Max Pizarro’s interview with David Friedland

Assembly Minority Leader David Friedland said he entered Mayor John V. Kenny's hospital room at Jersey City Medical Center and handed him the kris knife he had collected on a recent honeymoon excursion to Nepal.

"Mayor, I want your assurance that you'll get the votes to make Assemblyman Tom Kean the Speaker of the Assembly," said Friedland, a flamboyant Hudson County labor attorney who was already politically radioactive as someone "entirely too comfortable with organized crime," in the words of U.S. Attorney William Brennan.

Sure, sure, said Kenny, but what's with the knife?

Friedland told Kenny about climbers in Katmandu who link themselves together by a rope and jump one by one over treacherous mountain chasms. The first man in each chain who jumps is vulnerable because the others behind him outweigh him and can jerk the rope back, knocking him into the chasm.

If that happens, and he survives, it is understood, according to folklore, that the man will seek revenge with the kris knife and disembowel those climbers who double-crossed him.

"I'm going to jump across that crevice first," Friedland told Kenny. "Just make sure your guys follow me."

He left the knife with Kenny. It was a gift.

And a symbol.

For Friedland had other ways of disemboweling Kenny politically if it came to that, if the mayor of Hudson County's biggest city didn't deliver at least four Assembly votes he said he could as part of a deal sprung by Friedland when his fellow Democrats, jittery over his reputation, balked at making him speaker and instead lined up behind Assemblyman S. Howard Woodson (D-Trenton).

Democrats had won a narrow 40-39 majority in the 1971 mid-term election, and were looking to reclaim leadership in the lower house. Powerful Assemblyman John Horn (D-Camden) forged an alliance with Woodson to block Friedland, who was in line for the speaker's chair.

Denied the top Assembly post by his own party, Friedland planned to back Kean, a rising star from Essex County. In exchange, Friedland wanted 50% control of committee chairmanships, 50% control of the money in the lower house, a conference committee that had the power to remove any bill from committee, and a generous North Jersey aid package for Essex and Hudson counties.

He had four votes – including his own – without Kenny. Kenny's contribution would give him a total of seven to add to the Republicans' 39, which would propel Kean well past Woodson for the Speakership.

"On the night before the vote, I was at the governor's mansion playing 'Waltzing Matilda' on the piano," Friedland told PolitickerNJ.com. "It turned out to be prophetic, because that was the theme song for a movie at the time where the planet was destroyed by atomic energy."

No stranger to deal-making, Friedland had cut one with the feds to escape conviction on bagman charges. But in a career fraught with bust-ups and bad decisions, the old Democrat counts that deal he made with Republicans to propel Kean into the speaker's chair as one of the best moves he made in politics, and a noble one – even though it hurt at the time.

Of course, the iciness he weathered in his caucus chamber turned out to be nothing compared to nine and a half cold years in a federal prison. Caught in an embezzlement scheme in which he arranged to loan $4 million from a Teamsters Union pension fund to a California investor in exchange for $300,000, Friedland infamously faked his own death in a scuba diving accident in 1985 to avoid arrest, then led the feds on a globe trot before they nabbed him in the Maldives Islands in 1987.

"In the end Tom Kean carried the day, with his wisdom, honesty and devotion, and the people ultimately rewarded him," Friedland said of the popular two-term governor, who served from 1982 to 1990.

Now the son of the former, state Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. (R-Westfield), ironically finds himself at the head of an upper house Republican caucus that could get enmeshed in a developing Senate leadership fight between Senate President Richard Codey (D-Roseland) and Codey's South Jersey challenger, state Sen. Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford).

Codey and Sweeney both claim to have the edge in their 23-member Democratic caucus, but the fight may be so close as to finally warrant the intervention of the GOP. Knowing this, Kean summoned his 17-member minority caucus for a conference call last Thursday to talk strategy.

The leader spoke about the importance of party unity and advised party members to stay out of the Democrats' fight until after the gubernatorial election, even as some GOP senators admitted there would be no way they could vote for Sweeney and empower the South Jersey Democratic Organization, while others – like Senate MinorityWhip Kevin O'Toole (R-Cedar Grove) – continue to lobby for Codey's removal. Sweeney this summer told PolitickerNJ.com he wouldn't challenge Codey if he couldn't summon the votes in his own caucus.

"I find it amusing that in this present day fight between North and South Jersey, South Jersey feels it doesn't have enough power," Friedland told PolitickerNJ.com. "Before the one-man, one-vote rule, South Jersey had a disproportionate amount of power. Prior to 1965, there were 21 counties and 21 senators, one per county.

"Urban Democrats from the north could not get a single bill passed," added Friedland, who in his first big success as a public figure successfully tried the headline-making one-man, one-vote case before his political career unraveled.

By backing Kean in 1971, Friedland threatened to stop Woodson from assuming power as the first African-American Speaker of the Assembly, a result the liberal Friedland describes as a painful consequence of his own battle for political survival.

"That was the cruelest cut of all," said Friedland, but Woodson was aligned with South Jersey, whose delegation Friedland said was stuck in an old dichotomy, which continued to benefit the south to the exclusion of urban strongholds like Friedland's own Jersey City.

"For years, the Republican caucus controlled the state," he said. "Each county elected one senator and it was as much a gentleman's club as the U.S. Senate was at least a few years ago. It was all a deal, of course. Hap Farley in those days controlled South Jersey and the Republican Party. Frank Hague ran the Democratic machine in Hudson County, which generated huge pluralities – whole graveyards voted. The deal was Republicans would not investigate Hudson, and in return Hague wouldn't tangle with state politics.

"Republicans ran state government with an iron hand, and controlled everything – insurance companies, banks, etc. In exchange, Frank Hague kept people in Hudson County poor, and controlled everything. Poor people -that's where his votes cane from. If you wanted to go to a football game, you went to Frank Hague to get the tickets. If you wanted a parking ticket killed, you went to Frank Hague. But the one-man, one-vote law changed the economic and political complexion overnight, giving those counties with larger populations greater representation in the state senate."

On the day of the vote, Friedland addressed Woodson and Kean directly as he made his case – in typical grandiloquent Friedland fashion – for the latter.

"My good friend, Reverend Woodson, you have been my close friend all these years," Friedland said. "You know, Howard, how much I admire and love you. Do you think I oppose you because you are a black man? You know that is not so. I who fought so hard as an attorney for the NAACP and your friend? Look to those around you, Howard, if you seek to find enemies -for they oppose what you and I hold dear, and what you and I commonly share. If there is a traitor to our cause, it is those who betray our beliefs, our values. …

"You, Tom Kean, are more of a Democrat than many of you who call yourself Democrats," he added. "You, (Kenneth) Gewertz…Assemblyman…. I do not know who you are. I do not know what you stand for. You Barry Parker, my friend, I know you support the duck hunters. There are Democrats here whose political persuasion is to the right of Mussolini. At times I have been accused of being to the left of Lenin. That is untrue for I despise the restrictions on human freedom in communist regimes. These labels are meaningless, you all know that. Party loyalty is fine…but when the party label becomes the slogan of bosses, when it becomes the weapon of private interest groups, when it is used to preserve all that is rotton and decayed about our political process, then it is not fine…it is corrupt."

When the clerk called for a vote, Friedland jumped – and three Democratic assemblymen – Mike Esposito and David Wallace of Hudson and Joseph Higgins of Union – followed him. Although – to the minority leader's horror, Mayor Kenny's promised four votes went to Woodson – Kean prevailed on the strength of Friedland's cross-the-aisle backing and summoned victory in the 80-person body with 43 votes.

Kean was the new speaker.

"Tom Kean was a middle of the road moderate from Essex County," Friedland said. "He liked the idea of putting aid packages together for the north, and he did. He wanted to build his own political base, and how better to do that than to become a hero of the north? Legislative compromise really worked that year. We passed a lot of great legislation."

But his uneasy relationship with Kenny only worsened after that, and in 1973 Friedland decided not to run again rather than get buried off-the-line come election time. By the late seventies, Kenny was dead and his political machine was already disemboweled by scandal. Reform Mayor Paul T. Jordan endorsed Friedland for the state senate in 1977, and his return to Trenton was the kris knife revenge Friedland craved.

A decade later, after they tracked him down to answer for the Teamsters embezzlement scheme, U.S. Marshals had Friedland in belly irons, a flak vest and leg irons at Kennedy Airport. Years of confinement stretched ahead.

Jaded by politics now on the other side, Friedland said Codey v. Sweeney in and of itself provokes no special interest for him.

"I think a leadership fight like this is all prosaic unless someone – either of the guys seeking power – could reasonably answer the following question: 'Assuming you succeed, how are the people actually going to be benefited by all of this?'" Friedland said. "Without an answer to that question, it means nothing."

He says his idealism comes back and haunts him as he looks at the promising public career he destroyed, by his own admission.

"There is not a bill that the banks oppose that will ever pass," he said on the day he voted for Kean. "There is not a law that the Insurance lobbyists oppose that will ever pass, there is not a bill Blue Cross opposes that will pass, there is not a law the public utilities oppose that will pass-the urban areas will never get the urban aid they need …but will we tax? Yes! Will the size of our government grow beyond any control -yes! Who is to speak for the people? Who is to speak for them? Meanwhile, the lawns in Morris country are groomed… the golf courses are kept up…. come visit us in Hudson- take a look at at our urban golf course, Tonnelle Avenue in Jersey City, where we play golf with garbage."

That was almost 40 years ago.

"These words are still out there in space moving away and dimming – as I do with age – probably out past Alpha Centuri, past the Milky Way," Friedland said today. "Out there one day some space traveler moving well past the speed of light will overtake them and perhaps hear them. If so, I want to apologize. There was too much of me involved, too much ego, too much trying to hold on to power. I might have done it better. I will not have another chance. … Tonnelle Ave. was repaired and then I think decayed. I don't know. Old politicians not only fade away, they run away, as I have to some secluded spot… learning all too late the danger of holding power." Max Pizarro’s interview with David Friedland