How Joe the Plumber got to the Senate

Joseph Coniglio, described during his federal corruption trial as a man with unspectatular intellectual aptitude, was elected to the New Jersey State Senate in 2001, defeating three-term Republican State Sen. Louis Kosco (R-Paramus) by 3,543 votes, a 53%-47% margin.

Redistricting altered the 38th district, which had been a competitive legislative district through the 1980’s, in favor of the Democrats 2001. Two large Democratic towns, Fair Lawn and Fort Lee, were added to the district. Joseph Ferriero, who was in his fourth year as the Bergen County Democratic Chairman, picked Coniglio, a 58-year-old plumber and union official, to run for the Senate with the hope that the former two-term Paramus Councilman would hold down Kosco’s hometown Paramus plurality and build margins in other parts of the district. The strategy worked: Coniglio won Fair Lawn by 1,145 votes, Fort Lee by 2,141 and Cliffside Park by 1,989. He lost Paramus by just 877 votes. In 1997, Kosco won Paramus by 2,781 in his 57%-43% victory over Democrat Valerie Vainieri Huttle.

Besides redistricting, Coniglio benefitted from some coat tails at the top of the ticket. In the race for Governor, Democrat James E. McGreevey carried District 38 by a 61%-39% margin over Republican Bret Schundler. In the race for two State Assembly seats, Republican Rose Heck won re-election by a narrow 468 vote margin, but Democrat Matt Ahearn ousted GOP incumbent Nicholas Felice in a race where just 803 votes separated the top vote getter from the candidate in fourth place.

After the ’01 election, Republicans and Democrats each had twenty Senate seats and Republicans viewed Coniglio as one of their top targets in 2003 as they sought to regain control of the Senate. Heck gave up her Assembly seat to run for the Senate, but the GOP could not compete with Democrats financially and Coniglio won his Democratic-leaning district 56%-44%, by a margin of 4,756 votes. Republicans also lost Heck’s Assembly seat.

For a while, it looked like Republicans were positioned to oust Coniglio in 2007, after federal prosecutors seized records from the Senator’s legislative office and from Hackensack University Medical Center, where he worked as a $5,000-per-month plumbing consultant. After news that Coniglio was the target of a federal corruption probe leaked to the press, a poll commissioned by Ferriero showed Republican Joseph Colletti, a former Elmwood Park Councilman, leading Coniglio. Democrats pressured him to get out of the race, and Colletti lost the Senate race to Assemblyman Robert Gordon (D-Fair Lawn) by a 60%-40% margin.

Coniglio’s withdrawal from the race meant a continuation of the Curse of the 38th: since the district was created in 1973, every Senator had failed to get re-elected. Republican Fred Wendel lost to Democrat John Skevin in the ’73 Democratic landslide. Skevin was ousted by Republican John Paolella in 1981, and Paolella lost his seat to Democrat Paul Contillo in 1983. Kosco beat Contillo in 1991. How Joe the Plumber got to the Senate