Essex county elected officials unite for Lautenberg

NEWARK – Standing on the steps of Newark City Hall in a city where the largest single political machine backs another candidate, an alliance of elected officials from Essex County today announced their support for Sen. Frank Lautenberg.

U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, state Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex), Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex), Mayor Robert Bowser of East Orange, Mayor Ray McCarthy of Bloomfield, freeholders, and council people joined forces to highlight the endorsements of 34 Essex officials for Lautenberg.

“It speaks volumes,” said Payne, who took a moment to assure people that Democratic County Chairman Phil Thigpen is also “100% behind this ticket.” Over the weekend Thigpen received pressure to give the organizational line to Lautenberg as well as to his opponent, U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews from south Jersey.

Thigpen ultimately said he would givethe lineto Lautenberg alone.

But Andrews still has the support of powerful North Ward Democratic Party leader Steve Adubato, Sr., who backed every successful candidate for Newark mayor since Ken Gibson, and dominated legislative elections last year with an army of voters.

“He’s certainly effective,” Payne said of Adubato’s political machine, which in this senate primary is squaring off against every Democratic mayor in Essex and the Payne-Codey-Booker trio to back a south Jersey congressman.

Payne, an on-again, off-again ally of Adubato’s, described his decision to stand with Lautenberg as nothing personal against Adubato, who announced his support for Andrews after Payne backed the U.S. senator.

“This is Essex County,” said Payne. “Political alliances shift like sand dunes.”

Backed by Adubato in the 2006 mayoral election, Booker said he couldn’t turn his back on the 84-year old Lautenberg, who has been a champion for Newark and Essex County, in the mayor’s words.

“I turned to our senator who stepped up and delivered for this city,” said Booker. “Over $30 million in federal appropriations for Essex County as a whole but for the City of Newark he’s fought against gun violence and has helped pass laws keeping guns out of people’s hands to the tune of 150,000 guns.”

The mayor also noted Lautenberg’s support for a bill providing federal grants for gang prevention, and his delivery to Newark of over $400,000 toward a juvenile prisoner re-entry program in the city.

In his remarks, Codey tried to head off the issue of Lautenberg’s age, something Andrews’s allies have questioned in a presidential election year in which the presumptive Republican nominee is U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

They argue that Lautenberg’s presence on a statewide general election ticket diffuses attacks Democrats could use on the 71-year old presidential candidate.

“I can remember when I first ran for office – the age factor,” said Codey. “They said I was too young – 26 – to run for the legislature. It worked out alright. I don’t think they said to Frank Lautenberg when they sent him off to Europe that he was too young to fight for our country in WWII.

“Age is not the issue,” said Codey. “Effectiveness is the issue.”

The senate president later said the best arguments the Democrats will have against the Republicans will be onpolicy issues not age.

Payne amplified the argument.

“People revere age in our community,” said the Newark-born congressman. “In any case, you won’t see Obama or Hillary attack McCain on age.”

Unlike Payne and Booker, Codey is notwhat could be described in Essex County parlance as a close political ally of Adubato’s. But Codey mostly stays in the Oranges and Adubato ranges in the north of the city, and they try to stay out of each other’s way.

Andrews’s challenge ofLautenbergshook Codey and Adubato intocloser proximity when the latter endorsed the Camden underdog over the “homeboy,” which is how Codey today described Lautenberg, who raised his family in Montclair.

In the days leading up to yesterday’s filing deadline, Codey took out petitions for freeholder slots just in case Thigpen awarded the line to Andrews.

The move by Codey would have enabled Lautenberg to run a slate of nine candidates underneath his name, just in case the support system of those existing freeholders collapsed under pressure from Adubato.

Today, freeholders Linda Cavanaugh, Ralph Caputo, Carol Clark and Donald Payne, Jr., stood with Lautenberg rather than abandon the organizational line. The county committee’s selection of a freeholder candidate to replace the retiring Johnny Jones, is Rufus Johnson, chief of staff to Rice, who backs Lautenberg.

While he didn’t attend the Lautenberg rally today,Freeholder Bilal Beasley said he won’t come off the line, and so far there is no indication that the other freeholder incumbents – including Samuel Gonzalez, a close confidante of Adubato’s – will abandon the line to form a slate under Andrews.

State Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), Gonzalez’s wife, a close political ally of Adubato’s and deputy chief of staff to County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, said she is not backing either Andrews or Lautenberg at the present.

“I am not engaged in this campaign with either candidate,” Ruiz said.

DiVincenzo, another ally of Adubato’s,is also publicly staying out of the fight for now.

Essex county elected officials unite for Lautenberg