Redistricting and an Essex County Democratic war led to the 2003 election of Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange), who today became the first African American woman to serve as Speaker of the New Jersey General Assembly.
Richard Codey (D-Roseland) represented East Orange for 28 years before redistricting in 2001. Afraid that a district with a Black majority might toss him in a Democratic primary, Codey created a new West Orange-based district, where pluralities in Orange and Livingston would outperform Republican-leaning West Essex towns. East Orange and Montclair became part of the new 34th district, where Democratic Assemblywoman Nia Gill (D-Montclair) easily defeated Republican State Sen. Norman Robertson (R-Clifton). Democrats dumped Gill’s running mate, Assemblyman LeRoy Jones (D-East Orange) and replaced him on the ticket with Willis Edwards (D-East Orange); the second Assembly seat went to Passaic County Freeholder Peter Eagler (D-Clifton). Jones ran unsuccessfully for Mayor of East Orange, losing the Democratic primary to incumbent Robert Bowser.
Jones backed Joseph DiVincenzo in an epic 2002 County Executive primary against Thomas Giblin; Bowser supported Giblin. As a result of DiVincenzo’s victory, Jones’ slate captured control of the East Orange Democratic Organization.
In 2003, the Democratic organization decided to dump Gill and run Jones as their candidate for Senate. As part of the deal, Edwards was dropped from the ticket and replaced with Oliver, a former one-term Essex County Freeholder who came within 51 votes of beating Bowser in the 1997 mayoral primary.
Feeling the heat, Gill and Bowser at the same time apparently forged an alliance and planned to form their own legislative ticket, along with Eagler. As a result, Gill assumed she would get the organization line in Passaic County. But the alliance fell apart in the last month when Essex Democrats surprised Gill by offering her a spot on their line. She refused it. But they also offered a spot to Eagler, who took it, and brought with him a commitment from Passaic to honor the Essex slate.
At that point Gill asked back on the line, but uneasy Democratic leaders refused to commit to her. By asking back on the line, she also may have ended whatever was left of her alliance with Bowser, who was suddenly left without a partner.
After Essex Democratic leaders settled on Jones as their Senate candidate, they struck a deal with Bowser that provided a spot for all East Orange city council incumbents to run on the Democratic line in exchange for the mayor’s support of the Democratic legislative ticket. Bowser said at the time that his flip from Gill to Jones was a matter of pragmatism.
“If you don’t win, you can’t help anybody,” he said.
Gill won an off-the-line primary, but Eagler and Oliver easily won the Assembly primary against Helyn Baltimore, a retired East Orange teacher, and Montclair attorney Howard Solomon.
Two years later, Essex Democrats wanted to restore some intra-party peace by offering Giblin an Assembly seat. There was some talk that they would dump Oliver, but instead they wound up dropping Eagler from their ticket.
The new Assembly Majority Leader, Joseph Cryan, grew up in politics as the son of John Cryan, a Democratic Assemblyman from 1964 to 1968 and the Essex County Sheriff from 1968 to 1980. Cryan moved to Union County, where he became the Union Township Democratic Municipal Chairman. Cryan led a resurgence of the local Democratic organization there, and Republicans haven’t won locally in Union Township since the 1990’s.
Redistricting in 2001 moved Union Township from a Republican-leaning district to a solidly-Democratic one that included Elizabeth and Roselle. Cryan had little obstacles toward winning an open Assembly seat.