WOODBRIDGE – When the doors of the Forge flung open, the two groups went in separate directions: the mostly Puerto Rican contingent from Perth Amboy headed drearily back to the bay town, while Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac, South Amboy Mayor John O’Leary, Carteret Mayor Dan Reimanand their man for the 19th District, Craig Coughlin, headed straight for the Shannon Rose Pub and araucous celebration.
State Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Woodbridge) showedup – Coughlin’s wife ishis campaign treasurer. There’s a bond there.
So did Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville), but the sitting 19th Districtlawmakerfrom the lower house wasn’t a core circle player in this celebration of Coughlin’sresounding win over retired Superior Court Judge Mathias Rodriguez and health care professional Jean Pierce tonight at a special party conventionat this manor on the northbound side of Route 9.
“Craig wasa greatcandidate with experience in all five towns and all three branches of government,” said McCormac, whose county committee allies from his hometown were well-organized in getting out and providing the foundation for Coughlin’s 170 winning votes, compared to 75 for Rodriguez and 25 for Pierce.
State Party Chairman Joe Cryan blew in for the hoopla, which had actually started earlier in the evening, back at the Forge, when people looked around and saw Woodbridge out in force and couldn’t contain their glee. Those were going to be Coughlin votes.
“We have 25 seats in the2nd Ward,” one committee captain from Woodbridge said happily. “We had 24 people out here tonight.”
“He’s going to win on the first ballot,”‘ Reiman had predicted of Coughlin when the banquet hall in the back of the Forge was crammed with committee members as they check-marked and submitted their secret picks for the 19th.
He did that – and then some.
“A majority plus one – and even more than that,” confessed Middlesex County DemocraticParty Chairman Joe Spicuzzo.
Standing with arms folded in the back of the room next to Reiman was O’Leary, who had a stake in this, or did more personally once not too long ago when he was the candidate here who was going to run with Wisniewski for the Democrats before an anonymously authored packet, “O’Leary Crime Family Syndicate,” surfaced in an already agitated political environment and effectively killed O’Leary’s shot.
Upin the front of thebig room sat Perth Amboy Mayor Wilda Diaz and her closest allies.
After standing with O’Leary when he first announced his candidacy, Diaz, in office for a year nowand still working with a localinfrastructure that includes elements ofan older, antagonistic political era,parted company with her cross-the-bay mayor when he exited the race two weeks ago.
Diaz promptly backed Rodriguez and made a case for Latino representation from the district’s most Democratic-voter concentrated town.
O’Leary backed Coughlin, an attorney who serves as counsel for the governing body in Woodbridge, who retired from his Edison municipal judgeship days after O’Leary left the race. He had confidence making that move.
McCormac assured him he’d have support from the biggest town in the 19th, as did Reiman, and O’Leary.
That Woodbridge-Carteret-South Amboy alliance, which stood up together publicly and suddenly on the day of the county committee deadline last Wednesday, stunned the Rodriguez forces, who believed their judge would prevail by sheer force of gravitas and the additional moral argument that the district would be well served by spreading Statehouse representation among the five towns.
Woodbridge already had Vitale. And then there was Sayreville with Wisniewski. South Amboy had their chance with O’Leary.
Why not a solid Latino candidate out of Perth Amboy?
That’s how the reasoning went, but it didn’t penetrate the county committee tonight. When the votes were tallied, a visibly wounded Diaz wouldn’t immediately back the Wisniewski-Coughlin ticket.
“I support the governor – and I love Loretta (Weinberg),” Diaz said.
As for stirring enthusiastic support for Coughlin?
“No comment,” said the mayor.
First appointed superior judge 29 years ago by then-Gov. Thomas Keanwith the support of the initially trepidatiousbut ultimately acquiescent then-state Sen. Tom Paterniti, Rodriguez beamed good energy in defeat at the microphone.
“I’ve been in politics my whole life,” he said to the question about how it feels to be on the front lines of the game after having been on the bench for nearly three decades.
“Little steps,” he said, when asked about the lack of Latino representation in in the district.
“I thank you all,” he said to the crowd, “and especially my friends from Perth Amboy. I thank you for your many courtesies.”
His supporters writhed in visible agony as he spoke the next words.
“I’m sure you will join me in supporting this ticket and John Wisniewski, who is in line, and I’m sure, will be the next Speaker of the Assembly,” the judge said.
Wisniewski had floated in friendly affirmation of the events of the evening, but he rarely lingered in either of the two encampments – O’Leary and his alliescomplain that he threw their guy under the bus, while Diaz operatives wished he would have gone to the barricade publicly for Rodriguez.
The assemblymandiplomaticallyallowed the battle to build quietly between the Rodriguez and Coughlin forces in thefront and back of the room respectively. After Spicuzzo likewise introduced him as the successor to Speaker Joe Roberts, whotoday announced his retirement, even as his political enemies sneered in the crowd – “He’s been severely weakened tonight, for having no say in who his running mate is” – Wisniewski gave a nod to Diaz in the front row and her decimated small army of Rodriguez supporters who had mustered just 75 votes.
“I look forward to working with Judge Rodriguez later in this campaign, who I know will work very hard for Craig and myself” said the assemblyman.
Then he propped Coughlin.
“I think Craig Coughlin will make a great candidate and a great assemblyman,” Wisniewski said.
Diaz wascurt in the aftermath, while some of her allies were ready to try to crush Coughlin’s candidacy. A story landed in a Perth Amboy weekly this morning about how Coughlin hadn’t filed financial disclosure forms with the state Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC).
“They were late,”admitted Coughlin. “I filed them last week. It’s been taken care of.”
But his closeness to O’Leary was still a point of bitterness to some Rodriguez diehards, and they pulled out of the parking lot of the Forge in pain, unable for the moment to appreciate what others among themreluctantly acknowledged as the Machiavellian rigor ofthe opposing side, whichmobilized its bigger machine tonight and flattened the opposition.