Featured Race: Having walked out of Heldrich an LD36 winner, Sarlo competes in 38 and other races

When state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-36), Wood-Ridge, walked out of redistricting earlier this year he treaded over the Heldrich Hotel carpet with the added groove of a politician who just racked a win.

That’s because he was the beneficiary of Bergen County rearranging that pushed LD36 east, away from battleground Nutley, where Sarlo would now encompass a larger portion of Democratic-dominant towns that simultaneously gave the district a greater Latino flair.  

The alteration essentially made LD36 unwinnable for a Republican challenger.

To get a sense of just how unwinnable, the GOP subsequently put up Don Diorio of Carlstadt for Senate: a candidate crushed in the old district in 2009 when he faced Sarlo allies Assemblyman Gary Schaer and Assemblyman Fred Scalera.

Diorio distributed campaign glossies that year featuring boxing gloves in what turned out – staying for a moment with the prizefighting metaphor – to be a quick kayo for Schaer and Scalera.

So as he runs for re-election this year, Sarlo, chair of the Senate Budget committee, barely worries about Diorio.

He’s too busy focused on his own expansion of power, starting with the challenge of re-electing state Sen. Robert Gordon, (D-38), Fair Lawn, a party ally whose rearranged and more competitive district beneficially redistricted Sarlo.   

Saddled with more Republican towns to the north, Gordon took a hit going the wrong way. Now Sarlo’s mission is to compensate for that by nudging Gordon back into the Senate.

Since January, Sarlo has maxed out in campaign donations to his fellow Bergen senator, giving Gordon a total of $49,200. Sarlo also maxed out with $37,000 in contributions to county candidates.

In addition, this cycle he has contributed more than he ever has to Democratic candidates statewide with around a quarter of a million dollars.

Given the recent history of the Bergen County Democratic Organization (BCDO) – slender on wins and heavy on meltdown – Sarlo’s overriding effort has been to put the county as much as he can on his own shoulders and build an argument that he’s the go-to-man north of Newark’s Steve Adubato.

Sources say if Sarlo can help Gordon win, he hopes to get an edge in 2013 to succeed state Senate President Steve Sweeney, (D-3), West Deptford, or Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono, (D-18), Metuchen, if either of those leaders decides to forgo another term in the Senate and instead runs for governor.   

Of course, Sarlo will not be able to stand alone in the event that Democrats prevail this year. In addition to the candidates’ efforts themselves, BCDO Chairman Lou Stellato and state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, (D-37), Teaneck, also exert distinct leadership presence.

Stellato in particular proved South Bergen strength when he mustered the county committee votes that Sarlo himself couldn’t summon last year in selecting Kevin Ryan as a substitute for the retiring Scalera.

To his detractors, Sarlo had shaky legs going into redistricting, considering some of his political misfires, including his failure to secure his committee members behind Ryan until Stellato made it happen, his terribly awkward abandonment of Bergen County Freeholder Bernadette McPherson, dumped from LD 36 consideration in favor of Latina candidate Marlene Caride, and his 2008 failure to deliver his hometown of Wood-Ridge to his Senate candidate, U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews.

Given all that, his political antagonists fume over Sarlo all but falling into his own empowerment a la Rosenthal, and some party members happily disposed to Sarlo’s district-mate, Schaer, moving up to a leadership role in the lower house, see Sarlo as little more than a geographical obstacle to Schaer’s success.

But a power-sharing Bergen partnership with political animal Stellato and progressive leader Weinberg appears inevitable for the senator, say sources.

Most specifically caucus-wise, Sarlo projects the sense that he’s on the move, and in a decidedly forward motion if he can bet his money on the right races and, most significantly, help get another win – not in the Heldrich this time but in the streets – for Gordon.  

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