When Robert Colletti entered the race for the 38th district State Senate seat in April, the stories about federal subpoenas of State Sen. Joseph Coniglio weren’t much more than a blip on the political radar.
The Record published a story on Monday alleging that two biotechnology companies received $1.2 million in state grants soon after they hired Coniglio as a consultant. That report follows a federal subpoena of Coniglio’s role in helping another client, Hackensack University Medical Center, receive over $1 million in taxpayer dollars.
Suddenly, Republicans feel that Coniglio’s ethics woes could put the Democratic-leaning Bergen County Senate seat in play.
But come November, there is no guarantee that the race will still be Coniglio vs. Colletti.
Democratic sources say that if the Coniglio’s woes continue, he’ll face pressure to drop his bid for re-election to a third term. They say that Bergen County Democratic Chairman Joseph Ferriero won’t chance a loss of the Senate seat to the struggling Republican Party.
“If (Coniglio) does drop out, especially if he drops out relatively soon, the Democrats should be able to win this,” said David Rebovich, managing director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics. “It makes it difficult on his fellow slate members if he stays in, and frankly on other Democrats who will be asked how they view all this.”
The conventional wisdom is that Democrats would turn to Assemblyman Robert Gordon, who has also been subpoenaed as part of the federal probe of state budget items, or Paramus Mayor James Tedesco.
Tedesco chose his words carefully when asked whether he would run for the seat.
“Right now Senator Coniglio is the candidate, and I support Senator Coniglio,” said the popular Mayor. “It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to respond either way in regard to whether I have interest or whether I would even entertain any discussion.”
But Rebovich points out that this is New Jersey, after all — a state whose voters aren’t always turned off by accusations of ethical lapses. Coniglio is, in other words, not necessarily toast.
“It’s that proverbial question. How is it that New Jerseyans re-elect people to office even if they’re under the gun? I don’t know the answer to that,” said Rebovich.
Colletti insists that his chances of winning have less to do with the lobbying scandal than with what he stands for.
“I don’t think my chances are any better. I don’t care to think about them,” said Colletti, a 56-year-old construction company owner who served nine years as an Elmwood Park Councilman.
Colletti said he was already confident to begin with.
“I care about the issues. What will happen to Mr. Coniglio is beyond my control, but I’m here to get down there and vote for a balanced budget with not tax increase,” Colletti said. “It’s not a positive thing that’s happening to him, but does it mean I’m an automatic winner? Absolutely not.”
The 38th district was politically competitive as recently as six years ago. After electing Republicans through the 1990’s, redistricting in 2001 cut some Republican towns and added two Democratic strongholds, Fort Lee and Fair Lawn. Republican Assemblywoman Rose Marie Heck narrowly held on that year, but Coniglio unseated three-term GOP State Senator Louis Kosco.
Coniglio could not be reached for comment, and politicians sympathetic with him took pains to stress that he is innocent until proven guilty, and has not so much as been indicted. But Democratic sources say that if Coniglio stays in office without being exonerated or is unable to convincingly refute the allegations to the public, party leaders will be loathe to pump money into what should be a safe district.
If Coniglio does wind up stepping down, Democratic sources say they aren’t worried about the district going Republican.
“The 38th district is a lot different this decade from last decade. Towns like Fairlawn and Fort Lee. It’s more of a Democratic district,” said one Democratic source who wished to remain anonymous. “That’s why it’s hard to find Republican candidates that will step up.”
Republicans are confident that this is a good chance to topple the 38th district Democrats, however.
“He’s vulnerable, and I think that Democrat will switch him out,” said campaign consultant Thom Ammirato, who’s running Colletti’s campaign. “This is an issue that’s going to transcend Mr. Coniglio, so whoever’s put there in his place will be painted with the same brush.”
But since Republicans started looking at the 38th District in a new light, there has been talk over other candidates stepping up.
“There have been rumblings about that, but you know the Bergen County GOP. Will they do anything? Probably not,” said one Republican player who did not want to be named.
But Colletti, who won the nomination without opposition two weeks ago, has vowed not to step aside to let another candidate take over his bid. And the Bergen County Republican Organization is currently without a Chairman, let alone a strongman counterpart to the Democrats’ Joe Ferriero. It does not appear to be in any position to convince Colletti otherwise.
Colletti just attended a Republican candidate training seminar in Monroe and said he was well received there, and feels that he has the backing of the statewide party — for now, at least.
“I feel that the party is mending, and I do have the feeling of full support from the party — today. Nothing surprises me in politics though,” said Colletti.
As for other candidates who might want to step in?
“They should have come before when the gap wasn’t as closed as it is now. I’m here. I’m in it to stay. I will not come up for air until November 7th,” said Colletti.