ATLANTIC CITY – Senate President Richard Codey (D-Roseland) walked out of the carpeted Trump Plaza Casino on Friday night leaving no doubt that he’s ready for a fight, indeed in a fight.
“Take your best shot,” a skeptic said to him and Codey good-naturedly did, playfully wrestling the challenger while telling his security escort, “It’s all right, I can handle this.”
The escort stood at parade rest.
“And I can handle Sweeney,”Codey said moments later, referring to Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford), who’s challenging him for the Senate Presidency, who last week said, “I can take Codey with one hand tied behind my back.”
Designed to showcase base support for Gov Jon Corzine, the Democratic Convention in Atlantic Citysimultaneously served as a bicameral crucible for both Codey versus Sweeney intrigue and a brewing lower house leadership fight.
Not for Essex County Democratic Chairman Phil Thigpen, however, who said thereis no gray area inthat back-channel battle between Codey and his challenger when it comes to Codey’s home turf.
“I’m confident the Essex County senate delegation will be withDick Codey,” Thigpen said of the Senate President, an Essex County native.
South Jerseyan Sweeney a week ago corralled the public support of Hudson County state Sen. Brian P. Stack (D-Union City), and his allies claim he has more northern support to add to his base six senators from South Jersey who will back him in his leadership challenge of Codey.
But it won’t come from Essex, insisted Thigpen.
Codey can regularly rely on state Sen. Ronald L. Rice (D-Newark) for support, but who state Sen. Nia Gill (D-Montclair) and state Sen. Teresa Gill (D-Newark) would back in a leadership fight is not as predictable. Both are employees of Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, who’s long warred with Codey, going back to his 2002 county executive fight with Codey ally Assemblyman Tom Giblin (D-Montclair).
Whatever their DiVincenzo ties, Thigpen said he anticipates the two senators will line up behind Codey.
“When the time comes,Joe DiVincenzois going to beputting Essex first,” Thigpen said.”I’m confidentDick Codeywill have the support of Essex County.”
Part of the chatter surrounding the senate leadership fight inevitably includes the quiet maneuvers occurring on the Assembly side of the State House, where Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts (D-Camden) is retiring this year and where sources say Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange) may be the North Jersey counterweight to Sweeney, in the event that Sweeneydefeats Codey.
“We think Essex will re-elect Gov. Corzine and when that happens, when Essex is the determining factor in his re-election, leadership in the legislature should reflect that,” said Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Newark).”I fully believe Dick Codey will hold on, given that our priority is to make sure Essex has someone high up in leadership. Step one is re-electing Jon Corzine. Step two is supporting Dick Codey.Everything will be determined in due course. After that, everything is on the table. We don’t want to create an us versus them mentality but we are the largest city and the county which will re-elect this governor.”
Thigpen reiterated his belief thatEssex County’s three senatorswould deliver for Codey, enabling the Senate President in a 23-senatordogfight tooutmuscle Sweeney, even if Sweeney were able to pilfer senate votes out of Union County with the go-signal from state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Elizabeth).
But if Codey were to lose, leaving the Assembly open to the potential for a North Jersey Speaker, Oliver would likely have Thigpen’s support.
“She’s from Essex County,” said the chairman.”I’m supporting the people from Essex. That’smy primary consideration. Shecomes into play only ifDick Codeyisn’t the senate president. Certainly as the biggest Democratic county in the state we’re in a position to make some demands if that kind of discussion comes up.”
Giblin and Assemblywoman Grace Spencer(D-Newark)both refusedto comment. “We are focused on re-electing the governor,”said Spencer.
That alone will be a fight for Democrats as they stare at Republican challenger Chris Christie, who continues to lead Democraticincumbent Corzine by eight points in most polls -one of several fights.