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The best political deal is sometimes the one that doesn’t happen.
In the 1998 movie, Sliding Doors, Gwyneth Paltrow plays the main character and is somehow experiencing life in two parallel universes. In the first universe, Paltrow makes the train on time (sliding door closes behind her), meets an interesting individual and goes home to find her live-in boyfriend in a romantic interlude with his former girlfriend. After much back and forth, the movie ends with Gwyneth Paltrow and the stranger she met developing a relationship and a promising future awaits them. In universe two, Gwyneth Paltrow’s character misses the London Tube (sliding door closes in her face), she takes a cab, gets mugged and is hospitalized from her injuries. She arrives home later, and her live-in lover continues to live this double life concealing his deceit from her.
In politics, we often talk about the ‘what if.’ Chatter in diner booths is filled with a seemingly endless series of “What would happen if…”. Thinking of this movie and ruminating about the ‘what ifs’ got me thinking about a “Sliding Door” moment of my own.
The year was 2000…
Democrats were engaged in a nasty primary for the now open United State Senate seat and Jon Corzine was facing off against former Governor James Florio. Corzine ultimately bested Florio 251K votes to 182K, but this bitter contest could have paved the way for a Republican to win a U.S. Senate seat for the first time since 1972.
Congressman Robert Franks, State Senator William Gormley, Essex County Executive James Treffinger and Professor Murray Sabrin were the four serious contenders for the Republican nomination.
After the usual jockeying and winning (or losing) of county lines was well underway, the field started to really take shape. Senator Gormley had the southern counties locked down and many were afraid to take on this Trenton veteran often referred to as “Wild Bill.” Congressman Franks was the former State Republican Chair and beloved by many of the rank and file. Franks had a firm grip on a majority of counties. Sabrin had some strength with the conservatives and zero county lines, but the wild card in the race was Essex County Executive James Treffinger. By this time, Treffinger had won the overwhelmingly Democratic County of Essex, twice, and was anxious to move on to higher office.
After Treffinger had courted county leaders, he found himself winning the all-important County lines in Essex, Passaic, Hudson and he had the political support from the important elected leaders in Morris County.
It was February, and as they say in golf “moving day” was quickly upon us. By late March counties had to select their favored candidate to place on the organizational line and commitments and promises were being made from Cape May to Hackensack. At the time, I was an Assemblyman from District 21 (Union and Essex) and the Chair of the Essex Republican Party. Our choice was easy, we in Essex went all in with our favorite son – the County Executive.
A week before I planned to unveil the plan of all plans, I recall like yesterday, conferencing in my law office (then in West Orange) with the entire Treffinger campaign team. I polled the room as to how they thought this primary would pan out. Every single person, to a person, said that Treffinger would finish first. Treffinger beamed with joy – until I unloaded my observations. (It is important to note that at that point the “campaign team” was primarily made up of county employees or vendors – everyone with a vested interest to make sure the boss was happy with them.) I said the question is not who will come in first or second, the real question is whether Treffinger would finish third or fourth. The room chilled quickly, as they all stared at me with their mouths wide open. After much back and forth with this clearly unbiased crowd, I asked for a private audience with the candidate, which as his former Chief of Staff and top campaign aide for both his winning county executive races, I was readily afforded upon request. My reputation by then with Jim was that I gave solid advice and I was not afraid to tell the truth, and with all of the sycophants hovering around Jim, he badly needed some hard truths.
This dousing of cold-water moment had been developing for some time. After several consultations with our top campaign consultant, David Murray, and after taking a careful temperature of the race I pitched to our candidate an out of the box, yet what I thought was a face saving and reasonable proposal.
I said (nearly verbatim):
“Jim, think about how this field is unfolding and you are being left far behind. This state party isn’t quite ready for you, your time might be in two years. You need to find a way out and line yourself up as the front runner in 2002.”
I had a plan in my head, a near perfect plan, and it was now time to unveil it.
I somehow coaxed Treffinger into taking a secret meeting with one of the front runners – Bill Gormley. We arranged to meet at a Holiday Inn in Cranbury (not a joke). The four in this top-secret meeting were Treffinger, Gormley, David Murray (who had managed all of Gormley’s State Senate races) and yours truly.
The meeting quickly got down to brass tacks. I said, hypothetically, what would happen if Treffinger dropped out, supported Gormley and threw the support of his counties to Gormley? What could that mean for our County Executive? The reply from Gormley (who was known to keep his word) was, hypothetically, he could possibly support a Treffinger run in 2002, raise funds and could place nearly a dozen southern county lines in the Treffinger column. Win or lose, as the new US Senator or as a powerful State Senator, Gormley would play a significant role and I could trust him to keep his word.
Both sides needed to think for a day or two, and for a minute I thought that a solution was within reach.
However, I got the unmistakable impression that all was not well in Oz. Treffinger had a way of displaying a white-hot anger without ever saying a word.
As the two of us walked from the hotel conference room to the waiting Crown Victoria, in silence, I mulled what should be my next sentence. While also thinking whether my proper place in the car would be in the back seat or the trunk.
The answer was neither.
I remember his words to this effect: “you are the most treacherous m-fer and I never expected you to betray me.” After a few more choice words, I was told that I could walk home. Remember, UBER was not yet even an idea and hailing a cab or calling a friend didn’t quite make the list. I literally started walking toward the Turnpike trying to figure out how to get home. After some more drama and more unprintable exchanges, the armed driver pulled up to me and I was instructed to get in.
Needless to say, the deal never happened and my relationship with Jim Treffinger would never recover.
The race was close between the eventual winner Franks and second place finisher Gormley, with Treffinger a distant third:
Treffinger – 48,674
I typically don’t expend a lot of energy on what ifs. Life, work, and family usually occupy most of my time, but every once in a while, I catch myself wondering how different our state of politics would have been had that deal been made. What if Treffinger agreed to the plan and let the sliding door close behind him instead of in his face?
At the risk of crossing movies references, imagine, George Bailey, if the plan had come together and the party was united in the general election — what a different world the GOP could have occupied during the following 19 years. What a Wonderful Life, but that is for another column.
Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Chairman Kevin O’Toole is the former Republican senator from the 40th District.