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Opinion: Buono Battle Over Party Chair Recalls Democratic Dustups of Years Past

At this point, making peace rather than waves is the best course for Dem's gubernatorial candidate.

The fissure in the New Jersey Democratic Party reminds me of the episode in 2000 that came to be known as "The Twelve Days of Robert Torricelli."

Jim McGreevey at the time was the putative Democratic nominee for governor in 2001, having run in 1997 and lost to Christie Whitman by just a percentage point. But all of a sudden that summer, Sen. Robert Torricelli made it known that he would like to be the gubernatorial nominee and announced it as if he felt he could muscle McGreevey aside.

Democratic leaders throughout the state started taking sides. George Norcross, the South Jersey leader then and now, was backing Torricelli. John Lynch, the Middlesex County leader and former Senate president, was backing McGreevey. Indeed, McGreevey through the 1990s had been seen as a creation of Lynch, who had determined as far back as 1988 that he couldn't run for governor himself because his wife's brother had mob connections. So he prepped "The Kid."

Norcross and Lynch were the two Democratic titans at the time. Other key Democrats started lining up behind them. Sen. Ray Lesniak, of Union County, was in the McGreevey camp from the outset. Hudson County executive Bob Janiszewski signed on with Torricelli. Every day the front page of the newspapers carried a new twist, a new endorser, a new machination, new arguments from McGreevey and Torricelli as to why each would be the better standard-bearer the following year.

It was war, and it was exciting. Norcross and Lynch agreed to do my TV program "On The Record" about five days into the fight. Norcross flew up to Newark in a helicopter, I believe, to do our interview at Don Pepe restaurant on McCarter Highway.

It was his first and last appearance on the show; he has good-naturedly declined other invitations over the years. I don't remember whether I interviewed Lynch in the field or at the old NJN studio, but each interview lasted 12 to 13 minutes and they ran back-to-back that weekend.

In the end, McGreevey and Lesniak convinced Newark mayor Sharpe James to come over to the former's side, and the dominoes fell into place. Torricelli was vanquished. Twelve days after tossing his hat into the ring.

What's going on now is similar both in structure and intensity. There are two camps, the pro-Buono and the cool-on-Buono or even anti-Buono. And their struggle over who should be the state Democratic chairman -- at least until it was resolved on June 12th -- was getting intense.

Traditionally, the gubernatorial nominee selects his or her person, who gets ratified by the 112-member Democratic State Committee the week after the June primary. But in choosing Assemblyman Jason O'Donnell, Barbara Buono selected someone unacceptable to those factions in the party who were not that enthusiastic about her candidacy in the first place. That's because O'Donnell was part of a renegade gang of nine or 10 Assembly Democrats who tried to replace Speaker Sheila Oliver with former majority leader Joe Cryan.

O'Donnell was a "finger in the eye" of Oliver and others, someone said. Senate President Steve Sweeney called it "a horrible pick." It gave the cool-on-Buono camp a rallying cry. Her first big decision, and she picks a guy who participated in a failed coup against one of our leaders?

From Buono's perspective, O'Donnell is young (41), smart, energetic, loyal, and progressive. But even one of her earliest supporters said to me when I asked for his view on the selection, "Barbara is great, but she doesn't consult well."

Ray Lesniak, who was instrumental in the intra-party war 13 years ago, became the cool-on-Buono camp's alternative candidate for state chairman. He had done it before. He's a titan. Seeing him Tuesday night June 11th on "NJ Today with Mike Schneider," he sounded like he was going to gobble up O'Donnell like a big fish gobbles up a minnow at the DSC meeting in East Brunswick two days hence.

The next day Buono cut her losses. She and Steve Sweeney put out a joint statement around 3:00 pm to the effect that they had settled on John Currie, the longtime Passaic County party chairman, to be the next state chairman. Buono believed she would have had the votes to enforce the selection of O'Donnell on Thursday night, but even if that's so it would have left the pro-Lesniak side embittered. As it is, she got someone who she had recently named a senior advisor to her campaign and someone who has been strongly supportive of her this year.

So the healing has begun. Sweeney on Friday the 14th put out a statement "endorsing" Buono, an odd thing for him to have to do after months of insisting he was supporting her, but nevertheless a pacifying gesture.

If the party were to actually begin to coalesce around Buono, she might be able to make some inroads on Gov. Chris Christie. The polls have her down by the same 30 points she's been down by for several months now -- except the Stockton College poll, which has her down by 40!

Christie keeps racking up endorsements from key Democrats: Senator and Union City mayor Brian Stack, Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura. George Norcross himself will probably not endorse Christie. As a non-office-holder, he doesn't feel it's right to do actual "endorsements." And he's too true-blue a Democrat to openly back a Republican.

But he stood with Christie in the governor's outer office June 10 ("my first time in this room in a decade") to announce a partnership between Cooper University Health Care, of which he's chairman, and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center of Houston, TX, and both Christie and Norcross acknowledged how well they have worked together.

So the pro-Buono camp has likely lost the two most important party leaders a Democrat needs to win a statewide race: DiVincenzo and, less openly, Norcross, notwithstanding the endorsement of Buono by Steve Sweeney, Norcross's best friend in the legislature.

The fear of a Christie landslide is starting to feel more palpable when you talk to Democrats. They are starting to worry just a little bit about holding their legislative majorities. As one of them said to me, if the Republicans could defeat Senator Jeff Van Drew in the first district, Senator Jim Whelan in the second, and Senator Bob Gordon in the 38th, then Christie would have a 20-20 Senate, because Senator Stack is a reliable vote for the governor on the big things.

A few months after McGreevey fended off Torricelli, he announced that Assemblyman Joe Roberts of Camden, who would later become speaker, would be his choice for state Democratic chairman when Tom Giblin's term expired in June 2001. It was a move designed to bring the South Jersey Democrats, who had led the charge for Torricelli, back into the McGreevey fold. It was a smart move.

And that's what Barbara Buono needs now, another smart move to try to heal the party. Giving up her stubborn insistence on Jason O'Donnell was a good first start.

Michael Aron is the chief political correspondent of NJTV.

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