In Passaic, for the moment, it’s Christie v. Berdnik

WAYNE –They have one significant thing in common, and it’s not the law enforcement background.

There’s no Republican sheriff’s candidate right now, and no announced Democratic Party candidate for governor, so as far as Passaic County is concerned from a political standpoint, it’s Gov. Chris Christie versus Sheriff Richard Berdnik.

Attorney General Jeff Chiesa’s drug bust press conference in Passaic County comes ahead of Christie’s 2013 re-election effort in a county where the Republican stunned Democratic incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine.

Christie’s 2009 performance helped drag three GOP freeholders into office with him and emboldened a Passaic party operation that continued on the premise that they could nibble Democrats to death on their home turf.

Since Corzine’s less than impressive 10,000-vote win over Christie in the Democratic County, Dems have repositioned themselves with robust wins – including reversing those crushing freeholder losses – heading into next year’s gubernatorial and sheriff’s office elections. 

But they had to fight stiff battles to get to this point, not least of which a howling Republican Commission forged from redistricting, when the GOP submitted a map resulting in home county star U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9) facing – and forced to devour – fellow Democrat U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9).

Pascrell attributed his June Primary victory in part to his 2010 effort, when an unknown sheriff’s candidate from Clifton stepped into the breach to sub for a vaporized Sheriff Jerry Speziale and face an animated Republican challenge still nursing Christie’s effort from a year earlier.

Appearing with Chiesa in the bowels of county law enforcement headquarters this morning, Berdnik affirmed his commitment to seek a second term as Republicans look to regroup under the Christie banner that put them in full-blown agitating mode.

Even if they couldn’t capitalize post 2009 with any countywide wins, maybe they can now again with Christie at the top of the ticket, or so runs their logic.

Berdnik doesn’t look worried.

“I am absolutely running again,” the sheriff told “I enjoy the work too much. I am committed to protecting the residents of Passaic County.”

Who does he back for governor?

“I’m focused on Passaic County,” said the onetime detective from Clifton.

Speziale’s departure to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was supposed to plunge Democrats into a case of permanent turmoil, but Berdnik’s convincing 2010 victory over Felix Garcia stopped the bleeding on the way to Democrats reversing Christie’s 2009 damage.

Having proved Democrats could shake out of Speziale’s snakeskin cowboy boots, Berdnik now faces his second test, arguably the biggest of his countywide career as he seeks re-election on a ticket opposite Christie with no-known Christie challenger.

Bernik’s challenge becomes all the more substantial in light of today’s event, where Chiesa made it clear the administration is serious about making a statement in Passaic County to follow up on Christie’s earlier gains.

“It’s a bunch of guys who got caught in a drug bust,” groaned an insider at today’s press conference, downplaying the political implications.

“This is the first time I’ve stood with the sheriff,” said Chiesa. “I’m happy to stand with him. We have had very productive partnerships with everyone we’ve worked with.”

Republican sources don’t offer any insights on a specific challenger to Berdnik. In light of their backfired effort with Garcia against Berdnik, a maneuver intended to drive urban Latino voters out against the Democratic establishment, Democrats anticipate a contender emerging from the northern suburbs this time.

Of course, they don’t discount the GOP making a play to get Speziale to come back – this time as a Republican.

“His name keeps surfacing,” teased one Republican source.

But another source close to the politics here said the ex-sheriff is more likely to go the Don Johnson route and opt for a job in Florida than return to the dank confines of Passaic County press conferences.

In any event, Democrats claim readiness honed from three years of organizing since Christie humiliated them. In part, Berdnik’s effort hinges on the more than 3,000 votes Clifton turns out with him on the ticket. Democrats also offer as evidence of better mobilization the considerable Paterson name ID of Assemblyman Benji Wimberly (D-35), a rising star in the party, who will be on the ballot next year.

What didn’t kill them makes them stronger, they offer, with apologies to Kelly Clarkson, by way of apologies to Nietzsche.

They also posit Pascrell’s continuing campaigning as ultimately the best evidence of a muscled up party organization intent on re-electing Berdnik.

Attired in dress blues right beside Chiesa, Berdnik today gave no trace it’s about anything other than focusing on bad guys – the type that wear surgical masks and aprons and take cigarette breaks outside heroin mills.

“Crime has no boundaries,” he said.

In Passaic, for the moment, it’s Christie v. Berdnik