Republicans believe they have a shot in the 4th District of Essex County, where a win by Cedar Grove Deputy Mayor Joe Chiusolo over teacher Len Luciano would re-establish the GOP with a seat at the county level.
There’s a back story here as Democrats affiliated with state Sen. Dick Codey, (D-27), Roseland, worry that Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo is putting up a soft candidate in part to weaken Codey, who’s running for re-election in a redesigned district that includes a portion of Morris County towns.
Sources say Codey wanted a West Orange or Livingston-based candidate, but DiVincenzo and company positioned West Caldwell resident Luciano for a showdown with Chisusolo. What makes the Codey Democrats jittery in part is the fact that Chiusolo has the energetic backing of state Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-40), Cedar Grove, who’s closer to DiVincenzo than Codey.
The former governor is an opponent of both DiVincenzo’s and O’Toole’s.
Ultimately, sources in both parties say Codey should be fine as he leverages a huge warchest in the face of a Tea Party-backed candidate in William Eames. DiVincenzo forces, moreover, insist they are ready to win with Luciano, who is expected to receive backing from the Essex County Democratic Committee on Wednesday night to occupy a seat vacated at the beginning of the month by Freeholder Linda Lordi Cavanaugh. At the very least they rejoice at being able to demonstrate muscle in the western part of the county where Codey’s dominance was reinforced by the presence of ally Cavanaugh, who always had the backing of Assemblyman Tom Giblin, (D-34), Montclair.
With Codey’s support, Giblin ran unsuccessfully against DiVincenzo in 2002.
Now, despite grumbling from the Codey allies about Luciano’s lack of experience in elected office, Democrats are confident in the numbers – roughly 35,567 declared Democrats to 22,077 Republicans.
The DiVincenzo wing also insists Luciano is a hard-charging, formidable candidate.
“I lost when I ran in 2007, but I still changed the face of government,” said the 30-year-old library media specialist in Newark. “I lost by 17 votes – and this is a town – West Caldwell – that hasn’t had a Democrat since 1973. The challenge that I provided was just good for checks and balances and to keep people on the balls of their feet.”
For his part, Chiusolo said the relationship among DiVincenzo, O’Toole and Codey doesn’t impact him as he eyes a contest with Luciano.
“That’s not even on my radar screen,” he said. “I’m standing shoulder to shoulder with Senator O’Toole to win this race. Whatever relationship he has with party leaders is between him and them. I have run in many elections where I’ve been the unknown and I’ve succeeded not only in winning but in being the top vote getter.”
The longtime owner of his own uniform business, which he founded when he was 16 and which now employs 25 people, Chiusolo first won election in 1997, when he bested his opponent in a runoff. He won re-election in 2001, 2005 and 2009. In 2006, he challenged DiVincenzo for county executive and lost.
As a veteran of local government in O’Toole’s home town, he’s not impressed with the fact that Luciano intends to jump from losing races in West Caldwell to occupying a chair of power at the county level.
“What I do know of him is that he ran in West Caldwell unsuccessfully three times,” Chiusolo said. “He’s the declared candidate and there are rumors he may be appointed to fill the unexpired term.
“I will say this,” he added. “There is no comparison between the two of us. I’m sure he’s a very nice guy, but he has never held elected office and I have been 14 years on the local level fighting for the residents of Cedar Grove and undertaking my fiscal responsibilities. We have one of the lowest local tax rates in Essex County while delivering great service to the community. If you looked on paper, I’m light years ahead of him . Again – this doesn’t mean he’s not a nice person.”
Luciano said in spite of all the back chatter that he looks forward to campaigning with Codey.
“There is always some kind of rumor going around, but Governor Codey has always supported me,” said the Democrat. “In 2007, I ran with him and had robocalls from Governor Codey. I thought he was a pretty excellent governor. Of course, the county executive has also supported my endeavors from the beginning. He’s always contributed financially. I’m a loyal Joe D, Dick Codey Essex County Democrat.
“I spoke with Governor Codey a month and a half ago and I thought we cleared the air,” he added. “If those rumors are out there, they’re untrue. In six of the eleven towns we will be running with Dick Codey, and I look forward to it. I hope that may put some closure to what you’ve heard. I need all Democrats on board in November.”
As for his opponent, Luciano didn’t have much to say.
“I don’t know much about him other than the fact that he ran in 2006 for county executive and lost,” said the candidate.
Former Freeholder Muriel Shore was the last Republican to occupy a seat on the freeholder board before Cavanaugh eliminated her.
“I think Joe Chiusolo’s chances are very strong,” the former freeholder said. “When I was campaigning in Cedar Grove I did door to door with Joe Chiusolo and the outpouring from citizens impressed me. He is a star on the rise. When you’re sitting there as a freeholder the experience at the local level enables you to better serve people you represent and Joe brings a lot.”
Still, even as Democrats see a way to lose, Republicans realistically assess the numbers of their opponents in West Orange (12,500 affiliated D’s to 3,000 affiliated R’s) and Livingston (7,146 affiliated D’s to 3,314 affiliated R’s) in particular, and the ineradicable Codey’s quest for survival, and acknowledge that even with the back wars ongoing in the Democratic Party, Chiusolo will need to mount an enormous effort and have critical breaks along the way in order to beat the organization-backed Luciano.