The Odd Man Out: Lesniak uses local northern political battles to try to regain an edge

When the Democratic power brokers decided to restructure the party in 2009, South Jersey boss George Norcross III huddled up with Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-20) and executed a battle plan.

The plan included making labor leader Steve Sweeney the senate president (the Norcross piece); Sheila Oliver speaker and Teresa Ruiz chair of the Senate Education Committee (the DiVincenzo piece); and Nick Scutari the Senate Judiciary Chairman and Joe Cryan Assembly Majority Leader (the Lesniak piece).

Not long thereafter, Lesniak, once a statewide party chair and Bill Clinton golfing chum, found himself losing traction within the triumvirate, increasingly engaged in a brutal (people ended up in jail, but that’s another story) local war with the Elizabeth Board of Education, as Norcross and DiVincenzo only too happily supplanted him with their new statewide pal: someone named Republican Gov. Chris Christie.

While DiVincenzo was coming out of the budget session a winner, and Norcross laying the groundwork for victories in higher education consolidation, Lesniak was coming off double knee replacement surgery.

There seemed to be a metaphor there.

But two things happened gradually to change the dynamics of power – and ultimately create a re-entry point for Lesniak.

First, relations between Lesniak and Cryan worsened.

If Lesniak ever had the expectation of the assemblyman from his home district doing what he was told in the Democratic caucus and only speaking when spoken to, it didn’t work out that way, as Cryan established himself as a leading critic of Christie’s agenda, including the Norcross-DiVincenzo-championed Christie overhaul of public pensions and benefits.

Cryan’s own kneecapping within the legislative leadership sanctum roughly coincided with Lesniak’s flailing fortunes.

Behind the scenes, the two powerful players turned on each other, seemingly increasing the stranglehold Norcross and DiVincenzo had on Christie’s affections.

But the Christie/Norcross/DiVincenzo troika started cracking apart last year, when DiVincenzo tried to win the governor over for himself, actually publicly backing his re-election while Norcross took it up to the edge and stopped just shy of an endorsement.

Weakened in his home county, set upon by those fellow Democrats who thought he had gone too far in his role as resident Christiecrat, DiVincenzo lost his hand at the table to re-up Oliver as speaker, who went AWOL in a run for U.S. Senate before becoming leadership roadkill.

Lesniak simultaneously shook off the last vestiges of a challenge by the Elizabeth Board of Education, first joining forces with incumbent Mayor Chris Bollwage in 2012 to crush a challenger, then burying his 2013 EBOE-backed opponent in 2013.

But while he had retaken control on his home turf, Lesniak had not yet reborn himself to past levels of prominence.

The uncontrollable Cryan hung around his neck.

Sizing up someone up north with whom to do business, Norcross went around Lesniak and DiVincenzo and went to the most organized northern boss of the bunch: state Sen. Nick Sacco (D-32) of Hudson County.

Having dumped Oliver, Norcross and Sacco made Sacco’s protégé, Vinny Prieto, the new speaker, and re-upped South Jersey’s Sweeney as senate president and Lou Greenwald as Assembly Majority Leader.

They threw in Bergen (Loretta Weinberg again as Senate Majority Leader and Paul Sarlo as Budget Chair).

Scutari (Lesniak) stayed on as Senate Judiciary Chair while Cryan stayed planted on the assembly’s back bench.

Wounded within the leadership halls of his own party, DiVincenzo reclaimed some of his old gleam when no one challenged his re-election this year.

There were a lot of naysayers out there, but no one who would stand forth and make him pay for the lovey-dovey scenes with Christie.

Then Joe D. felt the sting of inner party anger again when Christie sank amid the ravages of Bridgegate.

He headed for the next political front trailing a complicated history of backroom convulsions and impenetrable patronage battle armor.

He had no June 3rd challenger in the Democratic Primary so joined forces with Norcross in the much-watched Newark mayor’s race.

Norcross picked Shavar Jeffries.

The deal looked fairly straightforward: GN3 money and local organization brought to you by Joe D.

Having formed his own Super-PAC, Lesniak jumped into the Newark fray on the opposite side, lending bodies to the cause of the renegade Ras Baraka.

Baraka beat Jeffries, dealing losses to both Norcross and DiVincenzo.

An exultantly regenerating Lesniak turned his attention to Bayonne.                                   

He had stood onstage with his on again off again political partner Cryan in lending his endorsement to incumbent Mayor Mark Smith.

But he had not done so happily.

Lesniak and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop were originally going to join forces to eject Smith behind the candidacy of challenger Jimmy Davis, but Fulop became obsessed with Newark and a victory by his candidate Baraka while Lesniak had no appetite to go it alone.

That changed when Smith hobbled into the June 10th runoff against a surging Davis.

Cryan doubled down on his friend Smith.

Lesniak – throwing aside those critics pointing to his presence with Smith at the outset – put his PAC money on Davis.

“He had an axe to grind there, because he was going to be the state party chair,” offered Sacco, reflecting on Lesniak’s party establishment candidacy for the job – undertaken to undercut Smith and Cryan ally Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell (Smith’s campaign manager in Bayonne) and to undercut ill-fated Democratic gubernatorial nominee Barbara Buono.

2014 donors to the senator’s PAC include Sweeney’s campaign fund, which has chipped in $20,000.

Davis won.

On the strength of staring down the Elizabeth Board of Ed, and bulking up with wins in Newark and Bayonne, Lesniak appeared in a position again to play statewide politics.

“I’ve always been involved in statewide politics,” he told PolitickerNJ.

As budget-beleaguered sources continue to question how the already embattled Christie will be able to get through another budget season without his presidential aspirations going belly-up, Lesniak’s moves seem to coincide with the quickening possibility of a gubernatorial election prior to the scheduled 2017.

Sweeney and Fulop are jockeying for an edge with each collision.

Lesniak straddles the worlds of both, as he seeks to re-horn his way back into the halls of power.   

“I’ve always been very much involved in gubernatorial politics, with Florio, McGreevey and Jon Corzine,” the senator said. “I stepped back from that role to take care of business in Elizabeth and Union County, but I’m definitely looking to advance my public policy goals.”

The Odd Man Out: Lesniak uses local northern political battles to try to regain an edge