Essex County agony: senate prez fallout is personal for political animal Durkin

BELLEVILLE – It was fitting that the main man at the microphone tonight at Nanina’s in the Park was County Clerk Chris Durkin, awalking hybridoftwo opposing political camps, which 20 days before a gubernatorial election can already see thedelineations ofa county executive battle in 2010.

“Dick Codey was ready to lead when he became governor and he made us all so proud to live, work and play in this state,” Durkin said of the former governor and sitting senate president, in the next breathnoting of his boss, the Essex County Executive, “Joe DiVincenzo has made Essex County the envy not only of the state but of the country. He is the taxpayers’ best friend, and a bureaucrat’s worst nightmare.”

If it sounded like homage paid to opposing warlords, Durkinis indeed ensconced in the administration ofthe powerful county executive,but his mother, Joan,is a Codey, cousin of Senate President Richard Codey (D-Roseland), who last month was unofficiallyforcedoff the senate thronein a north-south Jersey Democratic Party coupthat hinged on DiVincenzo backingSenate Majority Leader Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) as the new senate president.

Tonight, Durkin – an amiable presence belying a torturous Codey v. DiVincenzo undercurrent – greeted guests to his $150-a-plate fundraiser, includingheadlining speaker Newark Mayor Cory Booker and the governor himself,whoposed for pictureswith Durkin beforeascending a staircase where South Jerseyan Sweeney stoodin a milling, hors d’oeuvres munchingcrowd withDiVincenzo.

Himself aformer governor who built hisstatewide star power in the aftermath of Gov. Jim McGreevey’s2004 meltdown,Codey entered the fundraiser, greeted Durkin, and walked up the stairs with Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura.

“I’m having a terrific time,” said Codey. “Just great.”

Codey and Sweeneyexchanged greetings, with Fontoura trying to diffuse the bad blood with a grinning notation -“I’m the sheriff because I keep the peace.”

For years, DiVincenzo wondered why Codey wasn’t more publicly appreciative of the fact that he named the Richard J. Codey Arena in honor of the Orange native.

“What’s his passion?” he would ask.

“Family.”

“No, come on,” snapping his fingers for the right answer.

“Politics.”

No foreigner to political theater as the chief acoloyte of North Ward Center icon Steve Adubato, Sr., DiVincenzowould overact exasperation, as though the answer were obvious, before finally supplying it himself, “Sports. Dick Codey loves sports. So I name an arena after him and what, what? He doesn’t appreciate it.”

Codey acknowledged the gesture tonight.

“He names an arena after me,” said Codey.

“Now, he looks like he wants to put me on ice,” he added.”You just never know in politics.”

Complicating matters for Codeyis the billboard presence in hishomelegislative districtbearing Durkin’s smiling face inpublic service announcement mode – innocuous enough at first, until one considersthe fact that Durkin lives in Codey’s district and is sometimes rumored as a potential future candidate for senate.

Could Codey find himself in the unenviable position of running against his own blood, co-opted by the DiVincenzo county machine? Are the billboards little morethan pressure points designedto exactMachiavellian misery?

“Those billboards with your face on them,”Codeyasked Durkin.”Are we paying for those? Are those taxpayer-funded?”

Durkin shook his head no. He’s paying for them out of campaign coffers.

Apparently satisfied, Codey landed one last dig, in a reference to opposition research conducted on him by the allies of South Jersey Democratic Leader George Norcross III, Sweeney’s boss.

“I’m happy that your mother is a Codey,” Codey told Durkin. “Thank God her last name is Durkin, or she’d have her financial records looked at.”

When Codey was done speaking, a few people shot out of their seats in an attempt to activate a standing ovation for the 62-year old battler, but most in this room heavy on county employees -stayed planted. In that otherarena of political payback, Codey has several options -as sources see it – for political revenge. He can derail Sweeney and Norcross by adding his Democratic votes to Republican Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean’s (R-Westfield) to make Kean Senate President.

And – or – he can run against DiVincenzo for county executive.

Regarding the former option, Sweeney doesn’t see it.

“I have 14 out of the 22 votes, if you consider that Loretta (Weinberg) is not voting,” said the Senate Majority Leader, who knows Kean has 17 committed votes on his sidelined up for the official senate vote in January.

While the Republican scionnurses hopesthat Codey delivers four Democratic votes to make Kean senate President in retaliation for his own party’s disrespect in backing Sweeney, “In the end I don’t think Dick does it,” said the latter. “Think about it. A Republican senate president? He can advance an agenda that is not a Democratic Party agenda. Dick wouldn’t be a party to that.”

But what if GOP gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie defeats Corzine and becomes governor, won’t he make a stronger play to have a Republican legislature?

“He won’t become governor, I’ve never been more sure about it than right now,” said Sweeney. “Chris Christie is going to lose the election.”

Corzine spoke tonight, delivering an issues-centric speech – solar panels, healthcare, wind power – replete with Obama lifelines, “Yes, he has!”and his ownline, “I’m so fired up about this, I cant stand it,” even as the intrigue gathered for next year.

After weeks of subliminal invocation, State Democratic Party Chairman Joe Cryan shoved the Christie corpulence issue face first into the crowd.

“What would it feel like if the next governor weighs 350 pounds?” he shouted. “As any state party chairman will tell you, we’re depending on you, Essex. Deliver, deliver, deliver” – for the governor’s race, 20 days away.

Yetas much ashis intra-partyrivalry right now involves Sweeney and DiVincenzo, Codeyknows the dealthatnailed him – or appears to havenailed him -included theblessing – and no less the political strategizing to remove him from the senate presidency -of Norcross andAdubato.

Norcross wasn’t here tonight, but Adubato was, conspicuously entering the banquet room late andanchoringan A-listrat pack, includingDiVincenzo and Sweeney,Cryan, and later Corzine,that huddled togetherabove the crowd behind a marble balustrade.

Codey sat far below in a crowd of faces that included former Senate President Carmen Orechio. Hedidn’t clap for Sweeneywhen the senate majority leader towereddirectly over him in hisaddress to the Essex County crowd.

When DiVincenzo spoke, Adubato trotted down to ground level,draped a paternal arm around Codey, then sat on the oppostie side of the table behind Codey between former State Chairman Ray Durkin (Chris Durkin’s father) and EastWard Democratic Leader Joe Parlavecchio.

“Dick Codey has done an outstanding job,” DiVincenzo was saying. “I am so proud that I named that arena after him for 35years of public service.”

The county exec choked up when he addressed the younger Durkin.

“He’s been with me since 2003 when he was head of the Department of Human Resources,” DiVincenzo said. “Whatever he does, hegives it 150%.”

Codey wouldn’t talk about the state of the senate presidencyfightor the 2010 county executive race and whether he intends to try to build support for aretaliatory challenge against DiVincenzo.

Sources say a Codey offensive here in Essexdepends on whom U.S. Rep. Donald Payne (D-Newark) backs in this county where over a fourth of the voters are African-American, and in addition to whom Party Chairman Phil Thigpenawards the county line.

Withsupport, the same sources say Codey could allybehind the candidacy ofEast OrangeMayor Robert Bowser, or even run himself, or look to a family member with name ID and party popularity, for how else could one win a Democratic Primary – someone like the young Durkin, but the same sources say that’s unlikely.

The kid’s apparently too popular on his own right now, straddling both sides, DiVincenzo and Codey,as an Essex County Democrat – more difficult over time, perhaps, if this intensifies- in this arena.

Essex County agony: senate prez fallout is personal for political animal Durkin