Johnson continues attempt at damage control

Assemblyman Gordon Johnson has taken some lumps lately — enough to make it appear that, out of the three ethics crusading 37th district legislators, he’s the most vulnerable.

Ever since he joined his running mates, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, to introduce a reform package that reignited the civil war between Chairman Joe Ferriero’s Bergen County Democratic Organization and the Real Bergen Democrats, Johnson has found himself in the crosshairs – both from Ferriero and his 37th district Republican opponents.

Almost immediately after the Real Bergen Democrats introduced their reform package earlier this month, Ferriero criticized Johnson as hypocritical for seeking to ban dual office-holding while concurrently serving as an Assemblyman and Englewood Councilman.

Then the 37th district Republican legislative candidates called out Johnson for accepting $40 in clean elections donations from uniformed police officers at the Englewood police station. Most recently, and perhaps most damaging, was the Republicans’ exposure of Johnson’s $1,850 in donations to the political action committee of controversial activist Lyndon LaRouche, who many consider anti-Semitic. Ferriero, in turn, wrote a letter denouncing the donations.

Johnson, for his part, admits that he made a mistake donating to LaRouche and doesn’t fault anyone for pointing it out.

“This is a Democracy and we used the press to get the word out about different issues and what have you, and I don’t feel like I’ve been singled out specifically,” said Johnson. “These issues came out and need to be explained.”

But Johnson also noted that it wasn’t the first time that the specter of LaRouche had been raised in his district. In the 2004 presidential primary, Ferriero kicked 21 out of 28 Englewood presidential primary delegates off the party line under John Kerry, replacing them with his own. The exiled candidates, who said that Ferriero was getting even with them for not supporting his preferred council candidate, were banished to the next column – under LaRouche, who was also running for the Democratic nomination.

“One of the most dangerous places to be is between a pig and his trough, and I feel that I’m in that position because we are now going up against the Democratic machine,” said Johnson.

Huttle emphasized that she did not want to downplay the seriousness of Johnson’s donations to LaRouche, but she questioned whether it was actually Republican state Senate candidate Clara Nibot who dug the information up. Nibot, who did not qualify for Clean Elections money, has little money for her campaign and few resources to tap.

“I don’t think our opponents have the money to do this and obviously this material was meant to be directed at us in a primary,” said Huttle. “They already did their opposition research and that’s what they’re getting it from – it’s blatant that this is political payback for our ethics reform.”

Ferriero, Huttle said, had probably already amassed the material when he was fielding primary candidate to run against the 37th district slate earlier this year.

Bergen County Democratic Organization Bill Maer denied any connection between Ferriero and Nibot’s campaign. Nibot said that she had been approached with material to use against the 37th district Democrats by BCDO operatives before and refused it. She insisted that she came across Johnson’s donations herself while doing her own research.

“I can’t stand (Ferriero),” said Nibot. “Even if he gave me a million in gold I won’t take it. If anyone tells me ‘This is coming from Ferriero,’ I say throw it in the garbage.”

Regardless of who orchestrated the attacks against Johnson, however, it has serious potential political implications, said Eagleton Institute political analyst Ingrid Reed.

“People have to believe that wherever they got out, it’s a serious problem. Enough of a problem for the party to reconsider the role and the status of a candidate,” said Reed. “I think that’s what Johnson risks in this.”

Though the 37th district Republicans have almost no change of defeating Johnson, Democratic sources say that Johnson’s performance will be examined very closely by his running mates once the votes are tallied, and they’ll likely decide whether they should consider searching for a candidate less vulnerable to a primary challenge from the BCDO. Johnson continues attempt at damage control