WEST ORANGE – Political lesson number one: when you’re wounded, don’t curl up in a ball – go on the attack with muscles rippling and pray for the intervention of time.
That seemed to be the message tonight at Mayfair Farms where Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. stood amid super-sized balloons and his fellow portents of power and said, “Always strong, always strong.”
A PolitickerNJ.com story last month focused on the county executive’s simultaneous collection of a pension and salary, sending DiVincenzo’s critics – public sector union leaders among them – into overdrive as they branded DiVincenzo a hypocrite for demanding sacrifices from workers while raking in a commanding dual public sector advantage.
The exec bounced back with this fundraiser, which netted DiVincenzo in the neighborhood of $300,000. It featured a carnival-like atmosphere of Democratic Party big shots – everyone from George Norcross III, who arrived with nine-time Olympic God medalist Carl Lewis, to North Ward Democratic leader Steve Adubato Sr., to Democratic State Party Chairman John Wisniewski to Newark Mayor Cory Booker.
“All the little chatter from small people,” said Booker, dismissing the critiques of DiVincenzo as an oversized occupant of the public trough. “Because of Joe D, there is a child in Essex County who had a better education.”
At first, the expressions on familiar faces looked like Jack Nicholson Joker grins in all weather – stiffened masks of celebration in the face of a political maelstrom – but the mood loosened as comments like “He’s plowing right through” ran thorough the crowd of insiders, vocalizing equal parts awe and incredulity over DiVincenzo’s regeneration projection.
Prior to the executive’s public crack-up, one might have imagined Gov. Chris Christie here at an event like this, at the ready with a tear in the eye and lump in the throat. Christie wasn’t here, but DiVincenzo still sounded his cross the aisle mantra to mumbles of discomfort and some claps.
“We have a Republican governor,” said the Democrat. “We need to work with the new governor.”
An undercurrent of agony accompanied the public figure of Lewis, the would-be political superstar turned incipient ex-candidate, who appears to be one federal appeal rejection away from aborting his run for the state Senate in the 8th Legislative District.
“It’s over,” mumbled an insider through a mouthful of hors d’oeuvres as Lewis solemnly made his way to the lectern under a Saturday Night Fever rotating disco ball.
Bottled up apparently was all the tough guy talk from politicos assessing their own turf.
“Winning ten medals wasn’t cumbaya,” Lewis told the crowd, and there were appreciative laughs in response. “I want to let the 8th District know that when I said I was in the race to win it, I meant it.”
His lawyers head before a 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals judge tomorrow – “We’ve got a shot,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) – but a mood of surrender penetrated the event.
“He’s got to run the circuit now and tell the story about being disenfranchised,” said one insider.
“You could run and jump but it turns out you couldn’t count, Carl,” cracked Essex County Democratic Party Chairman Phil Thigpen, an ex track and field star now in his eighties, who did a concerned double-take earlier in the evening when someone pointed out to him, “Carl Lewis just ran past you, Mr. Chairman.
DiVincenzo’s hailed his two chief political organizers, Chief of Staff Phil Alagia and operative/lobbyist Leroy Jones, who emceed and prepared what was couched as an annual event, which some insiders described as an 11th-hour happening, for a brand whose power projects out of an 800,000-strong county – the most Democratic voter rich stronghold in the state.
“They ask me,” said DiVincenzo, “are you running for governor, and I tell them, ‘No, I leave that to Cory Booker and Steve Sweeney.’ I’m going to be running for re-election as county executive in 2014.”