Donald Tucker’s Heirs

The death of a Newark political icon, 67-year-old Donald Tucker, creates a series of contests within the Democratic Party over the next few weeks with the potential to offer some tremendous political theater. Essex County Democratic Chairman Philip Thigpen must call a Special Election Convention within 35 days to fill the remainder of Tucker’s term. which expires in January. The 28th district includes parts of all four wards in Newark, and all of Irvington, Belleville and Bloomfield. Tucker’s name will remain on the ballot for the November 2005 general election and he is a lock to win re-election posthumously over two Republicans and an independent challenger in this heavily Democratic district. Thigpen must hold another Special Election Convention to elect a new Assemblyman, who will serve until a November 2006 Special Election. Democrats have the choice of electing a caretaker Assemblyman this year and someone else in January. Assembly Democrats will also need to elect a new Speaker Pro-Tempore, a largely ceremonial position that comes with some additional staff dollars. One Democratic legislator suggested that Tucker could be replaced in that role next year by Albio Sires, who is not seeking a third two-year term as Speaker. Within the next thirty days, the remaining eight members of the Newark City Council must appoint someone to fill Tucker’s At-Large Council seat, which expires on July 1, 2006. Because Newark municipal elections are non-partisan, party leaders have no formal role in choosing Tucker’s successor. The part-time Council seat, with an $80,000-a-year salary, a car, staff, discretionary funds and a multitude of other perks, is the real prize. The 28th district Assembly seat could turn out to be cog in the deal that seats a new City Councilman. Local pundits assume that Newark Mayor Sharpe James, who has no legal authority in filling either vacancy, will seek to play a major role in both appointments. James will clearly want to install a friendly face on the Council, where he has enjoyed an alternatively hot and cold relationship in recent years. A coalition of five Councilmembers will be needed to replace Tucker; two anti-James Councilmen, Luis Quintana and Augusto Amador, will likely resist any effort by James to make the pick. An Essex County insider said that James, who is still mulling a bid for re-election as Mayor next year, may want the Council seat for his son, John James. That insider said that South Ward Councilman Donald Bradley could seek an At-Large seat in the May 2006 election (the Mayor began as a South Ward Councilman and then ran for an At-Large seat) and James the younger could run for Bradley’s South Ward seat. Coincidentally, John James moved to the 28th district earlier this year and could emerge as a candidate for the Legislature. Another Essex Democrat says that the eight Councilmembers might prefer a caretaker appointment for Tucker’s seat, arguing that they will prefer to avoid creating another incumbent who will become their opponents in next year’s election. The looming race between James and former Councilman Cory Booker, and the possible candidacy of Assemblyman Wilfred Caraballo (or someone else from the camp of Newark political powerhouse Stephen Adubato, Sr.) provides a high level on uncertainty in Newark politics next year. Newark his runoff elections if candidates fail to win 50% in the first round, so it makes sense that the other incumbents won’t want to create their own opponent. Adubato will clearly be a huge player in any internal machinations, especially in the Assembly race, where his influence extends beyond the North Ward’s 64 convention votes and into Belleville and Bloomfield. The Payne machine — led by Congressman Donald Payne, his brother, 29th district Assemblyman William Payne, his nephew, 28th district Assemblyman Craig Stanley, and his son, Essex County Freeholder-At-Large candidate Donald Payne, Jr. — will also have considerable influence in both appointments. Another player could be State Senator Ronald Rice, whose on-again, off-again alliance with James led to his appointment as Deputy Mayor in 2002. Rice’s son, state Education Department official Ronald Rice, Jr., ran on Booker’s slate for City Council in 2002 and is running again with Booker next year. Rice the younger could wind up in the Assembly, especially since a group of Newark Democrats might prefer him out of the ’06 Council race. The Special Election Conventions for State Assembly and the appointment of a new City Councilman could also step up the time frame of the first James vs. Booker test of strength. One local politician close to Booker says the mayoral candidate, who has campaigned non-stop since losing to James in 2002, could seek to install his own candidates. Tucker’s death also creates a vacancy on the patronage-rich Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission, and Acting Richard Codey may view this as an Essex County seat. Codey will clearly fill this seat before the new Governor takes office, and that could be in the best interests of Bergen County Democratic Chairman Joseph Ferriero, who holds the lucrative PVSC Counsel position. Tucker was appointed to the PVSC by Republican Governor Thomas Kean in 1985, as part of a series of Democratic appointments that enabled Kean to defeat Peter Shapiro, the Essex County Executive, with 70% of the vote — carrying Newark and every other urban area of the state.

Donald Tucker’s Heirs