Under investigation and on the way out, James is still James

State Sen. Sharpe James became a dual office holder the same year he says he took up a long and arduous crusade against dual office holding, one of the head-spinning contradictions emanating from the old ex-Newark mayor who is under federal investigation.

The day was ending and among his upper house colleagues, James radiated nervous eagerness in the senate chamber.

“That bill is coming up on Thursday,” he said, referring to a ban on dual office holding, of which he’s a co-prime sponsor. “We’re close to abolishing that practice. I’ve been trying to ban dual office holding since 1999.”

That was the same year he added the title “senator” to his role as mayor, but on this day eight years later, James appeared on the verge of a legislative break through.

Seated in the back row chair marked for the senator, the young James surrogate had been squinting dutifully up at the vote board as he prepared to record another vote for James, when the door swung open in the front of the chamber and the senator entered the packed room.

There are other lawmakers who arrive during senate business who promptly relieve their aides. Not James, not today. The former mayor assumed a seat behind his charge and observed the proceedings from the press row.

“I have no response to a public investigation,” he told PoliticsNJ.com when asked about an ongoing federal investigation into corruption charges swirling around his vacation habits and his alleged steerage of real estate into the hands of friends.

James instead warmed to the issue of the senate race in the 28th district, where Sen. Ron Rice held off a challenge by Bilal Beasley, a candidate supported by longtime James adversary, Newark Mayor Cory Booker. James called Rice a “folk hero” in Newark, whose jacket-slung-over-the-shoulder cliffhanger victory on June 5th only enhanced his image. “He’s been a people’s champion in Trenton for the people of Newark,” said James.

The senator did a double take when asked about the Booker candidates who won the Democratic Primary in the 29th district, including M. Teresa Ruiz, the chief of staff for County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo who faces Assemblyman William Payne in the general election.

“The senate is no place to learn on the job,” said James. “For a job like this you need someone with pragmatic experience, who can best serve the constituency.”

Asked to assess Booker’s performance as mayor so far, James demurred. “For years Mr. Booker blamed Sharpe James,” he said. “I spend no time on Mr. Booker.”

The enigmatic politician who backed out of a second mayoral confrontation with Booker in 2006 and pulled the plug on his senate career with his filing day announcement that he wouldn’t be pursuing re-election, James said he’s backing Payne to serve as his replacement. And he also intends to back U.S. Rep. Donald Payne in the Newark Congressman’s 2008 re-election bid.

But he emphasized his main concern is a ban on dual office holding, which Republican leadership laments is not tough enough because it grandfathers legislators who have already been elected.

As Senate President Richard Codey prepared to gavel the senate out of session Monday, James’ voice could be heard rising plaintively in an attempt to get the attention of Rice.

“Don’t worry, Sharpe,” Codey jokingly told James. “Ron will give you a ride home.”

Under investigation and on the way out, James is still James