PERTH AMBOY – With two candidates already run aground owing to allegations of corruption and Republicans running under the law enforcement banner of Chris Christie, retired Superior Court Judge Mathias Rodriguez said he’d be the bestDemocrat to complement a ticketfor the Assembly in the 19th Legislative District because his integrity is “unassailable.”
“One issue in this race is going to be integrity,” said Rodriguez, 67, who left the bench in the middle of August, three days before an embattled South Amboy Mayor John T. O’Leary shelved his bid to succeed Assemblyman Joe Vas (D-Perth Amboy), who left behind accomplishments amid a projected $80 million plus “Vas Mahal” in the middle of the waterfront city, a combination YMCA/police/fire/court catch-all,as he facestwo handfuls of state and federal corruption charges.
“Judges don’t get paid very much money,” addedRodriguez, a20-year veteran of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Rutgers Law School graduate and father of four, including a daughter who died. “We work because we want to serve, and this would be an opportunity to serve. Look at my record. Ask any attorney who knows me. We have enough laws on the books. We need well qualified moral candidates.”
At least one half ofthe Republican ticket is already trying tochip at Rodriguez’spristine imagewithquestions aboutthe judge’slaunch padinto the special convention, which takes placenextWednesday. Rodriguez is one of four declared candidates.
Trying to weaken Rodriguez a week before the Democratic Party contest, GOP candidate Peter Kothari of Woodbridge fired off a press release this afternooncalling onthe Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct to investigate if Rodriguez violated the Code of Judicial conduct when he spoke to Middlesex County Democratic Chairman (and County Sheriff) Joe Spicuzzo about politics while still serving as a judge.
“In an admission that is shocking in light of the Democrats’ mud-slinging against Chris Christie (the GOP gubernatorial candidate and former U.S. Attorney), Mr. Spicuzzo has stated that he had political discussions with ex-Judge Rodriguez when he was still sitting on the bench. …The thought of Rodriguez wearing his robe while planning a political campaign with Spicuzzo wearing his badge and uniform attacks the very fabric and notion of an impartial court system.
“Together, Rodriguez and Spicuzzo may have shaken the confidence and destroyed the principal of Judges who are free to make rulings untainted by politics,” Kothari added.
For the record, Kothari’s running mate, Richard Piatkowski of Perth Amboy, a friend of Rodriguez’s who used to bowl with him, said there’s nothingontoward aboutthe Spicuzzo story.
“If he wins the convention, it won’t be as much fun as running against some of the other candidates the Democrats might have put up,” Piatkowski told PolitickerNJ.com.
At his Perth Amboy home this afternoon overlooking the Raritan Bay, Rodriguezpunched back at the charge that he did anything wrong when Spicuzzo called him to ask about his interest in running for the 19th District seat.
“People who question the phone call from Chairman Spicuzzo have a lack of information,” said the retired judge, the son of sugarcane plantation workers and a native of Puerto Rico whogrew up inWoodbridge and has lived in Perth Amboy for over 30 years. “They don’t know the facts or the ethics laws. I will not deny that the sheriff and chairman of the Democratic Party called me up said, ‘Are you interested in this position?’ Are you interested?’ I told him, ‘if O’Leary withdraws, I’d be interested.’ That was the extent of the conversation. There was no further discussion.”
O’Leary’s campaign began to hit fits and starts as far back as April with the street tractionof “The O’Leary Crime Family Syndicate,” an anonymously authored packet of charges targeting the SouthAmboy mayor’s insurance business and his brother’s job at the Housing Authority.
Word was already out that Rodriguez was preparing to retire. The judge admits friends of his had asked him to run earlier this year – as far back as March -after the state charges dropped onVas and the long serving assemblyman announced his decision not to pursue re-election.
“People told me the seat would become vacant, and I had told them, ‘no, I’m not interested,'” Rodriguez said.
Party leaderswent toPerth Amboy Mayor WIlda Diaz and told her it was her move. The seat is typically held by a Perth Amboy resident, and pooh-bahs told Diaz that a Latino was preferred, especially given the GOTV implications of the Assembly race on the gubernatorial election.
Diaz, in office as mayor less than a year,surprised fellow Democratswhen she said she liked O’Leary and would back him. Other Democrats exchanged stunned looks. Why wasn’t she insisting on a Latino assembly candidate?
Diaz dug in. She liked O’Leary.
Having signed off on the South Amboy mayor who had long nursed ambitions about going to Trenton, Diaz and everyone else watched the Middlesex County Democratic Committee affirm the Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville)/O’Leary ticket at itsMarch 18thconvention, only toobserve O’Leary’s candidacy unravel amid corruption charges and news about a state subpoena in South Amboy.
WIth O’Leary wobbling in July and his retreat imminent, Gov. Jon Corzine tanking in the pollsand Latino activists and state party leaders back-channeling frantically tosub-ina suitable Latino candidate, Spicuzzo called Rodriguez to probe the judge’s interest in the seat.
Rodriguez said it was a question, answer, and done.
“This involves what is called the Brendan Byrne Rule, which states that if a judge becomes a candidate, he must retire or resign,” Rodriguez said. “I was originally intending to retire in December. To avoid any issues, I decided to move up my retirement to the middle of August instead. I would never compromise the judiciary ofNew Jersey – the best in the U.S.”
Rodriguez hung up his robes on Friday, August 14th. Havingsaidfor over a month that he was planning to make an announcement getting out of the race in the middle of August, on Monday, August 17th, O’Learyformally bowed out.
The judgesaid there was no coordination on his end.
On August 19th,hesent aletter to members of theMiddlesex Democratic County Committee, even as other candidates began lining up for a shot at the vacated seat, among them Woodbridge Councilman Charles Kenny.
“My fellow Democrats,” wrote Rodriguez, who still keeps a framed picture of the ballot ofhis first election – 1956 – when Adlai Stevenson ran for president -“I am asking for your support for the position of Assemblyman in the 19th District. I practiced law for 20 years and was a judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey for the last 20 and a half years. I look forward to listening to you and using myeducation and experience to address your concerns as your representative together with the Democratic Team of Senator Joseph Vitale and Assemblyman John Wisniewski. If you support me, I shall represent you with integrity and honesty.”
While most elected Democratic Party leaders over here in the 19th are keeping in the shadows as this pre-convention contest unfoldspitting Rodriguez, Kenny, newly retired Edison Municipal Judge Craig Coughlin and healthcare professional Jean Pierce against one another, Diaz is very publicly backing Rodriguez.
“He just has outstanding qualities and brings credibility that is so desperately needed,” said the mayor, who in a few months has weathered all manner of angry back chatter about the mistake she madeby first backing out-of-towner Irishman O’Leary.
“Judge Rodriguez willbring trust to the Democratic Party,” added Diaz, whose allies argue that whatever backroom jolts and Sotomayor shrugs she may haveabsorbed as a result of O’Leary, her statewide cred is at an all-time high as the co-chair of Corzine’s re-election campaign.
Piatkowski, one of the most vocal opponents of Vas when Vas was mayor here, shakes his head.
“Wilda wants to throw her arms around everyone and give all of Perth Amboy a big hug,” said the GOP candidate. “She’s the opposite of the Vas. Vas micromanaged everything. Wilda’s letting department heads run their departments. By and large I like what she’s doing. But Wilda is opening supporting Corzine and other Democrats because she needs money – money for the new library and other projects. They’re pulling her strings at the state level because of the prospect of money. The idea is, ‘You have to either do what’s right, or you don’t do it.’
“Wilda knows Perth Amboy needs things,” Piatkowski added. “There has been a rapid population increase without jobs, training, etc. We are desperately in need of aid from county and state government.”
From somewhat different vantage points and definitely different parties, both he and Rodriguez believe they’re theones to deliver the state end of the equation, but Rodriguez has the advantage of Diaz’s endorsement.
In addition to integrity and dedication to the party – “the Democrats have always represented the interests of the working man and the middle class better than Republicans,” says the judge-Rodriguez is arguing that Perth Amboy – where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 4-1 and where Latinos compose 70% of the population – deserves an assembly seat.
“But I want to be clear,”he said – and this is spoken with special emphasisjust days in front ofa special convention in which Woodbridge commands the bulk of seats in the district – “I have always felt that all people in the district must be represented. If I am going to be in this race, I am intent on serving all the people. …A balanced ticket is obviously the best way this can happen.”
Rodriguezsays his issues are affordability for senior citizens and education for young people.
“Thousands of young people came through my courts when I was a judge and I knew every one was a human being, every one was special, and I have always felt that with some other path, some more opportunity, that this person in front of me might have been a doctor, a lawyer or even a laborer,” he said. “I felt a lot of it had to do with education.”
On his own resume that he distributesto county committee members, the academic and professional accomplishments of this Woodbridge High School valedictorian turned criminal lawyer turned superior court judge, whose own eldest daughter was a doctor before her death at a young age,impress-but between Rodriguez and the Assembly stands aschool of unassailable intrigue called Middlesex County politics.