ORANGE – Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver’s (D-East Orange) first foray into Essex County politics was as a kamikaze freeholder candidate in the 1990s running on a line with renegade stateSen.Richard Codey (D-Roseland).
Codey won and Oliver lost, andnow years later it looks as though Senate President Codey’s headed for a leadershipdefeat in his caucus as Oliver musters support on top of support in her quest to be the first African American woman speaker of the Assembly, but in the process faces a home countyin whicha Codey defeat could mean civil war.
Oliverhas yet to announce the support of any assembly people from Essex County, but she’s working on it, while also respecting, she says, political protocol and the reality that Essex County Democratic Chairman Phil Thigpen still stands with Codey.
“I am attempting to ameliorate Essex County; I believe Chairman Thigpen will avert a civil war and at the end of the day Essex County will be together,”she insisted, speaking to the stunning news this morning that Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford) summoned enoughDemocratic caucus backing to beat Senate President Codey when the senate reconvenes after the gubernatorial election on Nov. 3rd.
Among the fourteen backers (including Sweeney himself), two senators declaring their support for South Jerseyan Sweeney over Essex County’s ownCodeyare county employees, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark) and state Sen. Nia Gill (D-Montclair).
The fact that Oliver also works for the county as an assistant county administrator sent waves of anxiety through those Codey forcesconcerned with the concentration of too much power in the office of County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo. seeking a third term next year – probably not without a fight at this point.
Now with the real threat of a Codey retaliation against DiVincenzo, Oliver said the boss factor – namely DiVincenzo’s closeness to North Ward Leader Steve Adubato and Adubato’s alliance with South Jersey Democratic leader (and Sweeney-backer) George Norcross III – is a non-issue.
“I am the most independent person ever elected,” said the assemblywoman from East Orange whose five and a half years in the legislature make her the second longest-serving assemblyperson from the Essex delegation after Assemblyman John McKeon (D-West Orange).
“If people want to look at this and see Norcross, Steve and Joe – give me a break,” she said. “I ran against Joe D. on the freeholder board.
“Joe’s work speaks for itself,” Oliver added. “If you visit any community, people know him. His parks agenda has physically transformed Essex County.”
While the fact that DiVincenzo’s closest allies and employees voted against Codey in favor of a South Jersey product could create trouble at home for the popular county executive and for Oliver, the speaker candidate also runs the risk in her candidacy of wounding Assembly Majority Leader Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Ewing).
A more senior member of the Democratic caucus who wants to be speaker but who comes from the less politically powerful county of Mercer, Watson Coleman today told PolitickerNJ.com she means to remain in the game despite Oliver’s support from most Middlesex County assembly people and the entire South Jersey delegation.
“She and I have talked candidly and she knows I am not engaged in any subversive plot to undermine her,” Oliver said of Watson Coleman.
Her relative inexperience is not a factor, she says.
“It has no relevance in the scheme of things,” she said. “They said the same thing about our President during the campaign last year and I think he debunked that.
“I have a great capacity to work with people, to communicate with allpeople and to be a consensus builder,” she added. “(Retiring) Joe Roberts has been a great speaker and set a great tone and environment of inclusion where new members could grow quickly.”
Arguing that it’s an insider’s preoccupation more than a reality for voters, the backdoor leadership battles won’t negatively impact thereelection campaign of Gov. Jon Corzine, Oliver said.
“We are working day and night to reelect Jon Corzine,”said the assemblywoman.
She bears Codey no ill-will, matter-of-factly sizing up Essex County politics as ever-shifting alliances.
“I don’t think it’s a yin and yang situation, I don’t think that’s the way this has evolved,” Oliver said. “I got involved with Dick Codey in the 1990s. He brought me to the political dance, so to speak, when his seat was in my district (before redistricting sectioned East Orange into Gill’sdistrict). He assembled a renegade line and asked me if I would run for at-large freeholder, which I did. I lost, but helped get thevote out for him, and he won.”