Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Princeton) went rogue this month, but the 14-year incumbent hopes to establish a working relationship with Democratic Party’s new leadership.
“I’m not going to leave the caucus. I still value Democratic ideals, and I think I can still make contributions to the assembly Democrats,” said Gusciora. “I just don’t want to be known as the Holden Caulfield of the caucus, but still want to come to the State House to make a difference.”
Gusciora wasn’t happy after he was bumped from his Commerce Committee chairmanship for, he said, supporting his running mate Bonnie Watson Coleman’s bid for speaker over the eventual winner, Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange).
So he called out the new majority leader, Joseph Cryan (D-Union), accusing him of leaving him in the dark about the chairmanship decision. Then, two weeks later, he asked Democrats to think twice about reelecting Camden Mayor Dana Redd as the state Democratic Party’s vice-chair because, during her final weeks as a state senator, she blew off a request to meet with NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, who was advocating on behalf of gay marriage proponents (Reed, the only openly gay member of the legislature, was the prime sponsor of the gay marriage legislation in the assembly).
And just yesterday, Gusciora rode separately from the rest of the Democratic delegation during the Chamber of Commerce’s “Walk to Washington,” opting instead to attend only a few of the events in DC.
But Gusciora is not a politician with nothing to lose. Even if his relationship with party leaders remains stressed, he intends to seek reelection and does not want to see his bills ignored by the new speaker, who decides what gets posted.
“I just hope that eventually we could get some understanding that I could be a contributing member to this caucus,” he said.
On the reelection front, there is not much state Democratic leaders can do to take Gusciora out. He represents a heavily Democratic district where he has more to fear in a primary than in a general election. He is not dependent on the spigot of the Assembly Majority PAC, which is controlled by the speaker and distributes money to assembly candidates primarily in competitive districts. And the local Democratic leadership has no qualms with Gusciora.
“He’s up next year, and he generally has good support from the district, and I think from the people of the district that kind of interplay downtown just isn’t registering on their radar screen,” said Mercer County Democratic Chairman Richard McClellan.
In fact, Gusciora is not the only Mercer Democrat who felt snubbed by the new legislative leadership.
In November, when Republican Gov. Christopher Christie carried former Democratic stronghold counties like Middlesex and Gloucester, and when former Gov. Jon Corzine’s margin shrank in Democratic machine counties like Essex and Camden, Mercer stayed strong for the Democratic governor (observers point out that the relatively unchanged Mercer County margin from 2005 can be chalked up partly to the large number of state workers who live there and were alienated by Christie’s campaign rhetoric on public workers’ unions).
State Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Lawrenceville) got the boot from her committee chairmanship because she supported former Senate President Richard Codey (D-Roseland) over Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford).
“I think it’s a general level of frustration in Mercer County, among our elected officials. Reed, Bonnie and Shirley Turner all took hits because of who they supported, and Mercer was left out of the switch in leadership,” said McClellan. “And certainly that level of success doesn’t seem to count for much to the leadership of [the legislature]. And I think if we want to get back on a winning track, people should be watching more what we’re doing in Mercer County.”
McClellan does not think that Gusciora’s dissidence will hurt his re-election prospects, and said he will personally support him.
“We allow some freewheeling ideas from folks because we think it helps the process,” he said. “Sometimes it makes my job a little more difficult, but I would never step in the way of him saying what he believes.”