Kenny backs out and appears to strengthen Woodbridge ally Coughlin’s first-ballot hand

SAYREVILLE – The special Middlesex Democratic County Committee convention candidacy of former Edison Municipal Judge Craig Coughlin of Woodbridge in the 19th Legislative District received a boost this afternoon as veteran Woodbridge Councilman Charles Kenny aborted his run andthrew his supportto Coughlin in a maneuver apparently designed to do more than simply upset the candidacy of retired Superior Court Judge Mathias Rodriguez of Perth Amboy.

"Today I am withdrawing my name for consideration as a candidate for the 19th Legislative District Assembly seat," Kenny said."In withdrawing my name from consideration, I offer my support and endorsement to former Edison Municipal Court Judge Craig Coughlin in his bid to represent the citizens of the 19th District."

Certainly the move makes it more difficult for Rodriguez -who's running with the backing of neophyte Perth Amboy Mayor Wilda Diaz and who at one point appeared to be the favorite -to win, despite what his allies today insistedis astepped-up speed dialeffort six daysbefore the convention.

In what has become Coughlin versus Rodriguez, the municipal judge against the superior court judge,(Woodbridge healthcare professional Jean Pierce is also running but most Middlesex County insiders don't expect her to be a factor),Coughlin now has the decided edge, according to sources, as the three Democratic Party candidates trying to run alongside incumbent Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville) made their individual pitches to county committee members tonight at party headquarters.

Indeed, without significant, aggressivebackroom politicking to gin-up members beyond the borders of Perth Amboy, it'susually a bruising prospectfor any of the district's other four towns to gettheir chins up to the level of Woodbridge.

The breakdown in the 19th: Sayreville 66 county committee votes; Perth Amboy 62-64 votes; Carteret 38; South Amboy 18 andWoodbridge 140.

Running with what sources say is the tacit backing of CarteretMayorDan Reiman and -most significantly, obviously -Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac, Coughlin also has the publicly declared support of South Amboy Mayor John T. O'Leary, who was the candidate here in the 19th until he failed to get in front of damaging stories about his insurance business andhis ties to fallen Assemblyman Joe Vas (D-Perth Amboy), retreated fromthe race last week.

While Rodriguez allies hope Coughlin crumbles nextWednesday in front of the county committee under the weight of O'Leary's weakened reputation, by sheer dint of Rodriguez's sterling academic and professional record and because Woodbridge already has a rep in state Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Woodbridge), the retired superior court judge at this point looks as though hemay turn into an unwittingvictim of political payback in the person of Coughlin.

The ultimate target?


Astatewide rising star long rumored to be positioned to advancein the Assembly,the Sayreville attorney awakened the local wrath of O'Leary,McCormacand their allies.

Sources say the feud started innocently.

The chairman of the powerful Assembly Transportation Committee, Wisniewskiwasn't liking the numbers early in the 19th.

Gov. Jon Corzine's lackluster polling herewas bad enough – Chris Christie lawn signs dot the landscape here in Sayreville a Democratic town,yet "conservative," by Wisniewski's own reckoning.

But charges of corruption against Vas coupled with O'Leary's troubles started to look like a damnedDemocratic Partynarrative, especiallywith the injection of the late July Corruption Thursday into the headline stream.

"It has a Florio 1991 feel to it," Wisniewski told allies who assured him it was going to be okay but just as fretfully acknowledged the turbulence.

"It feels like the Titanic," he was overheard observing on another occasion.

Peppered with questions, not only about running with O'Leary but about his phone call from indicted Assemblyman L. Harvey Smith (D-Jersey) in which the assemblyman told Smith he couldn't help him – a detail in Smith's federal charging document which made Wisniewski appearuncomfortable with Smithbut hardly translatedto a profile in courage given the political environment, Wisniewskifinally told O'Leary – who appeared publicly to be stalled – tothink abouthis Assembly candidacy.

O'Leary didn't like that.

The headlines hadbeen beating him up to the point where heinsists healready knew he would resign in the middle of August and here was Wisniewski, whom O'Leary claims he told about his intentions to get out, theatrically – again, in O'Leary's view – telling him to reconsider running.

When O'Leary at last left the race last week after four and a half mostly hard knock months as a candidate, he did soembittered by the idea that Wisniewski threw him under the bus in a panic, a characterization Wisniewski allies say simply isn't true.

With Middlesex County Democratic Committee Chairman Joe Spicuzzo and state party leaders quietly affirming their support for Rodriguez – who retired from the bench three days before O'Leary ended his run-sources say McCormacheard from Kennythat the longtime First Ward councilman andfire captain wanted to run for the seat O'Leary had just vacated.

O'Learywassimultaneously talking to Coughlin, and whohad longstanding political ties, including party roots in South Amboy before he moved to Woodbridge.

Rodriguez partisans hoping for some backroom heavy liftingfrom Vitale on behalf of their candidate to counteract the McCormac support for Coughlin, were quietly confounded by the idea, repeatedly expressed by sources close to the senator from Woodbridge, that "Joe's into issues like healthcare, not strong-arming county committee members."

The committee will fight it out to find the best candidate -was the word coming from Vitale's corner -that's their job.

Today, when Kenny backed out to support Coughlin as the most powerfully connected Woodbridge candidate with the other pieces – Carteret and South Amboy – also in place -sources say the alliance was not only tantamount to a first ballot Woodbridge victory, but alsothe equivalent of a political tomahawk thrown at the Wisniewski camp.

Even if he had never publicly endorsed Rodriguez despite the repeated backroom charge that Wisniewski made a deal with theLatino caucus in Trenton (his backing ofRodriguez in exchange for their votes in his quest for the speakership, in the event Speaker Joe Roberts retires, a charge Wisniewski vehemently denies), the assemblyman's alleged diss of OLeary wouldat the very least require a burnt offering: in this casehis obligation to run with O'Leary's chief ally – Coughlin. Kenny backs out and appears to strengthen Woodbridge ally Coughlin’s first-ballot hand