The hot-rod that had been the political career of Assemblyman/Mayor Joe Vas sat on the side of the track like the charred remains of a doused dumpster fire and Perth Amboy Mayor Wilda Diaz – in office a year after beating Vas – looked across the river to South Amboy for a replacement.
This was 2009.
Her old conquered foe having flamed out completely on corruption charges, Diaz preferred South Amboy Mayor John O’Leary for the job of replacing him. Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac also liked O’Leary. But suddenly – plagued with his own baggage, the consequence of having served for years as the mayor of a sleepy river town – O’Leary crapped out.
Sensing opportunity for his home town, McCormac turned to Edison Municipal Court Judge Craig Coughlin of Woodbridge as his choice to run on the Democratic Party line with Assemblyman John Wisniewski of Sayreville. Alert to Perth Amboy getting shut out of the process and hearing the criticisms of those in her own ranks who questioned her intial support for O’Leary and the need for Hispanic representation, Diaz put up retired Superior Court Judge Mathias Rodriguez.
Labor leader Jean Pierce of Woodbridge also jumped into the contest, but McCormac’s relationships proved too strong, as Woodridge, Carteret and South Amboy forged a bloc in the five-town district. At the September special convention for Vas’ seat, Coughlin destroyed Rodriguez, winning 170 votes, compared to 75 for the retired judge and 25 for Pierce.
An Irish-American had supplanted a Latino for the seat, perhaps presaging the current speaker’s fight, as Coughlin now looks to displace sitting Vincent Prieto.
Then-Assemblyman Joe Cryan celebrated with friends McCormac and Coughlin – and O’Leary – that September night in 2009.
Diaz took Coughlin’s victory hard.
She was new to office and the impact of Perth Amboy – the most Democratic town in the district – losing an Hispanic representative proved an early political lesson. In 2011, Democrats tinkered with Ld19 as they considered ways in which to fulfill tie-breaking member the late Alan Rosenthal’s efforts to create more “minority majority districts.” One scenario included a majority-Latino construct consisting of Perth Amboy and New Brunswick. but after a few map-making variations, they eventually left the district alone and sought to fulfill those demands elsewhere, specifically in LD35. There, the redistricting commission found a way to chop Hawthorne out of the district and send Senator John Girgenti into retirement, enabling the promotion to the senate of then-Assemblywoman Nellie Pou, a Latina.
That move spared Coughlin.
Of course his residency in Woodbridge – a big base town, not dissimilar to Paterson in the way it commands the district – mostly already ensured his survival.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-19) might have been the more easily identifiable casualty if a white male from Middlesex had to walk the plank in favor of an Hispanic, but Wiz – in his role as state party chairman at that time – chaired the re-districting commission for the Democrats. Cryan – now reanimated as a candidate for the 20th District senate seat – sat on that committee, too.
A candidate for governor, Wisneiwski’s retirement from the legislature this year portends the return – after nearly ten years without representation for the historic dock-front city since Vas’ seismic implosion – of an Hispanic from Perth Amboy to the legislature.
A Democratic State Committeewoman and Executive Director/CEO of the Puerto Rican Association for Human Development, Inc. (PRAHD), Yvonne Lopez is running to replace Wisniewski – a statehouse veteran of two decades – on the ticket with Coughlin this year.