It was a big happy event, by the looks of it from the outside. They looked like an extended family in there, with the Jets game on in the background and a few of the men shamelessly turning sideways in their chairs as they watched Gang Green lose.
But when Assemblyman Robert Gordon stood at the podium and accepted their unanimous backing to succeed District 38 Sen. Joseph Coniglio, Bergen County Democrats emptied their seats and gave him their face-forward attention amid sustained applause.
Gordon had some longtime allies in the Sunday evening crowd at party HQ in Hackensack, guys with whom he went back a long time.
"I’ve known Bob Gordon for 24 years," said former Fair Lawn Councilman Victor Amato, a county committee member. "We’re both from Fair Lawn. I think what you’re getting with Bob here is integrity, and the guarantee that he’ll hold to the principles of the Democratic Party. He’s also a very bright guy."
And he had the solid backing of the man he hopes to replace, Coniglio, who announced last week he wouldn’t run again, succumbing to party pressure for him to step aside in the face of an ethics probe by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Entering the room after the vote, receiving embraces and hand clutches from the party faithful, Coniglio said of Gordon, "It’s a good night for him. They’re going to go on to victory," very likely an accurate statement in a district that is almost 3-2 Democratic, but which the party felt might not have been the case had Coniglio stayed in the battle.
As the committee members spilled into the fall night, the revamped 38th District team: a visibly charged-up Gordon, Assemblywoman Joan Voss, and their new running mate, Bergen Freeholder (and Paramus Councilwoman) Connie Wagner, also unanimously chosen Sunday night – were propelled into an antechamber for a press conference.
Among them, Chairman Joseph Ferreiro appeared to straddle that no-man’s land between two watershed events in his party’s tumultuous half year: April 12th, when Gov. Jon Corzine presided at a peace powwow between the chairman and maverick 37th District Sen. Loretta Weinberg, and tonight, when Ferreiro hoped once again to restore the party organization to wholeness after the Coniglio imbroglio.
Ferreiro refused to acknowledge any psychic weight relived by tonight’s denouement.
"I don’t know if you can identify April with this," he said. "I think all of this is part of what a party goes through. I look at the Democratic Party as a family. From time to time the Democratic Party has a crisis, but the family gets together. This is one of those events."
In the fast emptying hall, District 36 Sen. Paul Sarlo huddled briefly with Coniglio.
"It’s a smooth transition," Sarlo told PoliticsNJ.com. "Bob was the logical choice, given the way he dives in head first on policy issues. He’s been working with Sen. Coniglio on a number of initiatives. I’ve also enjoyed working with him in the legislature. It’s been an emotional roller coaster these past couple of weeks, but the party is united."
Bergen County Executive Dennis McNerney backed up that point. "He’s going to transition right in," he said of Gordon.
That seemed to be the take on Gordon. He’s been there in the supporting role, done his time, built the alliances. He deserves it.
Coniglio, who was at the front of the room as a steadying public face back in April when the party came together behind Ferreiro and Weinberg, was departing now in a move that Ferreiro said was for the good of the party, the sake of the family.
The evening was at an end, and some of the men moved to the bar across the street to keep watching the Jets lose. Leaving Gordon to fill out paperwork due in Trenton, and holding his wife’s hand, Coniglio walked slowly across the gravel parking lot to where his car was parked on Bergen Street.