By CHASE BRUSH
For the second time in almost as many years, state senators Ray Lesniak (D-20) and Mike Doherty (R-23) found themselves at opposites ends of a public quarrel in the statehouse yesterday.
The first time they butted heads, it almost came to fisticuffs.
On Monday, during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, things were a bit less dramatic.
Nevertheless, it’s a wonder whether Doherty and Lesniak — who lie on “two different sides of the political spectrum,” according to Lesniak — will ever resolve their differences.
Round 1: Doherty and Lesniak certainly aren’t strangers to squabbling with each other. Two years ago, they almost had a physical brawl in the senate chambers after Lesniak supposedly catcalled during a presentation given by Doherty on the state’s school funding formula.
Doherty got up in Lesniak’s face, and vice versa. Ultimately, the two had to be broken up by Former Gov. (and state Sen.) Richard Codey, who was in attendance at the meeting.
Afterward, Lesniak said he would have “punched (Doherty’s) nose down his throat.”
“Then I had some fun with the press because [Doherty] was a west point guy, a lot younger than I am, and a lot bigger and stronger,” Lesniak recalled. “Then again, I sparred with Gerry Cooney, so, you know.”
Round 2: The second conflict came yesterday during the Senate Judiciary Committee. In the midst of a grilling by committee members of Chief Justice Rabner — whose nomination to the state Supreme Court, along with Judge Lee Solomon’s nomination to the Superior Court as an associate justice, was approved — Lesniak called out Doherty on a comment about the School Funding Reform Act.
“This has got to stop,” Doherty said while questioning Rabner.
Lesniak responded: “You’re railing about legislation that we passed, [not the chief justice’s purview]. Can you stick to that, if you don’t mind?”
In the end Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nick Scutari (D-22) allowed the questions.
“I thought I was asking some good questions from the chief justice,” Doherty told PolitickerNJ earlier today. “But I don’t it’s unusual when from time to time legislators want to jump in and defend the person testifying. I think that was the case here. They felt they could score a point or two, throw me off my game a little bit.”
“But it was over in a matter of seconds,” he added.
The Beef: Neither senator says he finds any specific problem with the other. But if he had to pick one issue that seems to serve as a consistent sore spot for the two of them, Lesniak says it’d have to be the distribution of school funding in the state.
“It’s a trigger for Senator Doherty. He was railing on it at one point in time and I made a remark in the back of the room that that’s not true. And then he came up to me and speaking loudly and harshly and I said ‘Get out of my face.’”
On both occasions, the senators’ conflicts stemmed from disagreement over the state’s school funding formula and School Funding Reform Act. Lesniak has said the formula is unfair because it relies partly on property values to come up with tax numbers; Doherty argues bigger portions of school aide end up going to the state’s larger cities.
“He’s the most conservative member of the senate and I’m likely the most liberal member of the senate so obviously we’re going to conflict on issues,” Lesniak said, though Doherty added that they have come together on education-related issues in the past.
In 2011, for example, Doherty and Lesniak joined forces to call for an investigation into lunch discounts in Elizabeth’s school districts.
“Ever since then we got along pretty well,” he said.
The Verdict: Both senators, despite all evidence to the contrary, maintain their relationship is civil. “There’s no hard feelings between the two of us,” Lesniak said of Doherty.
“Actually, we get along pretty well,” Doherty said of Lesniak.
At the end of the day, they both agree that there’s work to be done on issues like education reform, and that they can get behind one another to tackle them.
“I have an ally in him and he has an ally in me,” Lesniak said.
Doherty is a bit more nonchalant.
“It is what it is. You gotta have sharp elbows and a thick skin.
“And a short memory,” he added.