By Chase Brush
TRENTON – It was a full 6-senator (plus one former state employee and one celebrity personality) pile-on, starting with a standoff over political appointments between state Senators Ron Rice (D-28) and Dick Codey and Gov. Chris Christie way back in 2010.
It culminated in a very public spat on the floor of the senate earlier this week, after an ever-excitable Christie yanked the nominations of eight Essex County judges in the midst of a controversy spurred on by a former employee of his administration.
And it ended, in a stranger-than-fiction plot twist, with TLC’s Bartolo “Buddy” Valastro, Jr., aka the “Cake Boss”, slinking out from the shadows yesterday to come up at the center of it all.
Nothing gets done in New Jersey’s political theatre without someone crying foul…
Like rising pressure in the cabin of a sinking ship, frustrations over judicial nominations in Essex County began building up as early as 2010. It was then that state Sen. Rice, a vocal critic of former Newark Mayor Corey Booker, blocked a move by Christie to appoint Christopher Cerf to state education commissioner. Rice took issue with Cerf because he believed Cerf misled him on his relationship with Booker, and he vowed — through the use of that pesky, unwritten rule called senatorial courtesy — to prevent Cerf’s nomination. In retaliation, Christie refused to appoint any new judges to fill vacancies in the county.
Rice wasn’t the only one though. Last year, Christie blamed state Sen. Dick Codey for botching six additional judicial nominations. For his part, Codey argued that he was ready to sign off on the nominations, but refused to agree to a Christie-desired appointment of Cedar Grove Township Manager Thomas Tucci Jr. to Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission. Codey too invoked senatorial courtesy to block the appointments, later accusing Christie of leveraging the judicial appointments to gain support for appointees to other positions.
The problem is Essex County — home to cities like Newark and East Orange and towns like Cedar Grove and Nutley — struggles with one of the most over-worked court systems in the state, and continually stalled nominations have not helped that system run any smoother. Essex now has 21 judicial vacancies — a likely if not direct result of the ongoing bad relations between the aforementioned senators and the front office.
The Big Brawl
Tensions began to ease on the issue, however, and in June Christie announced the nominations of eight new Superior Court judges, with more supposedly on the way. But just as Essex’s buckling judicial system was set to receive some much-needed relief, a request to testify from a former Christie administration staffer threw things into a tailspin.
In a letter sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee two weeks ago, Mariella Morales insisted that one of the judiciary nominees, David Cohen of Berkeley Heights, had failed to investigate complaints about her boss at the Center for Hispanic Policy, Research and Development, where she worked from 2010 to 2013. She alleged that she had been harassed during her time there and accused the department’s executive director of wrongly entering data in scoring applications for grant money. When brought to the attention of Cohen, Christie’s former director of employee relations, nothing was done, she said. “I find it most ironic that Mr. Cohen – Governor Christie’s Director of Employer Relations, at the time – the person charged with specifically dealing with labor laws and employment matters, was apparently unable to discern any wrongdoing on the part of a member of Christie’s Administration,” she wrote.
That letter resurfaced on Monday at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, and Morales’ request to testify compelled committee members to reschedule Cohen — and, shortly thereafter, the rest of the nominations — until July 10. That set off a series of unexpected developments that still has some political onlookers scratching their heads.
First, Christie, in characteristic immoderation, withdrew all eight nominations, leaving little explanation as to why or if they’d be reappointed.
That drove state Sen. and Senate Judiciary Committee member Nia Gill (D-34) — with Rice backing her up — to lash out, charging the governor with bullying the committee. Gill called the move “direct assault on the integrity of this institution.”
Then, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37), who brought Morales’ claims to the attention of the committee, jumped into the mix, defending Gill and Rice in front of State Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-40). “This his woman raised serious allegations,” she said. “Nobody’s heard from Ms. Morales. …I am not going to continue to debate who is right and who is wrong, which is exactly why we would like to hear from all sides.”
O’Toole, for his part, asked why the the committee members didn’t look into the allegations when they first received Morales’ letter. “When I received that letter, I called the nominee and had a lengthy discussion with him. I then picked up the phone and called another participant, Mr. McDermott,and had another discussion with him. I did my due diligence,” he said.
After a few other senators managed to pile-on — state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-20) commended Gill for defending Morales and State Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-39) backed up Cohen — the day ended with matters unresolved.
A Surprise Contender
Details regarding the circumstances surrounding Morales’ claims were scant, and still are. But yesterday Morales added some more flavor to her story, and it comes courtesy of an unexpected player: TLC’s the “Cake Boss.”
Hoboken’s Bartolo “Buddy” Valastro, Jr. is well known throughout the state from his reality television show on TLC. But he’s also well know to Gov. Christie, and vice versa. Valastro is a vocal support of the Republican governor, having endorsed him for re-election in 2013, defended his weight as “not an issue”, baked him a Jersey-themed cake, and allowed him to campaign in Valastro’s famed store on Washington Street in the Mile-Square city.
But plotlines for that relationship and this week’s controversy converge on Morales, who claims she applied to Valastro’s company’s corporate offices in Jersey City in March 2013. Morales took with her a copy of her resume, which included references from her time working on Christie’s administration (sheld several positions in the Governor’s office from January 2010, when Governor Christie took office, until September 2012, when she resigned.) It’s those recommendations, alluding to her tumultuous time spent working under the governor, that she thinks might have spoiled her chances with the Cake Boss. “It would be very disappointing if there was any form of intervention, in any way, shape or form, that would have impacted any decision made by [the Cake Boss],” Morales said. “Yes, I do feel a strong sense of betrayal committed by someone I once held in very high esteem.”
Under the new circumstances, then, Christie’s withdrawing of this week’s nominations begin to looks less like random outburst, fueled by mounting frustration over continually delayed appointments. Some say it looks downright vindictive.
There’s still no updates as to the status of the Essex County nominations. In a statement released shortly after the ordeal on Monday, Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said this: “The judicial package did not go forward as we had planned. Time now needs to be taken to consider how we proceed.” So as the long standoff over nominations festers anew, Essex County judicial offices continue to sit empty.