WOODBRIDGE – Born in South Amboy to a factory worker father who worked at the Perth Amboy Chevron company, a resident of Woodbridgewith family in all of the towns over here, Craig Coughlin considers himself a diehard blue collar creation of the 19th District.
"I think I know the district as well as anyone can," said Coughlin, 51, who's heading into a special convention showdown next Wednesday with retired Superior Court Judge Mathias Rodriguez of Perth Amboy to earn the right as a Democratic candidate in the 19th.
"I don't think Judge Rodriguez knows the district as well as I do," said Coughlin, who's lived in the district's biggest town, Woodbridge, since 1993."I have friends and family in every community. I know the district. I know what matters. People want a good educational system, protection for seniors and people-centered legislation. I have experience in the judiciary and on the political side."
He lives here in the 19th, and works here.
Just asCoughlin's bloodlines extend into Carteret, the Amboys, Sayreville and the environs, so too dothe legal contractsand professional ties of the St. John's University-educated attorney touch the different towns.
He's legal counsel to the governing body in his hometown of Woodbridge, serves on the South Amboy Redevelopment Agency, and was formerly the boroughattorney of Carteret. He was a member of the South Amboy Council in the 1980s, where he ran on a ticket with his friend, Mayor John T. O'Leary.
Moreover, his publicwork extended into Edison – until a week ago.
Coughlinworked as a muncipal prosecutor in Edison for ten years, before former Mayor George Spadoro appointed him to amunicipal judgeship in the same town four and a half years ago, where he served until his resignation last week in preparation for a run at the vacant seat here, created by the bow-out of O'Leary.
"Yes, I get paid for it, but I've always appraoched my work as public service," said Coughlin. "As an assemblyman, I would see my job as making sure the unfortunate get taken care of."
In addition to public interest work, Coughlin's law firm handles private wills and small business matters. He's done significant trench time in the 19th district as a campaign volunteer, coffee clatch hostand all-around Democratic Party politico. Heserved as Woodbridge Democratic Party chairman in the late 1990s.
Father of three sons, Coughlin has coached sports teams and immersed himself in Cub Scout and band concert activites.
In next Wednesday's special county committee convention,the candidate who would bea candidatefaces fellow retired JudgeRodriguez, who moved up his retirement datefrom the Superior Court of New Jerseyto run for the same seat O'Leary had originally craved before he aborted his run amid anonymous allegations of corruption. O'Leary laboredas a candidateagainst the backdrop of the state Attorney General's Office examining O'Leary's ties to the Perth Amboy once run by Assemblyman (and former mayor) Joe Vas (D-Perth Amboy), who's facing state and federal corruption charges.
To be clear, unlike Vas, there are no government charges against O'Leary, a 23-year mayor of South Amboy, who proudly backs Coughlin as a better man than himself for the job, in O'Leary's own words.
"I had been reading the papers and I thought Judge Rodriguez was going to get it," Coughlin said of his rival's early positioning as the front-runner to succeed O'Leary as the candidate. "My wife is a committeewoman and people asked me if I was interested. Ultimately I decided to give up the judgeship in order to run.
"The anonymous packet circulated with the charges against Jack (O'Leary) is scurrillous, and until somebody proves to me that any of the charges in it are true, it's not worthy of comment," he added. "I'm running on my record, and if you ask people, you'll find that I'm an honest and ethical guy."
In addition to O'Leary's backing, Coughlin has the support of Carteret Mayor Dan Reiman and – most significantly giventhe town's importance politically and its motherload of county committee votes – Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac.
Tothe argument that Rodriguezas a Puerto Rican candidate would give the district's leadershipbroader ethnic representation, Coughlin said, "Good candidates and good legislatorscan represent people of all genders and backgrounds and that's what Iintend to do."