The PolitickerNJ.com interview: Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell

Confident he has the votes to be the next Democratic State chairman, Jason O’Donnell said his objective will be to drive the core message of the Democratic Party.

“My main objective is to bring Democrats home,” said O’Donnell, 41, an assemblyman from Bayonne. “If we bring them home we win this election. We need to appeal to our base, and we need to do that by going door to door and by reminding people why they are Democrats. We’re about civil rights, workers’ rights and a woman’s right to choose. We have to make that appeal on the grassroots level.”

Presumptive gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono’s (D-18) selection of O’Donnell sent Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) on the warpath. He panned O’Donnell as a bad choice, citing alliances within the party that sank Democrats in 2009 and a 2011 leadership fight that cast O’Donnell’s clan out of power.

“We have the same values,” O’Donnell said of himself and Sweeney. “The fact is Jeff Van Drew and Steve Sweeney made careers sticking up for middle class. That’s what I’m going to do. This is no different from a big Irish family squabbling at the dinner table. We will have our squabbles and we will come together. People don’t want to hear about Steve Sweeney and Jason O’Donnell.  Over 2 million Democrats want to know how are you going to help bring our party back to power.”

As O’Donnell spoke to PolitickerNJ.com, two sources confirmed that a political operative out of Camden County was making the rounds of state party committee people and gauging interest in an alternative to O’Donnell.

But the assemblyman said he has the votes come next month after the primary when the committee convenes to select the successor to sitting state party chairman Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-19).

Democrats jittery over Buono’s distant poll numbers behind the incumbent fret over a clear contrast message driven by the tough-talking O’Donnell as opposed to a softer set of slogans arranged around bipartisanship.

“Look, I get it,” O’Donnell said. “I believe in bipartisanship. We have to govern. But you won’t have people who are running for re-election embracing this governor come election time when there are 400,000 people out of work, when we have a foreclosure crisis. I don’t think you’re going to have people embracing Christie’s policies. Sen. Buono has a plan working with those Democrats to make sure they are elected.”

A Democratic Party committeeman since his 20s, O’Donnell grew up in an Irish Catholic household believing in the party’s capacity to help the less fortunate, he said.

“Republican policies don’t go far enough,” he said. “I am prepared to make the argument about the good things government does, including picking up the garbage, teaching your kids, policing our streets. That’s what government does. And it provides those social programs, that safety net, to care for those who are in need.”

So how did the Democratic Party end up on the canvas in the Christie era?

“It’s not the first time in my lifetime we’ve had a Republican governor,” O’Donnell said. “Chris Christie came along at a time when Gov. Corzine had some issues. Chris Christie is a law and order guy. It’s a good story. But at the end of the day, the numbers don’t lie. There are 400,000 people out of work in New Jersey. That’s a fact.”

O’Donnell has not yet talked to Sweeney since the kerfuffle made PolitickerNJ.com, but he did sit down last week to talk to Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-34), the object of a coup attempt joined by Assemblyman Joe Cryan who has not yet warmed to backing her former tormentor as state party chair.

Oliver all but had the bullhorn out for Buono pre-O’Donnell. Now the fear is she will sit on her hands.

“We had a very good lunch,” O’Donnell said. “I know the speaker has been a supporter of this campaign and will be a supporter of this campaign. She has been and will be a great cheerleader for Barbara Buono.”

Sweeney landed a dig at O’Donnell post-Jersey City mayor’s election, arguing that Jerry Healy’s loss splashes on a Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) where O’Donnell plays a key advisory role.  

“It’s not a fair point,” said the assemblyman. “I wasn’t involved in that campaign. I wasn’t on the ground. I would put my campaign managing record against anyone’s. I wasn’t on the ground with Jerry Healy.”

O’Donnell reiterated his intent to remain focused on common values of the party he says he loves.

“We’re calling to all Democrats,” he said. “We’re calling on the party of FDR and JFK. I get the YouTube moments, but we’re about serving people in need.  Barbara Buono is 100 percent committed to the people of the state of New Jersey. She is empathetic to the plight of the people and we come from a similar background. She has incredible energy and true compassion. Nothing is going to be easy; this governor is wildly popular, but his policies will drive money toward us. There is one other female Democratic governor in the country right now. There will be an incredible amount of interest in this contest. This is the first time in our history that our nominee is a woman.”

The PolitickerNJ.com interview: Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell