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Op-Ed: Codey Crashes the Party by Bashing the Bosses

With all eyes on national convention, Codey exposes rift among NJ Democrats.

While most of the state’s leading Democratic figures were in Charlotte, awash in the enthusiasm and euphoria of the party’s national convention, Essex County State Sen. Dick Codey brought them thumping back to earth --- some say reality --- with his comment on the condition of the party in New Jersey:

“We’ve got to stop letting party bosses dictate our agenda and enabling Mr. Christie, when he’s wrong, to succeed.”

While Codey loves to crack wise about people and politics, when he turns serious he chooses his words carefully, assesses their impact, and anticipates a reaction.

There’s not a great deal of political insight required to determine who Codey had in mind when he spoke of “party bosses” --- South Jersey leader George Norcross who masterminded Codey’s ouster as Senate President; Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo who played a central role in deposing Codey in return for the selection of Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver --- a county employee in the executive’s office --- as Speaker; and Newark power player Steve Adubato Sr., whose close association with Gov. Chris Christie has helped them both.

Codey is still smarting from his defeat at the hands of Gloucester County’s Steve Sweeney, whose political career has been guided by Norcross. Both DiVincenzo and Adubato have delivered key votes in the Legislature for major elements of Christie’s agenda, including those bitterly opposed by organized labor.

Codey’s comment gave public voice to the just below the surface grumbling of a number of legislative Democrats; namely, that the party has failed to utilize its majority status to present a credible counterpoint to the Governor, giving in instead to the “party bosses” whose primary interest is in solidifying a power sharing arrangement of sorts with Christie.

The Governor’s accommodation with Norcross, DiVincenzo and Adubato has never been hidden. He’s appeared at numerous public events with each of them; they’ve been effusive in their praise of Christie and he of them.

The South Jersey/Essex County alliance has been bolstered frequently by Hudson County Sen. Brian Stack who routinely breaks ranks with his party and votes with Christie, including supporting two of the Governor’s nominees to the State Supreme Court, both of whom were rejected by the Democratically-controlled Judiciary Committee.

While Codey’s comments exposed a rift in the party, they’ll have no impact on the November election. President Obama has a comfortable lead in New Jersey, as does U. S. Sen. Bob Menendez in his re-election bid. Moreover, none of the state’s incumbent Democratic members of the House is considered vulnerable --- particularly with a strong showing expected at the top of the ticket --- and it is a virtual certainty that the party will remain in control of the delegation.

Codey could only be looking toward the gubernatorial and legislative election of 2013, subtly suggesting that the party’s chances of retaining legislative control and possibly re-taking the governor’s office will be diminished if they are perceived as responding to the wishes of “party bosses” rather than addressing the needs and concerns of their traditional constituencies.

Codey, of course, has been mentioned as a gubernatorial candidate and his comments could be construed by some as an opening move to position himself as an outsider --- ironic in light of his 38 years in the Legislature --- but one unbossed and not indebted to regional or county powerbrokers.

He received generally favorable reviews for the year and a half he spent as acting governor following the resignation of Jim McGreevy and seriously considered running for the office in his own right in 2005. He abandoned the idea when then U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine let it be known he was willing to spend $60 million of his own money on his gubernatorial campaign. To this day, there are Democrats who remain convinced Codey would have been elected rather handily, would have compiled a record far superior to Corzine’s, and would have been a better than even bet to defeat Christie in 2009.

Should Codey decide to seek the party’s nomination next year, the bad blood that exists between him and Norcross in particular, along with his differences with DiVincenzo and Adubato, present a considerable challenge. Primaries are party-managed elections in which base and organization are crucial (along with a good deal of money, naturally), and Norcross, DiVincenzo and Adubato possess all three.

The primary may be a crowded one as well, with the likes of Newark Mayor Cory Booker, State Sen. Barbara Buono, party chairman John Wisniewski, and Sweeney mentioned as possible contenders.

It could simply be, though, that Codey’s comments were intended to put potential nominees on notice that distancing themselves from the “party bosses” would be a wise move.

He might have meant it as a shot across the bow, but it was more like a torpedo amidships.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

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