head of the state Department of Community Affairs – was wrongly implicated in a corruption bust spear-headed by then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie. The highly regarded former speaker cleared his name. Chiappone was not as fortunate. Although he won on Sandy Cunningham coattails, he got jammed up opn corruption charges and crapped out in 2010, relinquishing his assembly seat to Doria acolyte and firefighter tavern keeper Jason O’Donnell.

Smith, right, with Lesniak.

8. Bob Smith versus John McCormac

The corruption crack-up of Middlesex Democratic Party powerhouse John Lynch created a vacuum, which state Senator Smith (D-17) and Woodbridge Mayor McCormac rushed to fill. Following the 2010 vaporization of Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Joe Spicuzzo on corruption charges, Smith gained an upper-hand when he powered former FBI man (and former Assemblyman) Peter Barnes past McCormac-backed Kevin McCabe to claim dominance in the chairman’s fight on a no-tolerance-for-corruption message. Two years later, McCormac raored back with McCabe, who succeeded Barnes as chairman – but not before Smith smoothed over the edges to make Barnes’ son first a senator, then a judge.

Sweeney

7. Sweeney versus the NJEA

Where does one start with this bloodbath? Going back to 2009/2010, the senate president allied with Christie to overhaul public pensions and benefits, incurring the ire of public sector unions. Sweeney tried to make good in years subsequent, pushing measures to protect public sector workers, but it was never enough.Trying to run for governor in the 2017 pre-primary and faced with the prospect of a target on his back, Sweeney met threats by public worker unions to withhold campaign contributions unless the Senate passes pension legislation by firing off a letter to state and federal law enforcement authorities demanding an investigation.

Wiz in Wayne.

6. Kevin O’Toole versus John Wisniewski

As occupants of the joint committee to investigate Bridgegate, the Republican senator from Essex County – a fierce Christie protector – scrapped incessantly with the Democratic assemblyman from Middlesex County. Wisniewski gained an early – and damning – edge by making public the “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email tying the Port Authority mess to Christie’s inner circle. O’Toole stormed back with a published tome linking Wiz’s law firm to public contracts in Hudson County in the ultimate legislative lawyer v. lawyer gladiatorial contest.

Menendez

5. Felix Roque versus Menendez

Menendez went all in behind incumbent Silverio “Sal” Vega in the 2011 West New York mayor’s contest. A medical doctor and retired U.S. Army colonel, Roque campaigned in combat boots in the face of circulating sound trucks featuring images of Menendez and Vega. The ultimate anti-establishment pirate, Roque won, then turned around a year later and thumbed his nose at the U.S. Senator from neighboring Union City by backing Republican challenger Joe Kyrillos in the U.S. senate race. Mistake. Roque found himself the sudden target of numerous investigations, his newly occupied city hall a feeding frenzy for federal bureau of investigations. Soon he was in chains in Newark federal court. He would beat a hacking rap, and subsequent state charges, but before it was all over he would proclaim his allegiance to “The Great Menendez.”

4. Richard Codey versus George Norcross III

When he served as senate president of the state of New Jersey, Codey saw South Jersey as a cancer that needed to be stopped, and he did everything he could to maintain his place on the throne, despite South Jersey Democratic Party boss George Norcross’ relentless efforts to develop North Jersey alliances to add to the stuck-together bodies he had in  SJ. Codey found himself vulnerable after then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie prosecuted those human rumble strips the senate prez surrounded himself with in the senate, including Senator Wayne Bryant and Senator Sharpe James. The loss of key allies in 2007 provided Norcross – who had helped bankroll Joe DiVincenzo’s successful 2002 run for county executive in Codey’s Essex County – with the room he needed to press the attack with Senator Steve Sweeney (D-3). DiVincenzo gave Norcross/Sweeney newly minted state Senator M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29). Another new upper chamber occupant, state Senator Brian P. Stack, eager to punish the north that tried to destroy him, supplied another pro-South vote from up North. Democrats Jeff Van Drew of Cape May and Jim Whelan of Atlantic City (the latter unswayed by a porch front visit to his house from Codey in addition to $8000,000 toward his campaign effort) replaced Republican incumbents down south and Norcross-friendly Dana Redd chipped in as Bryant’s replacement. In that atmosphere, other senators began to digest as inevitable the crumbling at last of the House of Codey, later cruelly denounced by a muscled up Norcross as “the cowardly lion.”

Christie.

3. Loretta Weinberg versus Chris Christie

The highly regarded Democratic senate majority leader from Bergen County (who had run on Jon Corzine’s ill-starred 2009 reelection ticket) set herself up early as a critic of Christie, who complained about the media treating the feisty Jewish grandmother with kid gloves. Still in seven leagues boots mode back in 2011, Christie urged the media to “take the bat out” on Weinberg on pensions and benefits. Weinberg roared back in Christie’s second term by leading the senate investigation of Bridgegate, undertaking a personal pilgrimage to the Port Authority and raising hell when they tried to ignore her; and ultimately contributing to the sinking of the Republican governor.

Lesniak

2. Ray Lesniak versus Rafael Fajardo

It’s one of the all time political fistfights in New Jersey: the state Senator and longtime de factor boss of the Union County Democratic Organization versus the local boss of the Elizabeth Board of Education. The pair seesawed for years, with Lesniak and his allies controlling the local council and Fajardo and his team staying in charge on the school board. Fajardo gambled by backing Christie over Democrat (and ferocious Lesniak ally) Jon  Corzine in 2009. The win gave he and his forces a boost of energy and in  2011, they threw everything at Lesniak in one of the greatest contests in the state since the 2007 Hudson war between Sacco and Stack. A savvy attorney, Lesniak kept Fajardo’s forces bogged down in court over the course of the Democratic Primary, and ultimately depended on big numbers out of neighboring Union Twp., controlled by uneasy ally Assemblyman Joe Cryan (D-20). It proved the high political watermark for Fajardo, who in subsequent years lost the school board, even as Lesniak faded in the changing times and Cryan appears poised now to replace him in the state senate.

Stack
  1. Brian P. Stack versus Nick Sacco

These guys collided so many times that they formed a new political being: Stacko. It really started back at the beginning of this decade when senator Nick Sacco (also the mayor of North Bergen) used every means at his disposal in command of the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) to attempt to block the LD33 senate candidacy of Union City Mayor Brian P. Stack. Stack beat Silverio “Sal Vega” in a bloodbath election where the candidate appeared to be lucky to finish the race unhindered by leg irons. But Stack wasn’t done. He wanted revenge. What transpired next was a cold war, cobra versus wild mongoose period in which Stack chopped relentlessly at Sacco’s power base as Sacco just as viciously retaliated. A lot of discarded and even dead bodies later, the two Democratic bosses made peace with their mutual 2014 endorsement of Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise.

Honorable Mention:

Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer versus Mercer County Freeholder Tony Mack

Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. versus Christie

Freeholder John Murphy versus Christie

Former Governor Tom Kean versus Christie

Bergen County GOP Chairman Paul DiGaetano versus former Bergen County GOP Chair Bob Yudin

Senator Mike Doherty versus Christie

Assemblyman Joe Cryan versus Speaker Sheila Oliver/Sweeney/DiVincenzo

Speaker Vincent Prieto versus Sweeney/Norcross

Sonny McCullough versus Frank Blee/Bill Gormley

*** Thinking it over now, Christie versus the Keans is arguably the most fascinating clash of all and deserves a book on the subject – and a TV mini-series. It started when the young Christie – with his mom behind the wheel of the family station wagon idling at the end of the driveway – knocked on the door of the Kean Family manse in Livingston and presented himself as the Republican governor’s number one fan.

Years later, Christie departed from the Kean game plan as he cruised upwards and upwards in pursuit of his own presidential dream, revealing the obvious absence of those patrician proclivities that moored his predecessor Kean.

Following his 2013 reelection victory, Christie appeared to get behind an effort to chop down Kean’s son, the sitting Senate Minority Leader, who hung on to his chair of power despite the efforts of the governor’s senate allies.

Kean had favored a different 2013 campaigns strategy than Christie, seeing an opportunity to add Republican seats even as Christie’s people cut deals with Democrats and refused to press GOP advantages. It all came to a head back in the cloakrooms of Trenton on the other side of the general election, when the GOP protected Kean against power overreach by the governor, what became the first fissure in the coming seismic crack in Christie.

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