By MAX PIZARRO
Over a sixteen year legislative career, State Sen. Peter A. Inverso has won five times in a tough and independent-minded district, leaving potential Democratic candidates with the unpleasant sensation that if they faced him, it would probably mean months of door-to-door drudgery followed by a loss.
Now Democrats are trying to agree on a strategy to defeat popular Assemblyman Bill Baroni, who received the support of the Mercer GOP organization tonight by acclamation.
At Saturday’s Mercer County Democratic convention, Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein and state Rate Counsel Seema Singh talked about the upcoming campaign. Operating under the assumption that Inverso would run, Greenstein decided run for re-election to the Assembly, while Singh, who has worked for three Governors but has never run for public office, would take the shot against Inverso, and chalk the inevitable defeat up to experience.
If Inverso decided not to run, however, Greenstein and Singh today acknowledged an agreement to possibly switch places on the ticket, agreeing to back each other.
The two women come from Middlesex, which traditionally gets one spot on the 14th district ticket, with the Senate and the second Assembly seat going to Hamilton
With a population of 90,000 — the biggest in the district — and a record of high-voter turnout, Hamilton is district 14’s power base.
Inverso’s announcement Monday afternoon that he would not seek re-election shook up both parties, and leaves Democrats in search of a new, Inverso-less strategy.
Right now, Singh, who was born in India, shows no signs of backing away from her campaign for Senate — and said Monday she had already given her two weeks notice from her state job so she could focus on the campaign.
“At this point I have been endorsed. I am a New Jersey Senate candidate for the 14th district,” Singh said on Monday.
Singh acknowledges that if Greenstein decides to run for the Senate, she would switch and run for the Assembly.
But for now, with the nomination already in hand, she’s focused on the Senate.
Pressed with the question, Greenstein says she wouldn’t rule out a Senate run. “It’s something I’d like to do,” she told PoliticsNJ.com. “I’m still sort of considering it.”
Whatever happens, Greenstein says she would like some ticket combination that includes either herself or Singh in the Senate slot, and a good strong candidate from Hamilton to run for the other Assembly seat.
On Monday, party leadership reiterated its support for Singh — and for the notion that Greenstein should hold onto her Assembly seat.
“I expect us to stand by her,” Mercer County Democratic Chairman Richard McClellan, said of Singh. “Of course, Senator Inverso’s retirement opens up a great opportunity for us to at least pick up an Assembly seat.”
There will be meetings all week, McClellan said, and he is confident the party will have a slate by sometime Friday.
The trouble for Singh, though, is that glaring power factor in district 14, concentrated in Hamilton Township. The talk among some Democrats is all about supporting the existing candidates and finding a third candidate now, probably from Hamilton, to bolster the ticket in the Assembly. They say a strong Senate candidate could, at least, help Democrats can pick up Baroni’s vacated seat.
South Brunswick Mayor Frank Gambatese, a Democrat, says that his party should not change their candidates.
"It's a stunner,” Gambatese said of Inverso’s retirement. “But the candidates are pretty much selected at this time. I don't believe it changes anything.. Seema is from South Brunswick. She's very intelligent, and she has my full support. I’m totally backing her.”
But some Democratic leaders see Inverso’s departure as a tantalizing invitation to throw a dormant, Hamilton-based heavyweight in the race against Baroni — even though they don’t discount the Republican Assemblyman’s talent, and acknowledge the formidability of his Labor ties in the blue collar district.
On Monday, Baroni picked up the endorsement of the Communications Workers of America Local Union 1034, which represents a huge block of state workers who live in his district.
“Bill is a strong legislator and a good friend. He has stood with us during the difficult fights and we enthusiastically support him,” said Local 1034 President Carla Katz. “Bill’s combination of integrity and intelligence will make him a strong Senator carrying on the rich tradition of Senator Peter Inverso.”
Baroni has won two Assembly races with large pluralities by appealing to Independent and Democratic base voters.
“You’re going to see a lot of union leaders and other leaders coming out and endorsing me,” Baroni told PoliticsNJ.com.
The party decided on Monday to wait until Saturday to pick a Mercer-basd candidate. Former Hamilton Mayor Jack Rafferty and Hamilton Councilman Thomas Goodwin are vying for the Mercer seat on the GOP ticket. Former Jamesburg Councilman Adam Bushman will represent Middlesex County on the GOP slate, Baroni said.
“I would expect Baroni to be the favorite, whatever the Democrats do,” said David P. Rebovich, director of Rider University’s Institute of New Jersey Politics.
But some Democrats insist Baroni is beatable in a toss-up district, pointing specifically to his strong connections with the upper echelons of a national Republican Party in trouble.
There is some thought that a Hamiltonian with experience in elected office and deep community roots — ideally going back to the Chambersburg migration from Trenton to Hamilton — a (former Sheriff) Gilbert Lugossy, for example, or a (former Assemblyman) Anthony Cimino — would provide exactly the kind of gravitas transfusion at the top of the ticket that could propel the Dems to victory in November.
One of the Democrats who received calls from the party on Monday in the wake of the senator’s announcement was Hamilton Mayor Glen D. Gilmore, who acknowledged that the departure of an “elected official with as distinguished a career as Inverso can’t be overlooked.”
“As to plans for my future, I’ve expressed to Seema that she has my support for the Senate,” Gilmore said. “Assemblywoman Greenstein has been absolutely tireless and puts in incredible hours serving this district. She’s in our community constantly.”
For the moment at least, Inverso, much-praised for his sense of calm, leaves behind a district in a frenzy of politics.