Rice chief gets the party’s nod for freeholder in Essex

The retirement this year of Johnny Jones from the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders left a vacancy, which Newark Mayor Cory Booker wanted to fill with long time South Ward ally Terrance Bankston.

On Saturday, however, the party selected Rufus Johnson -chief of staff to Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex), the man Booker defeated for mayor in 2006.

Johnson will run on the line with incumbent freeholders Ralph Caputo, Linda Cavanaugh, Carol Clark, Blonnie Watson, Bilal Beasley, Patricia Sebold, Samuel Gonzalezand Donald Payne, Jr.

Booker detractors call it another defeat for the mayor, who couldn’t finish off Rice when the senator ran for re-election last year off the line. Not only did Rice win, but now he has a freeholder candidate positioned toclaim a seat usuallyheld by a close ally of the mayor’s.

Jones, for example, the man Johnson hopes to replace, was an appointee of former Newark Mayor Sharpe James’s. People familiar with the Essex freeholders say Jones’s attendance record at meetings – particulalry during the months of James’s exile to a courtroom -hasnot been stellar.

Those who see the Johnson selection as a straight up loss for Booker are inclined to award a pointto U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, who as late as the presidential primary did not have Booker’s endorsement for re-election.

Others see the hand of Senate PresidentRichard Codey (D-Essex) in the Johnson choice as a way of bringing Booker and Rice closer together – and closer to Codey. But what Booker gets out of the deal besidesslowly mendedrelations with Rice and cozy ties to Codey remains to be seen.

Whether a win or loss for Booker ultimately, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo is no friendly ally of Rice’s – whomsome see as a potential challenger for the county executive’s seat.On its surface, Johnson’s addition to the ranks of freeholders does not appear to be good news for DiVincenzo.