A Backroom War in LD40: The Story Behind the Dems’ Raucous Party

Chairman John Currie with Democratic Party diehard Zonie LeSane.

Chairman John Currie with Democratic Party diehard Zonie LeSane.

WAYNE – The front door to the Grand Chalet was open and inside at the bar among a crowd of imbibing Passaic County Democrats one half expected to see the grinning face of Totowa Republican Peter Murphy, newly enabled to return to the executive leadership fold of the Passaic County Republican Committee.

If that opening sentence sounds contradictory, remember, this is Passaic, where Republican Ed Englehardt once gave a nudge to Democrat John Girgenti to get him cross the finish line in a close race with Republican Pat Kramer.

As it turns out, Murphy did not attend the kickoff for the LD40 Democrats here, but a source confirmed that the Republican did meet with the Democratic challengers to incumbent Assemblymen David Russo and Scott Rumana.

Why?

Vagianos was of exuberant good cheer last night.

Vagianos was of exuberant good cheer last night.

Because far more brutal and rancorous than the would-be rivalry in a gerrymandered Republican district between Democrats Paul Vagianos and Christine Ordway and the GOP’s Russo and Rumana is the backroom Republican war between Murphy and Rumana. When Murphy, former chair of the party, returned from serving time in the early part of the 21st Century, he set up his own Republican organization dedicated to undermining Rumana, who was then chairman of the Regular Republican Organization.

Murphy called his group GOP strong.

There is a real dislike between the two men; and now Rumana, who didn’t want Murphy back on the executive committee after their years-long feud, is up for reelection in November and, in the words of one source, “Murphy has nothing but time on his hands.” Conveniently, Murphy’s also got a long history of working with Democrats, one of the things about him that Rumana detests.

The source told PolitickerNJ that Murphy wouldn’t strategize with the Democrats with the expectation of pick off Rumana in the Republican district in November’s general election. “He just wants to mess with Scott,” the source told PolitickerNJ, adding, however, that Murphy has spoken openly about if there was ever an unpredictable legislative election year it’s this one, where turnout numbers will likely be at a very low ebb.

Sumter, Stellato, and Bergen Democratic operative Matt Bonasia.

Sumter, Stellato, and Bergen Democratic operative Matt Bonasia.

Vagianos and Ordway worked the room last night like they are in a winnable race. They tag teamed at the front of the ballroom with the microphone, talking about – and here an operative’s head dropped into his hands near the bar – issues.

In addition to the regular Passaic Dems crowd – Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36), Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-35), Sheriff Richard Berdnik, there were big names in the room: Democratic State Party Chairman John Currie, former Governor (and 27th District state Senator) Dick Codey, and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop.

A bow-tied Bergen County Democratic Chairman Lou Stellato showed up for the event.

“They’ve raised $100,000,” the source told PolitickerNJ, adding that the Vagianos-Ordway team’s enthusiasm for competition in what many see as an unwinnable district for Democrats hasn’t exactly thrilled everyone. The source noted that Ordway and Vagianos competing hard could throw off turnout models and spike vote totals in Republican areas. There’s been a little bit of a tug of war among Democrats in backrooms about what to do with the pair of hyperactive challengers.

“Those two just need to relax,” a source cautioned.

A Republican opponent of Murphy’s too shook his head over the state of affairs here.  “This is identical to holding the vote to amend the bylaws to allow felons on the executive committee before the November election,” said the source. “This will cost the [GOP] freeholder canddiates many votes.”

Murphy was not in the room last night, but there was talk of a meeting with the Democrats.

Murphy was not in the room last night, but there was talk of a meeting with the Democrats.

In any event, Murphy’s having fun with the situation at Rumana’s expense, the source confirmed. He has an army of programmable Stack-on-a-smaller-scale Election Day performers whose refusal to vote or whose stealth support for the Democrats could at the very least persuade Rumana to work harder than usual.

The storyline seemed lost on many of the people in the packed room who appeared genuinely of a mind to help the Democrats win.

When PolitickerNJ asked one of them if Murphy was around, the Democrat triumphantly immediately answered, “Sure was. He was here last week.”

Peter Murphy???

“No,” the Democrat said, “Phil Murphy.”

That’s the former U.S. Ambassador to Germany running for governor in 2017.

Somewhere Rumana was gritting his teeth and Peter Murphy was howling.

Fulop, right, avidly worked the room.

Fulop, right, avidly worked the room.

A Backroom War in LD40: The Story Behind the Dems’ Raucous Party