WALL – On the side of a highway in a wood-paneled IBEW hall, the Monmouth County Democratic Committee welcomed gubernatorial candidate state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-18), seemingly in defiance of a heavyweight sumo wrestling match between South Jersey Democratic leader George Norcross III and state Sen. Dick Codey (D-27).
Norcross yesterday all but affixed his imprimatur on Buono’s candidacy, infuriating Codey, who has told allies he’s carefully mulling his own gubernatorial challenge of sitting Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
Before Norcross tweaked Codey and before Codey tweaked the ears of national level labor leaders and reached a public conclusion concerning his gubernatorial designs, Monmouth Dems announced their support for underdog Buono this week.
“We did this on Monday because it was the right thing to do,” said Party Chairman Vin Gopal to claps in the packed hall.
In the crowd stood stalwart Belmar Mayor Matt Doherty, heralded by battered seaside Democrats for his work in the face of Hurricane Sandy.
“I’m not wearing my American Flag pin,” he said apologetically while posing for a picture with Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell (D-31).
“It’s all right, the storm tore it off,” someone said by way of explanation and Doherty cracked a grin. His presence underscored the willingness of Democrats here to scrap with Christie for Hurricane Sandy leadership legitimacy.
But mostly tonight, Monmouth Dems allowed themselves to push out their chests and revel in their choice for governor. They’re minority party players in a classically Republican county who for the moment don’t want to be viewed as sock puppets in a larger game of Democratic Party power flexing.
“We are not going to be told what we’re going to do,” Gopal said.”There was nothing more unanimous than when we brought out 40 municipal chairs.”
He turned to Buono, who stood in the wings.
“We’re going to work hard for you, senator, not just in June, to make sure you’re the next governor of New Jersey,” the chairman said, either a jab at Democratic Party establishment fixtures close to Christie or to Codey.
Accepting the backing of the party organization, an energized Buono beat up Christie before a receptive crowd, branding him the king of trickle down, who traveled rightwardly around the country in pursuit of GOP love nationally while New Jersey’s economy stagnated.
“We can’t afford four more years,” Buono declared.
Standing in the SRO hall, O’Donnell said he wasn’t ready to endorse.
“Vin’s a friend,” he said.
An invite went to Hudson County Democratic Organization Chairman Mark Smith, who didn’t show, word had it, because he was huddling with U.S. Rep. Albio Sires (D-8) and state Sen. Nick Sacco (D-32) to try to figure out how to keep Hudson County from disintegrating into a civil war.
Before Buono went to the microphone, Gopal introduced state Sen. Bob Smith (D-17), the Middlesex County kingmaker who helped smooth the jagged edges of Middlesex politics for Buono. It was clear based on his frontline presence tonight that Smith intends to be visible at the gubernatorial candidate’s side.
“I have seen fired-up Democratic organizations but not like this one,” Smith said. “This is the year when we’re all going to win with a dynamic top of the ticket. …Let me say this: the bully is about to get slapped. Barbara is a fighter. She’s a leader. He’s never faced that before. He’s in for a beating he so soundly deserves.”
A face in the crowd, an old school Democratic Party transplant who moved to the shore years ago and who still bears the craggy traces of North Jersey politics paranoia watched Buono work the room. Someone nearby mentioned that she had integrity and the Democrat laughed uproariously.
“Now I know she really doesn’t have a chance in this state,” he said.
But that was only one person, a self-stated Buono supporter who also self-identified as a realist, wholly convinced, he said, that the public is dumb enough to vote Christie into office again. Others eagerly posed with Buono as the candidate worked the room, many of them proud to be part of the party machinery of Monmouth enlivened by the leadership of the 28-year-old Gopal.
The pol from out of town, O’Donnell, from Hudson said politics seesaws.
“He looks invincible right now,” he said of Christie as Buono labored from one packed table to the next. “But don’t be so sure. Things change.”