METUCHEN – With their former chairman last seen turning himself in to state authorities, the lumped-up Middlesex County Democratic Committee wants to project law enforcement integrity now in the person of new Party Chairman Peter Barnes Sr. as a counterpoint to Gov. Chris Christie, a former U.S. Attorney.
“A county sheriff is vastly different from an FBI agent,” said Barnes, 82, who served for 26 years in the federal agency and last month defeated a younger candidate to assume charge of the party here in this sprawling Central Jersey county that Gov. Chris Christie won by three points in 2009. “I feel I will be a lightning rod to unite the party. I’m available, I’m amenable and lovable and my executive board includes people from both sides of the county committee fight.
“In my era, when a big case came down, it was the special agent in charge of the case who handled it,” he added. “The U.S. Attorney would be off to the side.”
An 11-year member of the General Assembly who chaired the law and public safety committee beginning in the Whitman years, Barnes told PolitickerNJ.com that Christie won’t win Middlesex again.
“That was a moment of solidarity for Democrats,” the new chairman said, referring to Christie’s decision to cut $900 million from the state budget Democrats submitted to him last week. “Christie was an unknown quantity when he won. Now he’s known – by this budget. People are starting to pay attention. The governor has decimated the foundations of the Democratic Party.”
As for state Senate President Steve Sweeney’s, (D-3), West Deptford, profanity-laced comments to the Star-Ledger this past weekend about Christie in the aftermath of the budget process, Barnes added, “I agree with what he said. I wouldn’t have used the same words. It appears he was working together with the governor on the pension bill and he was frustrated it was not reciprocated.”
The successor of corruption-busted Middlesex County Sheriff Joe Spicuzzo, the party organization’s former chairman up on charges of accepting bribes in exchange for doling out sheriff’s office jobs, Barnes said he does not believe corruption is an intrinsic part of New Jersey politics.
“When the Democrats approached me and asked me to run for the Assembly, my FBI friends said, ‘You know, you’re taking off the white hat and putting on the black hat. Negative. I consider myself to be an honest, moral and ethical guy. Like Shakespeare said, ‘To thy own self be true.’ I got a blank look back, of course, when I quoted Shakespeare.”
Unshirkably an FBI guy, when he graduated from the academy and his Quantico training, he went up to see Director J. Edgar Hoover in 1954.
“My friend looked worried,” recalled Barnes. “He said ‘you have to have a blue suit.” For whatever reason, Hoover liked blue suits and I showed up in my new tweed suit. My friend told me, ‘He’s going to think you’re a wise guy.’ But I didn’t have a choice. It was the only suit I had. So I went in and there was this godlike figure sitting there – and he had an identical suit on. He told me, ‘It’s very nice to have you with us, Mr. Barnes.'”
Following a bitter intra-party battle, Barnes is convinced he can remake the party, if not in his image, at least in an image of integrity.
“I got calls from (John) McCormac and Kevin McCabe, who’s a very conciliatory young man. I also got along well with McCormac and I complimented him on the job he’s doing over there in Woodbridge. I think he’s doing a good job. McCormac told me I was true to my word and did not run a negative campaign.”
He bristled at the suggestion – made throughout the campaign – that he’s too old to connect to the new attention-deficit-disordered generation.
“This whole thing about the age is ridiculous,” said Barnes. “I work out three to four times a week. I would have challenged McCabe to any physical contest and won. Honestly, if I couldn’t do this, do you think I would make a fool out of myself? I went out and knocked on 950 doors. I think the other side was shocked. They expected that the way I would campaign for the job would be to stay home and play pinochle.”
Barnes insisted no party leader or leaders ever talked to him about his term of service. Rumors abounded that he would plant himself in the chairman’s chair long enough for Carteret Mayor Dan Reiman to position himself as successor in one or two years. Not true, said Barnes.
Regarding gubernatorial politics in his party, Barnes said his chairmanship does not mean state Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono, (D-18), of Metuchen, his former ticketmate, won’t have a shot at winning the line here should she run statewide. Buono backed the other candidate in the party chairman’s fight.
“In my experience in politics, the door is never closed on anybody,” Barnes said, referring to Buono. “It’s the committee people who run this party. It’s the 1,200 committee people. That’s what I told John McCormac. He told me Kevin McCabe’s going to be the chairman after me. I told him, ‘the committee people will decide. They make up their own minds'”
Another crop up in his county who triggers gubernatorial mutters in his wake is Democratic State Chairman John Wisniewski, (D-19), of Sayreville, who backed Barnes for party chairman.
“John Wisniewski with his statewide knowledge and experience is definitely a contender,” Barnes said.