Englewood Mayor Has a Head Start

Posted April 28, 2008 at 6:29pm

Second of two parts

During the course of the inter-party frenzy that has been stirred up in New Jersey by Rep. Robert Andrews’ surprise Democratic primary challenge to Sen. Frank Lautenberg, it’s been interesting to watch just how strongly the rest of Andrews’ Garden State Democratic House colleagues have stuck by the side of the longtime Senator.

[IMGCAP(1)]While those New Jersey Congressmen are all quick to say that they are supporting Lautenberg because of their genuine love for the man, the more cynical political pundits in New Jersey point out that several also have their eyes on the 84-year-old Senator’s seat. Thus, Andrews’ challenge presents a clear and present threat to their future aspirations.

Democratic Reps. Frank Pallone, Steven Rothman and Rush Holt are the names most often mentioned for a future Senate run, and their North Jersey districts present an obvious place to start for a look at the Congressmen of tomorrow in the northern half of the state.

Pallone’s 6th district seat stretches from the industrial communities in Middlesex County to the Atlantic beach towns of Monmouth. While it’s expected that Pallone will have no trouble winning re-election in the 6th as long as he likes, several state legislators are rumored to be waiting in the wings when the 11-term Congressman decides to leave his House seat. They include state Sen. Barbara Buono (D) and state Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D). State Sen. Joe Vitale is also mentioned by Democrats, and though he is from outside the district, he currently represents a portion of the district in Middlesex County.

One well-known Monmouth County resident who would bring instant (perhaps universal) name recognition to a Congressional bid is Garden State icon Jon Bon Jovi. Not that the rock star has indicated any interest in a seat in Congress, but at the very least Bon Jovi is expected to be harboring some political ambitions. Reports in New York papers last fall that Bon Jovi, who is a Democrat, was considering a future gubernatorial bid sent Garden State political blogs into a mini-frenzy.

Traveling up the Jersey coast to Rothman’s northeast 9th district seat, you’ll find that the political ambition to be a bit easier to read. In fact, Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes (D) already has a campaign Web site and Federal Election Commission account, although he’s not a candidate this year.

“I have decided to open a Congressional account for a future race because I would like to serve in Congress when an opportunity presents itself,” Wildes says on his Web site. “Unfortunately, I alone do not determine the timetable for that opportunity to serve. An opening may present itself sooner than expected, so I have to conclude that I must prepare for that possibility.”

Wildes’ $590,000 war chest as of March 31 is a testament to just how prepared he is. In promoting his future candidacy, Wildes also stresses his job as Englewood mayor, which was the same post Rothman once held before he ran for the House.

But Wildes isn’t the only Democrat said to be harboring Congressional ambitions. State Sen. Paul Sarlo and Passaic County Freeholder Valerie Huddle are two other ambitious state legislators mentioned by New Jersey Democratic insiders.

In Holt’s 12th district, which includes Trenton and large portions of central New Jersey, Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D), who is also a former Franklin mayor, and Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer are two often mentioned names. Chivukula, who is very active in the party and is an Indian-American legislator in a district with a significant Indian-American population, has also been mentioned for Pallone’s seat. Palmer is the first African-American mayor of Trenton as well as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Republicans, meanwhile, remain keen on conservative activist Bill Spadea, who was the 2004 candidate against Holt. In that race Spadea lost by 19 points.

Elsewhere in Northern New Jersey the presence of a large bench of rising stars is no less strong than it is in the three seats that would most likely be affected by a future Senate opening.

Cory Booker is the high-profile mayor of Newark, and he’s being viewed as a possible future challenger to Rep. Donald Payne (D) in the 10th district.

Since winning his 2006 election, Booker has thrown his support behind candidates in state and local races who have challenged Payne-backed candidates and some state Democrats wonder if he’s setting himself up for a Congressional challenge. Others think Booker is thinking bigger, perhaps a race for Senate or governor.

In taking over the Newark mayor’s office Booker pushed a reform agenda in a city that had come to be known for corruption. His popularity and national prominence have only increased since then.

But some New Jersey Democratic insiders say a Congressional bid from Booker may come later rather than sooner.

Booker “has pledged to do so much in Newark it’s hard to see him bail out of there anytime soon,” one Garden State Democratic source said.

Over in Pascrell’s 8th district, the Congressman’s son, Bill Pascrell III, is said to be a logical successor to his father. The younger Pascrell has not run for office but has been very involved in his father’s campaigns.

Up in the north-central 7th district seat being vacated by Rep. Mike Ferguson (R), the future is now for local up-and-comers.

In what continues to be a narrowly split district, Democrats had been optimistic about state Assemblywoman Linda Stender’s (D) chances this year, but they became downright giddy after Ferguson made a surprise announcement in November that he plans to retire at the end of his term.

The decision by the 37-year-old Congressman hands Democrats one of their best pickup opportunities of the cycle.

Stender lost by just 1 point to Ferguson in 2006, and she began ramping up her fundraising operation even before Ferguson disclosed his retirement plans. Meanwhile two top-tier candidates are competing in the GOP primary: state Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance and Kate Whitman, the 30-year-old daughter of former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R).

Another Northern New Jersey Republican that GOP officials hope to see return to the Congressional scene one day is state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. Kean, who lost a bid for the U.S. Senate in 2006 and the GOP House primary in the 7th district to Ferguson eight years ago, is the son of popular former Gov. Tom Kean (R).