There is some chatter among Passaic County Democrats attending the Democratic National Convention in Denver that veteran State Sen. John Girgenti could be in his last term. Girgenti, a legislator since 1977, is the last white male to represent a district where minority voters represent the majority of the district. Two years ago, Assemblywoman Nellie Pou went as far as to present her name to the Passaic Democratic screening committee as a Senate candidate, but Girgenti—rather easily – secured party support for another term. Pou, by the way, says she’s not interested in challenging the popular Girgenti in 2011.
Girgenti’s political problems are similar to the ones experienced by the late Peter Rodino, an Italian American Congressman from Newark who represented a district where African Americans represented the largest voting bloc. First elected in 1948, Rodino won national fame as Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee during impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon. By the early 1970’s, he began facing primary challenges from African American politicians: Assemblyman George Richardson, East Orange Mayor William Hart, and in 1980 and 1986, from Donald Payne. Rodino finally retired in 1988, paving the way for Payne to go to Congress.
With a legislative district that included East Orange and Orange, Senate President Richard Codey faced a similar problem in 2001 – before he became a political giant. During redistricting, Codey (as Senate Minority Leader, he was on the mapmaking panel) redrew his own district to drop East Orange and pick up suburban West Essex voters who could conceivably vote Republican.
Democrats could save Girgenti, a possible candidate for Senate Judiciary Chairman if John Adler wins his congressional race, by drawing a new district that removes Paterson. But that’s no easy task. Girgenti’s hometown, Hawthorne, is surrounded by some fairly Republican towns in Passaic and Bergen County; the only Democratic bastion nearby is Fair Lawn, the home town of Democratic State Sen. Robert Gordon.