ELIZABETH – When the mostly Latino Elizabeth Board of Education endorsed Gov. Chris Christie in 2009, they deepened the capacity for their longtime enemies to brand them Republicans and call the trust factor into question in a heavily Democratic city, at a time when the demographic shift appeared to give them an ethnic advantage in the dockside immigrant jam up that is Elizabeth, New Jersey.
But they didn’t feel at that point that they had a choice. Indeed, they felt the Democratic Party deserted the city, and abandoned them.
No one was happier with their political tactic than state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Elizabeth), the last standing of a generation of Democratic Party lawmakers who double as political bosses, the longtime power in the back of the upper chamber whose law firm is one of the most successful in the state.
“We swept, except for Cedeno, who was re-elected,” he announced a year ago in the aftermath of local elections in Elizabeth and a mail campaign that repeatedly hit the Christie chord to bury his opponents.
That was a year before his own re-election bid in the 20th District; and now, with one week before Election Day, the Board of Education-affiliated Democrats for Change, including Elizabeth Councilman Carlos Cedeno, are on offense with the argument that Lesniak is more Republican than Democrat, fueling the notion among voters that the would-be ambassador to Poland’s success – in part representing public entities – has uprooted him from Elizabeth Avenue.
“I’m in Paris,” Lesniak dead-panned to supporters at a fundraiser two weeks ago, referring to an attack mail piece by his rivals that features an inset shot of the Eiffel Tower over his oceanside mansion, one of several damning opposition volleys.
In an NAACP complaint filed earlier this year in response to Lesniak’s co-sponsorship of affordable housing reform bill S-1 with state Sen. Kip Bateman, (R-16), the minority advocacy group itemized least 40 municipalities that rely on the services of either Lesniak’s or Bateman’s law firm, and Democrats for Change continue to hit the incumbent hard on that front.
“When I was a child, I was told what drinking fountain I could use – it was the one labeled ‘colored,'” says Lesniak challenger (and Assistant Schools Superintendent) Jerome Dunn in a mailer. “I didn’t like segregation then – and I don’t like it now.
“Ray Lesniak sold out our hopes and dreams for his clients. With this (proposed) law (Bill S-1), 283 towns will be able to exclude working and middle class families. Lesniak’s law is wrong – and when I’m senator, I’ll stop it. Stop this Republican-style legislation. Vote Democrats for Change.”
An irritated Lesniak dismissed the NAACP’s suggestion of a conflict, and drilled down on a PolitickerNJ.com question about his firm’s public interest work.
“I have a 35 year + unblemished record so forgive me for getting angry at the way you posed the question,” he said, rejecting the notion that his firm’s legal contracts pose potential conflicts.
“Even though it wouldn’t be a conflict, Rahway’s not in my district, we don’t represent Roselle, Linden’s not in my district, and Parsippany’s not in my district. Why hasn’t anyone ever filed a conflicts of interest charge against me? The only one ever filed, in 35 years, by a Camden County NAACP guy, who was fronting for an organization where he was an officer, was summarily dismissed because it was without merit.”
Lesniak runs on a ticket with Assembly Majority Leader Joe Cryan, (D-Union), and Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, (D-Elizabeth), and there is buzz based on his past performance on both sides that Cedeno – running with Dunn and fellow Assembly candidate Tony Monteiro – at the very least in a low-turnout election next Tuesday has a chance to trim relative newcomer Quijano out of office.
But Lesniak remains the target of choice as part of a longstanding and bitter rivalry that his critics say drove them out of desperation into their alliance with Christie.
This city fight spilling over into the district’s outlying crevices goes back to when the senator was a candidate for mayor of Elizabeth in the 1980s against Tom Dunn. It intensified in recent years as the Board of Education consolidated its own local power under the leadership of former Board President Rafael Fajardo.
To hear former Freeholder Don Goncalves tell it, Lesniak himself was primarily responsible for the group’s endorsement of the Republican former U.S. Attorney. “We like guys who lock up bad guys,” admitted Goncalves.
But given Lesniak’s consolidation of power everywhere else beyond the board, they felt finally as though they had nowhere else to go, he said.
As then-Gov. Jim McGreevey made for the back of the column in Newark’s East Ward and the company of Sheriff Armando Fontoura at the annual Portuguese Day Parade, Goncalves asked him, “Governor, is there a place in the Democratic Party for people like me?”
By Goncalves’s reckoning, McGreevey told him, “Talk to Ray.”
Goncalves didn’t take the advice as particularly useful, considering his faction and Lesniak didn’t talk and hadn’t in years. His appeal to the governor was born, in fact, out of the enormous, unbridgeable gulf of non-communication between the Board of Education and the senator.
A few years later as Jon Corzine prepared to run for re-election, Goncalves received another call from his Democratic Party friends in the Ironbound. They wanted him to get up there and join in the festivities. He reluctantly went, and at one point found himself in close proximity to the governor. He said he repeated the same question to Corzine that he had asked McGreevey.
“Oh, it’s that Ray thing, isn’t it?” said Corzine.
Goncalves smiled in the retelling of the incidents. But to him both stories went to the crux of why he and Fajardo and their organization felt stymied by the Democratic Party in New Jersey. If everything went through local boss Lesniak, they had nowhere to move.
“At least Christie stands on his own two feet, and is his own man,” said Goncalves.
To his most unforgiving foes, Lesniak’s 34-year reign transformed him into a brilliant if outrageous and eccentric helpmate of special interests. This year he co-wrote a bill, with state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, (R-13), to relieve automobile dealerships of excessive burdens exercised over them by automakers. Lesniak’s latest ELEC report shows checks adding up to $20,000 from auto dealers.
“Pay to play,” fumed Fajardo.
But at every turn of their crusade to relieve him of power and prove that power has undone him as a representative of urban interests, Lesniak has used his opponent’s lapses against them – and done so with a vengeance. Whatever bulked up corporate – but public – contributions exist in his own account, his opponents in this election indicated no accounting of how they collected their money, or even listed allocations that reflected their aggressive mail and newspaper propaganda campaign.
When they failed to file financial reports with the state Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC), Lesniak promptly filed a complaint, to the misery of his opponents, who planned to claim technical difficulties, pay the fines after the election, and in the meantime, continue to lay on a heavy barrage.
“This is an incumbent with close to a million dollars in his campaign account – who feels compelled to wage his re-election campaign in court,” exasperated Board of Education attorney Mike Stein told a judge in the Union County Courthouse last Friday afternoon.
“Title 19 exists for voters to open up records and determine who’s supporting these candidates,” countered Weiner Lesniak attorney Therese Cubba, whose arguments persuaded Assignment Judge Karen Cassidy to maintain an injunction on at least $150,000 worth of Democrats for Change campaign funds.
“We were going to win already,” Lesniak said. “This just puts down another roadblock in front of them.”
The GOP alliance with Christie was sufficient to drive Democrats, say his allies.
“There’s the old saying, ‘you can’t throw stones in glass houses,'” said Councilman Manny Grova. “They’re far fetched with the argument that Ray Lesniak and Joe Cryan are Republicans. The voters are smarter than that. Clearly, we went through eight years of a Republican president that put us in a tremendous economic downturn. We finally got a Democratic president trying to bring jobs and now Chris Christie is bringing back what George Bush brought. You need somebody in that Statehouse who fill be fighting for union rights and labor rights, and that’s Lesniak and Cryan. The other guys are going to be Democrats for Christie, supporting a governor who has killed Elizabeth by cutting our state aid, closing our division of motor vehicles.”
“I find it appalling that Republicans can cloak themselves as Democrats,” said Union County Democratic Chairwoman Charlotte DeFilippo. “They’re opportunists.”
Faced with charges of disengagement as he heads toward his fourth decade in Trenton, it is difficult to picture someone who remains as poised for political counter attack as Lesniak. But he also revels in policy. Sitting on a bar stool in Tiffany’s off of Route 22, a Union County insider who has experience working with legislators in Essex and Union counties said no one compares to Lesniak in terms of communication. He sends emails to elected officials engaging them on issues and entertaining dialogue and discussion.
His re-election effort depends in part on the votes Cryan will muster in his hometown of Union, and on the organizational effort of the local council people and Lesniak’s longtime ally, Mayor Chris Bollwage, in Lesniak’s hometown of Elizabeth.
Bollwage defeated Dunn in 1992 after Lesniak had failed, and built an alliance with the senator based on party affiliation and mutual self-preservation, who earlier this year considered a question and didn’t have to think about it as he finished his drink in a bar with PolitickerNJ.com.
“What’s the most important word in politics, mayor?”
“Trust,” Bollwage said.