New Jersey has had some classic leadership fights over the years

Post-Election Day politics in New Jersey might feature as many as five contested races for Legislative leadership positions: Senate President, Assembly Speaker, Senate Majority Leader, Assembly Majority Leader, and Assembly Minority Leader.

Senate President Richard Codey (D-Roseland) faces a challenge from Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford). Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D-Camden) is retiring; Majority Leader Bonnie Watson Coleman is running for Speaker against John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville), and possibly against Democratic State Chairman Joseph Cryan (D-Union) and Sheila Oliver (D-Adubato). Those races create openings for Majority Leader; perhaps more importantly, the contests create campaigns for Senate Judiciary Chairman and for Budget and Appropriations committee chairmanships in both houses.

Some of New Jersey’s best leadership fights:

  • Assembly Speaker, 1971: Democrats picked up nineteen seats in the 1971 mid-term election, giving them a 40-39 majority. (Anthony Imperiale of Newark’s North Ward was elected to the Assembly as an independent.) A group of four Democrats led by then-Assembly Minority Leader David Friedland (D-Jersey City) cut a deal with Republicans to elect Republican Thomas Kean (R-Livingston) as Speaker.
  • Assembly Speaker, 2001: On the night Democrats won the governorship and regained control of the State Assembly, Gov.-elect James E. McGreevey led a coup that lined up votes to elect Albio Sires (D-West New York), an obscure freshman Assemblyman who had been a Republican four years earlier, as Speaker. The job was supposed to have gone to Joseph Doria (D-Bayonne), a former Speaker who had spent the last ten years as Minority Leader.
  • Assembly Minority Leader, 1999: Roberts came within three votes of ousting Doria as Minority Leader. Doria responded to the challenge by removing Roberts as the Assembly Democratic budget officer. Roberts led a revolt of seven South Jersey Democrats, who formed their own caucus. The split last two years and extended into Roberts’ bid to serve as a Democratic National Committeman. Click here to read both sides of the story.
  • Senate President, 1991: Riding voter opposition to Gov. Jim Florio’s tax increases, Republicans won control of both houses of the Legislature. In the Senate, the GOP went from 17 seats to 27 and was in the majority for the first time in eighteen years. Sensing victory, Donald DiFrancesco (R-Scotch Plains) mounted an early challenge to the Senate Minority Leader, John Dorsey (R-Boonton). DiFrancesco set up his own political operation (headed by Chip Stapleton and Jeffrey Michaels), and began contributing money directly to Republican Senate candidates. He had at least fourteen votes before Dorsey dropped out and became Majority Leader.
  • Senate President, 1975: Frank “Pat” Dodd (D-West Orange) became Senate President after Democrats won control in the 1973 Watergate landslide, and he was seeking re-election after two years. Dodd was facing a challenge from Senate Majority Leader Matthew Feldman (D-Teaneck), who had the backing of Gov. Brendan Byrne (D-West Orange). When Dodd’s count showed him losing to Feldman, he dropped out of the race. Feldman was viewed as a Byrne loyalist, as was the new Majority Leader, Joseph Merlino (D-Trenton).
  • Assembly Assistant Majority Leader, 1975: Byrne got his way in the Senate race, but not in the Assembly. The new Speaker was Joseph LeFante (D-Bayonne), an ally of James Dugan (D-Bayonne), the Democratic State Chairman and a State Senator from Hudson County. Dugan had broken with Byrne and had pushed for Dodd’s re-election. William Hamilton (D-New Brunswick) was unopposed for Majority Leader, but Byrne’s pick for Assistant Majority Leader, Richard Van Wagner (D-Middletown) got beaten by Dugan’s candidate, Albert Burstein (D-Tenafly). This was important because Byrne wanted Van Wagner to be in line to run for Speaker in four years.
  • Assembly Speaker, 1977: During his first year as Speaker, LeFante was elected to Congress (he won a Hudson County seat just narrowly after supporting Byrne’s state income tax). Hamilton moved up to Speaker, but not without first beating Christopher Jackman (D-West New York), the international vice president of the United Paperworkers Union. Jackman argued that Democrats had agreed to give the speakership to Hudson County, and since LeFante had served just one year, Hudson still had one more year to go. Hamilton won 20 votes on the first ballot, with Jackman, Thomas Deverin (D-Carteret) and Ronald Owens (D-Newark) each receiving eight votes. Jackman and Deverin dropped out and Hamilton beat Owens 28-15 on the second ballot.
  • Assembly Majority Leader, 1979: In line to become Speaker in two years, Burstein was defeated for re-election as Majority Leader by Alan Karcher (D-Sayreville). Burstein had been a candidate for Speaker, but dropped out after Jackman, who became Speaker after Hamilton won a State Senate seat in 1977, had the votes to win an unprecedented second two-year term. Karcher said Democrats needed to be more combative after losing ten seats in the ’79 mid-term elections, and said he was better suited than Burstein to act in a partisan manner.
  • Assembly Speaker, 1981: Assembly Speaker, 1981: Jackman sought a third term as Speaker, but lost to Karcher in a 25-18 vote. The Karcher for Speaker campaign was launched at the Westfield home of Adam Levin, the state consumer affairs director who was trying to get the Democratic-controlled Legislature to pass a congressional redistricting map that would help him unseat U.S. Rep. Matthew Rinaldo (R-Union). Doria, Willie Brown (D-Newark) and Raymond Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) got behind Karcher. Upset by Jackman’s defeat, the New Jersey AFL-CIO passed a resolution urging all labor unions to stop contributing money to the Democratic State Committee, and to stop supplying them with Election Day workers.
  • Senate Minority Leader, 1981: In the old days, leadership positions were rotated every two years, from Assistant Whip to Whip to Assistant Leader to leader. It was to be James Vreeland’s (R-Towaco) turn for 1982-83, but 37-year-old DiFrancesco, who had been in the Senate for two years, challenged the 71-year-old Vreeland. DiFrancesco toppled the old rotation system by getting the votes of incoming freshmen. Eight of the eighteen Republican Senators were elected for the first time in 1981, and five of them had served in the Assembly with DiFrancesco.
  • Assembly Speaker, 1985: On the coattails of Gov. Thomas Kean’s70% re-election victory, Republicans picked up fourteen Assembly seats to win control for the first time since Kean was Speaker. Then-Minority Leader Chuck Hardwick (R-Westfield) was presumed to be the next Speaker, and scheduled a leadership vote for two days after the General Election. About 24 hours after the polls had closed, then-Kean Chief of Staff Greg Stevens began making calls to secure votes to elect Walter Kavanaugh (R-Somerville) as Speaker. Hardwick was no lapdog for the administration, but he had the support of his caucus and Kavanaugh dropped out within hours.
  • Assembly Minority leadership team, 1983: A group of Republican Assemblymen led by Hardwick ran a slate of candidates against most of the incumbent GOP leadership; Kavanaugh was defeated, along with Marie Muhler (R-Marlboro), Anthony “Doc” Villane (R-Eatontown), and Karl Weidel (R-Pennington). They were beaten by Chuck Haytaian (R-Hacketstown), John Hendrickson (R-Eagleswood), and John Markert (R-Westwood). Minority Leader Dean Gallo (R-Parsippany) ran unopposed.
  • Senate President, 1902: Senate Republicans voted to elect Elijah Hutchinson (R-Hamilton) as a compromise choice for Senate President after New Jersey’s two United States Senators backed different candidates. John Kean (R-Elizabeth) supported State Sen. Joseph Cross (R-Elizabeth), while John Dryden (R-Trenton) backed Theodore Strong (R-New Brunswick). Legislative leadership posts were important to U.S. Senators back then because the Legislature still picked United States Senators.
  • Assembly Minority Leader, 2003: Hours after Republicans lost Assembly seats in McGreevey’s mid-term election, Alex DeCroce (R-Parsippany) made it clear he had enough votes to oust Paul DiGaetano (R-Nutley) as Minority Leader. DiGaetano’s exit strategy: he announced that he was leaving leadership to mount a campaign for the Republican nomination for Governor in 2005.
  • Assembly Speaker, 1938: When Herbert Pascoe (R-Elizabeth) sought to bust the rotation system and seek re-election as Speaker, fifteen of the 41 Assembly Republicans refused to participate in the leadership election. There was some talk that Majority Leader Roscoe McClave (R-Cliffside Park) would forge a coalition with the nineteen Democrats to become Speaker, but that never happened. Pascoe was an atypical legislator in his day – he served fourteen years in the lower house in a time when Assemblymen served one year terms and typically only spent two or three years in Trenton. He was the first person to serve more than one year as Speaker. He later spent five years in the State Senate.
  • Assembly Minority Leader, 1954: One leadership war occurred during a lame duck session and involved an outgoing legislator. In November 1954, Assembly Democrats voted to strip Minority Leader Frank Thompson (D-Trenton) of his leadership position after Thompson and Raymond Stewart (D-Trenton) voted with the Republican majority to override Gov. Robert Meyner’s veto of a bill to exempt Christian Scientists from public school physical exams. Thompson had already won a seat in Congress where he served until his indictment in the ABSCAM scandal helped Republican Christopher Smith (R-Hamilton) unseat him 26 years later.
  • Assembly Minority Leader, 1920: The easiest leadership contest in state history was probably after the 1920 general election, when Republicans won a 59-1 majority in the State Assembly. The lone Democrat in the lower house was Harry Runyon, a Warren County Democrat who was also the Mayor of Belvidere. Since Assembly rules guaranteed at least one member of the minority on each committee, Runyon had a seat on every legislative panel.
New Jersey has had some classic leadership fights over the years