Reeling but intact: 12 County Party Organizations, some of their leadership altered, head toward 2014

Independent expenditures weakened party organizations to such a degree in 2013 that political insiders wondered about the future of those organizations.

But they still played this year and will play, and what follows is the current political state of 12 of the most active party county organizations in 2013 and a gut-check of those counties where they work…

  1. Hudson County Democratic Organization

Chairman: Vincent Prieto

They were one of the weakest organizations just a year ago, as local loss after local loss accumulated to cause embarrassment among Democrats who could remember the leadership of then-HCDO Chairman Bob Menendez. It was already bad when Sal Vega ate a 2011 defeat in West New York, but when Menendez ended up fighting with HCDO Chairman Mark Smith over 2012 congressional endorsements, the organization went off the rails. Steve Fulop ran over the last vestiges of the organization in the May Jersey City mayor’s election and helped redefine the new look HCDO under the auspices of powerful state Sen. Nick Sacco (D-32). Sacco installed Prieto (D-32) as the new chairman to replace Smith, swinging the geographical pendulum of power from Bayonne to North Hudson, along with a twist of Fulop’s Jersey City. Then Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell’s (D-31) failure to win the state party chairmanship – with behind-the-scenes assistance from Menendez – concretized dysfunction in the Smith era.

Raw registered voters: Democrats to Republicans: 144,675 to 22,019

HCDO Cash on hand (reported in October): $3,664

Reasons for Success: HCDO Chairman Prieto doubles as Speaker-elect of the General Assembly; state Sen. Sacco has strong ties to both South Jersey Democrats and the Essex County Democratic Committee. Don’t forget, too, the HCDO gave birth to Menendez. Fulop’s victory in Jersey City also gave the organization a major boost.

Rising Stars: Fulop


2. Essex County Democratic Committee

Chairman: Leroy Jones

They took a hit this year when their most powerful personage, Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, endorsed Gov. Chris Christie, and the organization’s long-serving chairman, Phil Thigpen, died. Essex lost the speakership and continues to suffer factional differences. While U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) seldom defied the county party organization and always maintained very close relations to DiVincenzo, renegade Democrat Ras Baraka remains the favorite in the Newark mayor’s race, threatening to shake up the party in the county’s biggest city. Essex still has the largest concentration of Democratic Party votes in the state, however, and claims Booker, the second most powerful Democrat in the state. New Party Chairman Jones was Thigpen’s hand-picked successor and is a savvy political player in his own right, with strong organizational underpinnings in his hometown of East Orange and close ties to DiVincenzo.

Key 2013 wins: Victory in the East Orange Mayor’s race dislodged longtime renegade Mayor Bob Bowser; Highest number of Democratic Primary votes (36,303) for victor Booker, followed by Bergen (24,328), Hudson 23,000 and Union (19,000). Highest number of general election votes 92,384, followed by 82,526 in Bergen.

Organization Cash on hand: $134,007

Raw Registration: Democrats to GOP: 197,552 to 40,694

Rising Stars: Essex County Clerk Chris Durkin; when DiVincenzo steps aside, the politically savvy clerk is well-positioned to run for the seat of power. East Orange Mayor-elect Lester Taylor; the new mayor appears to be young and vigorous and enjoys strong relationships with the new chairman and the county executive. State Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29); long thought to be a mere Adubato-automaton, Ruiz has distinguished herself in Trenton on education reform.


3. Ocean County Republican Committee

Chairman: George Gilmore

Most Recent History: They consistently turn out the biggest Republican pluralities in the state. In the words of one Democrat after the U.S. Senate special election, “Obviously, we still haven’t figured out what to do about Ocean.” Despite excellent production this year, the Ocean GOP suffered a lone significant general election setback: a loss in the Brick Township Mayor’s election.

Reasons for Success: Veteran Ocean County GOP Chairman Gilmore is one of the most powerful political operatives in New Jersey, running his county the same way the toughest Democrats used to run Hudson. The fissures that dog Essex County, for example, do not pervade Ocean.

Raw Registration: GOP to Dems: 103,000 to 69,500

Organization Cash on Hand: $33,814

Key Victories: Republican U.S. Senate candidate Steve Lonegan beat Democrat Booker 68,166 votes to Booker’s 36.665.

Rising Stars: Jackson Mayor Mike Reina

4. Camden County Democratic Committee/South Jersey Democratic Committee

Leader: George Norcross III

Most Recent History: South Jersey Democrats held onto all of their incumbent senators: Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-1), Sen. Jim Whelan (D-2), Sen. Fred Madden (D-4), Sen. Donald Norcross (D-5) and Sen. Jim Beach to once again show legislative dominance.

Reason for Success: Unity. Separately they don’t impress, but together they form the basis for South Jersey’s political dominion over the rest of the state. They have their individual chairs, but all fold into the political empire of South Jersey Power Broker Norcross, who routinely cuts the deals that result in legislative leadership power-sharing. In 2009 and 2011, Norcross cut the deal with DiVincenzo. In 2013, he cut the deal with Sacco. In both cases, Norcross was the constant.

Cash on Hand (Camden): $127,718

Rising Star: Sweeney and Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-6) have put themselves in position to go live with statewide runs; Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-7) has deep labor ties.


5. Burlington County Republican Committee

Chairman: Bill Layton

Cash on hand: $23,923

They run the county, falling prey only to those presidential election years when a Democrat – in this case Barack Obama – heads the opposing ticket. They have enjoyed a good run over the past seven years as Layton – under former Chairman Glenn Paulsen’s tutelage – continues to wield majority control of the freeholder board and other county offices.

Reasons for Success: Paulsen’s work ethic created a template for success. Consider these numbers: 89,601 registered Democrats to 64,957 Republicans in Burlington, and yet still the GOP dominates.

Organization Cash on hand: $23,923

Rising Stars: Evesham Mayor Randy Brown could emerge as the successor to U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan (R-3); Assemblyman Chris Brown (R-8); Assemblywoman-elect Maria Rodriguez-Gregg (R-8).


6. Passaic County Democratic Committee

Chairman: John Currie

Most Recent History: Based on the 2009 election outcome, when Republican freeholder candidates rode Christie’s coattails to victory in three freeholder contests, insiders watched Passaic closely this year. But Passaic Democrats used the 2011 and 2012 engagements to sharpen their performance and had little trouble re-electing Passaic County Sheriff Richard Berdnik and the Democratic freeholder incumbents.  

Reasons for Success: The committee thrives owing to a power-sharing agreement between Currie and U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9). The pair of leaders have had a good two years, triggered by Pascrell’s primary victory over Steve Rothman, and culminating with a frayed statewide party seeking out Currie as a compromise candidate for state party chairman.

Raw Registration Totals: 87,758 Democrats to 47,845 Republicans

Cash on Hand: $456,248

Rising Stars: Youth recreation league director Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-35) has built an impressive political base that now extends into Bergen County, to Hackensack, where he coaches football. His district-mate, Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-35), should also not be underestimated.


7. Monmouth County Republican Committee

Chairman: John Bennett

Most Recent History: No one paid attention to Monmouth in 2013 with Christie at the top of the Republican ticket, and indeed Election Day produced no surprises, as the GOP dominated. Only Bergen (136,178) and Ocean (125,781) produced more votes for Christie than Monmouth (123,417).

Reason for Success: Except for a brief spell after the 2008 Obama election, Republicans have run the county for as long as most people can remember, more recently on the strength of pulling the independent vote.

Cash on Hand: $62,591

Registration Totals: 94,031 Republicans to 97,204 Democrats

Rising Stars: State Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-11); Assemblyman Sean Kean (R-30); Matawan Councilwoman Toni Angelini.


8. Morris County Republican Committee

Chairman: John Sette

They have an open primary in Morris, which limits the power of the party organization. But in Christie’s home county, the overwhelmingly Republican Morris provides no oxygen for Democratic challengers in county government.

Organization Cash on Hand: $72,675

Rising Star: Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-26) – he’s already served in a statewide capacity as Republican Chairman and could break out as either the Republican Party’s challenger to  U.S. Sen. Cory Booker or a future congressman when U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11) retires.


9. Union County Democratic Committee

Chairman: Jerry Green

Most Recent History: The county’s dominant Democratic figure, state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-20), has consolidated power in his home city of Elizabeth, weakening those members of the Board of Education who have long opposed him. Barring a dramatic reversal, the Elizabeth BOE appear to have taken its best shot at Lesniak in 2011, when they won Elizabeth on their way to defeat district-wide due to the Union Township organizing efforts by Lesniak ally Assemblyman Joe Cryan (D-20). Green this year replaced veteran Chair Charlotte DeFilippo.

Cash on Hand: $89,155

Reasons for Success: Democrats have control of the voter-rich urban centers and own county government.

Raw Registration Totals: 117,375 Democrats to 41,104 Republicans

Rising Stars: Freeholder Mohamed Jallloh, Fanwood Mayor (and County Party Vice Chair) Colleen Mahr; Roselle Mayor Jamel Holley; Hillside Mayor-elect Angela Garretson


10. Middlesex County Democratic Organization

Chairman: Kevin McCabe

Cash on Hand: $41,510

Raw Voter Registration Totals: 159,335 Democrats to 55,613 Republicans

Most Recent History: It’s been a run of real anguish for the dominant party in Middlesex County, starting with the jailing of Chairman John Lynch, Christie’s embarrassing 2009 win over Jon Corzine, the arrest and imprisonment of Perth Amboy Mayor Joe Vas, another party chair meltdown in the person of Joe Spicuzzo, and a chairman’s fight for Spicuzzo’s vacant seat that bloodied both sides, one dominated by state Sen. Bob Smith (D-17) and the other led by Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac.

What accounts for their success: Democrats run all the biggest Middlesex County towns: Woodbridge, Edison, New Brunswick, Monroe and Perth Amboy.

Rising Stars: Chairman McCabe of Woodbridge has the political skills to make an impact, especially in a coming gubernatorial conflict, where Middlesex stands at ground zero of a possible North-South state collision;  Perth Amboy Mayor Wilda Diaz.


11. Bergen County Democratic Committee

Chairman: Lou Stellato

Recent Successes: Taking advantage of intra-party strife in the GOP, Bergen Democrats secured a veto-proof majority on the Freeholder Board with a win by former Paramus Mayor James Tedesco in a year when the popular Christie’s presence at the top of the opposition ticket presented a major obstacle. Bergen also contributed monster numbers to Booker’s general election victory, second only to Essex. In one of the most watched contests of the cycle, Democrats prevailed in LD38, with close victories by state Sen. Bob Gordon and his team.

Key to Success: Bergen’s size and population make power here integral to control of North Jersey. In the words of one Hudson operative, a Democrat, speaking on condition of anonymity, “That is the ultimate organizing terrain.  If you could put Bergen on lockdown you could run the state.” As New Jersey’s bellwether county, Bergen voters at present favor divided county government.

Challenges: Democrats do not have control of the county executive’s office or the sheriff’s office (which incumbent Mike Saudino just won again).

Raw Registration Totals: 161,138 Democrats to 106,202 Republicans

Rising Stars: Freeholder Tracy Zur, Freeholder Steve Tanelli


12. Bergen County Republican Organization

Chairman: Bob Yudin

Most Recent Successes: Boosted by Christie at the top of the ticket, Yudin held onto his close ally, Sheriff Saudino, and post-election secured a peace treaty with Bergen County Executive Kathe Donovan, which positions the BCRO leader for another term as chair. Bergen produced more votes (136,178) for Christie than any other county.

Challenges: While wielding executive clout, albeit severely complicated by fractures in the GOP ranks, Republicans lack significant county legislative influence in Bergen, this ultimate exemplar of governmental power-sharing.

Rising Stars: Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-39); Freeholder Maura DeNicola

Reeling but intact: 12 County Party Organizations, some of their leadership altered, head toward 2014