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For Buono, Party Leadership Fight Was Battle for Survival

Currie inherits divided party, unprecedented challenge of two statewide elections 20 days apart.

On the surface, it looked like a battle of egos between Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), the Democratic nominee for governor, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D- Gloucester). After all, Sweeney forced out the headstrong Buono as his Senate majority leader two years ago when she fought publicly against the controversial pension and health benefits bill that Sweeney teamed up with GOP Gov. Chris Christie to pass.

But the struggle over the state Democratic Party leadership that was resolved last night with the compromise election of John Currie, the longtime Passaic County Democratic chairman, was really a war over power and money. The unspoken -- and unanswered -- question is whether the party will put its muscle behind Buono if she fails to close a 30-point gap with Christie quickly enough to satisfy party leaders, or pour all of its resources into the special U.S. Senate election and a handful of contested suburban legislative districts instead.

“We’re going to fight north to south, east to west, and we’re going to have a Democratic governor!” Currie proclaimed last night.

But Currie acknowledged in an interview after the convention that Christie’s decision to hold a special election for the U.S. Senate just 20 days before the November election for governor and the Legislature -- a decision upheld by a three-judge Appellate Division panel yesterday -- could force an underfunded Democratic Party into tough choices about where to put its money.

That’s why Buono fought so hard to put in Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell (D-Hudson), an ally she felt she could count on not to give up on her uphill gubernatorial race. Meanwhile, Sweeney and much of the party establishment, including South Jersey powerbroker George Norcross and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, backed Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union). They felt they could trust the veteran political operative to make pragmatic decisions about where to put money if a Christie landslide threatened Democratic legislative seats.

Buono last night said she was satisfied with the choice of Currie.

“I’ve known John Currie for ten years and I’ve looked to him for his guidance and counsel,” Buono said. Currie publicly backed her right as the gubernatorial nominee to select O’Donnell as party chairman until Wednesday, when Buono and Sweeney met and agreed on him as a compromise pick.

“I trust him implicitly,” Buono said.

She will have to.

“It’s a long way to November, and we will look at where we stand as we move forward,” Currie said. “We will put the party’s resources where they are most effective. We have to be concerned about the governor, the [U.S.] Senate, and the Legislature, but we are also concerned about our down-ballot candidates because control of county and municipal offices is just as important.”

Buono and Sweeney received enthusiastic ovations last night as they addressed the Democratic State Committee before it voted to ratify Currie as their compromise choice.

“I know this has been a rough two weeks for all of us. The right thing to do for the Democratic Party is to pull together and unify,” Buono told the crowd at the East Brunswick Hilton. She thanked O’Donnell and Lesniak for stepping aside in favor of Currie for the sake of party unity, warmly lauded the selection of her choice Lizette Delgado as the party’s first Latina vice-chair, and then introduced “my good friend Senator Sweeney.”

“We’re together. We have a common enemy,” Sweeney declared, referring to Christie.

Despite Buono’s and Sweeney’s affirmations of unity, Currie inherits a Democratic Party more deeply divided than at any time since the it split over Gov. Brendan Byrne’s seemingly impossible 1977 bid for reelection after pushing through New Jersey’s first state income tax. “One-Term Byrne,” as he was dubbed, barely survived a six-candidate primary, then trailed Republican Sen. Ray Bateman by 17 percentage points among likely voters in late July before pulling out a comfortable win in November.

Byrne, however, did not have to compete with a national media sensation like Christie, who already has peeled off the endorsements of DiVincenzo, Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson), his Assembly running mates and 23 other Democratic mayors and elected officials, and has a solid working relationship with Norcross, the state’s most powerful unelected political leader and Sweeney’s political guru.

Nor did Byrne have to compete for attention and money with a U.S. Senate race featuring four heavyweights like Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Congressmen Frank Pallone and Rush Holt, and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) vying to fill the vacancy left by the death of U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.)

“We have a governor who refuses to sign an early voting bill to increase voter turnout because it would have cost too much money, but he is sure willing to spend money to suppress it,” Buono said. “He is somebody who is singularly focused on what he has to do to become president of the United States.”

Sweeney and Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson-Coleman (D-Mercer), Buono’s campaign chair, also excoriated Christie last night for spending $24 million to hold a U.S. Senate primary August 13 and a special U.S. Senate election October 16, instead of saving $12 million by putting the U.S. Senate race on the regular November 5 ballot when the governorship and all 120 seats in the Democratic-controlled Legislature will be up for election.

In upholding Christie’s decision yesterday, Appellate Division Judge Jane Grall wrote in a unanimous decision that the three-judge panel’s reading of the election statute shows that “without question, the Legislature has authorized the governor to select the date of the special elections.”

The panel said that “policy decisions . . . such as the wisdom of the expenditure required to conduct a special election” were beyond the purview of the court. It also noted that the Democratic legal challenge failed to establish its voter suppression argument that “the right to vote is impermissibly burdened” by holding two elections less than three weeks apart.

Currie said last night that the Democratic Party would review the ruling before deciding whether to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

New Jersey voters disapproved of Christie’s move to spend $24 million on the special elections by a 42 percent to 32 percent margin in a Monmouth University Poll released yesterday. But the political fallout is likely to be short-lived and on the whole, it looks to be a brilliant political move by Christie for his November reelection campaign.

With such “establishment” Republican leaders as Sens. Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Union) and Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth) deciding to sit out the Senate race -- most likely with Christie’s tacit encouragement --Republican Steve Lonegan, former director of the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity and a conservative with a devoted grassroots base, gets to run against Dr. Alieta Eck, a political unknown, in a race that Christie can safely ignore.

Lonegan undoubtedly will raise substantial sums for his own race from conservative supporters across the country, including the wealthy Koch brothers, who are eager to try to capture a Senate seat in a Northeast “blue state.”

That leaves Christie, who raised and spent $6.5 million this spring in a virtually uncontested primary, free to raise millions more in an effort to trounce Buono so decidedly in the November election that he vaults to the top of the Republican presidential contender list and carries in a slew of GOP legislative, county, and municipal candidates on his coattails.

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, the four-way U.S. Senate race between Booker, Pallone, Holt, and Oliver promises to soak up media attention and Democratic money for the next two months, which could very well undercut Buono’s efforts to close the gap with Christie in the polls.

Currie said the Democratic State Committee would stay neutral in the Senate race and that any of the four candidates could count on the party’s full support if he or she wins the primary. Booker, in particular, would be heavily favored over Lonegan in the October 16 special election, although he would need to make sure his get-out-the-vote efforts are sufficient to match the fervor of Lonegan’s conservative base in what is likely to be an election with lower-than-usual turnout. The party would have to work harder for Pallone, Holt, and Oliver, whose name recognition and positives, are not as high as Booker’s.

The real question, though, is how much Buono can count on the party’s support.

For the most part, DiVincenzo, Stack, and the Democratic mayors who endorsed Christie over the past week can afford to do so because their political bases are so solidly Democratic that their candidates would not be threatened by a Christie landslide victory.

Norcross faces a more difficult strategic decision. The South Jersey powerbroker is defending three of the five most vulnerable Democratic-controlled districts -- including Sweeney’s 3rd District -- and his power in Trenton rests on his continued control of 18 out of 21 South Jersey Senate and Assembly seats covering all of Camden, Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland, Cape May, Atlantic, and parts of Burlington and Ocean counties.

While the legislative redistricting map clearly solidified the Democratic hold on those South Jersey seats, a Christie landslide, especially in an election that could have lower-than-usual turnout because of the Senate election less than three weeks before, could pose an unknown threat. After all, Republican Gov. Thomas Kean unexpectedly carried in a GOP-controlled Assembly in his 1985 landslide reelection win.

The question for Norcross then is whether he needs Buono to develop into a stronger candidate statewide to cut into Christie’s air of inevitability or if he is better off if Christie maintains a huge lead in the polls.

An evidently insurmountable Christie lead would make it easier for Norcross and other Democratic leaders not enamored with Buono’s candidacy to urge Currie to focus the party’s resources on turning out the vote to protect Norcross’ 1st, 2nd and 3rd districts; the Democratic incumbents that Christie and the GOP will be targeting in Bergen’s 38th District; the 14th District spanning Mercer and Middlesex counties; and the 27th District running from western Essex into the eastern Morris suburbs.

Currie and Watson-Coleman, however, expressed confidence that Buono would close the gap with Christie.

Currie expressed confidence that the constitutional amendment on the November ballot to raise the minimum wage would help bring out the Democrats’ 700,000-vote advantage in registered voters.

“John Currie’s going to mobilize and energize the party,” said Watson-Coleman, a former Democratic Party chair herself. “And he knows how to turn out the vote.”

Currie’s get-out-the-vote efforts in Passaic County were a key factor in Congressman William Pascrell’s surprisingly lopsided upset victory over fellow Democratic Congressman Steve Rothman in their bitter 2012 primary battle after a new congressional redistricting map thrust both incumbents into a new Bergen County-dominated district.

“There are a lot of people up in Passaic County who owe their political lives to John Currie,” Buono said.

She’s hoping to add her name to that list.

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