The Domino Effect

Posted May 4, 2005 at 6:26pm

As a handful of New Jersey Democrats quietly position themselves to move up to the Senate early next year, there is a much longer list of state lawmakers and local officials waiting in the wings and dreaming of an open House seat. Democratic Reps. Robert Andrews, Bob Menendez and Frank Pallone have been the most active — both publicly and behind the scenes — in jockeying to succeed Sen. Jon Corzine (D) if he wins the governorship in November.

If elected, Corzine, who currently leads a crowded GOP field by double digits, would appoint his Senate successor in early 2006.

That person would then likely run for a full term in November 2006, although some have suggested that Corzine could choose a placeholder instead.

If Corzine does appoint a House Member it could also set up a special election to fill the vacancy, although the state currently has no legal mechanism for the governor to call an early special election. If a special election isn’t called, the House seat would remain vacant and candidates would be forced into a six-month sprint to the June 2006 primary.

The 1st, 6th and 13th districts all heavily favor Democrats, and in each case it is likely that a crowded field of ambitious politicians would line up to gain their party’s nod.

Because New Jersey’s legislative elections are held in odd-numbered years, members of the state Legislature do not have to give up their seats to run for Congress.

“It could make for some real nasty primaries,” noted one New Jersey Democrat.

Menendez, who has represented the North Jersey 13th district since 1992, has the most obvious heir apparent.

Current General Assembly Speaker Albio Sires (D) would be the 800-pound gorilla in any race to succeed Menendez, who is privately saying he plans to run for Senate regardless of who gets the appointment.

Sires, who recently announced that he will not seek another term as Speaker, also serves as mayor of West New York. He was elected to the Legislature in 2000 and in 2002 became the first Hispanic to serve as Speaker.

Sires would likely have the backing of the Hudson County Democratic machine (including Menendez) if he runs.

Still, Sires could face a competitive primary. Assemblyman Joe Vas, the mayor of Perth Amboy, is one of the more prominent names mentioned. Vas, 50, was just elected to the Assembly in 2004. Perth Amboy is one of the largest cities in the southern end of the district, but the district’s political power base is primarily centered in the northern half and Hudson County.

Other potential candidates mentioned include Assemblyman Brian Stack, Hudson County Clerk Javier Inclan and Hudson County Executive Thomas DeGise.

While there already appears to be a clear favorite to succeed Menendez, the opposite is true in Pallone’s sprawling 6th district, where there is no frontrunner among the long list of possible successors who have been mentioned.

The awkward district, which runs along the Jersey shore through Monmouth and Middlesex counties and takes in a small portion of Union County, does not contain any state legislative district in its entirety.

Pallone has mounted a public campaign to win Corzine’s endorsement for the Senate appointment. However, he is not expected to run for Senate if someone else is chosen.

Among the possible Democratic candidates if there is a vacancy in the 6th are state Sen. Barbara Bono, Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula and Assemblyman John Wisniewski.

Bono, 51, serves as Senate conference chairwoman. She spent eight years in the Assembly before being elected to the Senate in 2001.

Chivukula, 54, is also a member of the Franklin Township Council, while Wisniewski, 42, serves as a deputy speaker and chairman of the Transportation Committee.

State Sen. Bob Smith (D), who primaried Pallone in 1992, has also been mentioned. However, he closed his federal campaign account at the end of the third quarter last year.

Other Democrats mentioned include state Sen. Joe Vitale, a Deputy Majority Leader, Corzine’s state director Maggie Moran and Edison Mayor George Spadoro.

Pallone’s district has the fifth-highest median income in the country, and some observers say there’s a good possibility that a wealthy candidate might come out of the woodwork to vie for the seat.

Still, history is on the side of the career politicians. Only three of the 12 Garden State House Members have no previous service in the state Legislature, as a mayor or on a local Board of Chosen Freeholders.

Geography could also play a prominent role in an open-seat race. Most of the legislators mentioned for Pallone’s seat hail from Middlesex, where the Democratic Party is more organized and therefore those candidates are generally thought to have the upper hand.

State Sen. Ellen Karcher and Assemblyman Michael Panter, both of whom are based in Monmouth, are also mentioned as possible contenders, even though both live in the neighboring 12th district.

While Pallone’s district heavily favors Democrats, Republican state Sen. Joe Kyrillos is also mentioned as a possible general election candidate. Kyrillos, a former chairman of the state Republican Party, has served in the Assembly since 1988.

Kyrillos challenged Pallone in 1992, winning 45 percent of the vote even as Bill Clinton won the district with 44 percent of the vote in the three-way presidential election. The district has since been redrawn, and it voted 57 percent for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in last year’s White House race.

Meanwhile, in Andrews’ Camden-based 1st district, the most talked about potential candidates include Assemblyman Lou Greenwald and state Sen. Steve Sweeney.

Greenwald, 38, is the chairman of the Assembly’s Budget Committee. Sweeney, meanwhile, would likely have heavy backing from organized labor if he were to run.

The 1st district is also home to current Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Roberts, who is set to become the new Speaker.

Other Democrats mentioned are Washington Mayor Paul Moriarty and Assemblyman David Mayer.

Regardless of who runs for Andrews’ seat — whenever it becomes available — it’s certain that his successor will depend largely on George Norcross, the undisputed Democratic power broker and kingmaker in South Jersey’s Camden and Gloucester counties.