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Assemblymen Albert Burstein, left, and Byron Baer in 1977.

How Burstein got screwed out of being Assembly Speaker and Congressman

A story of classic legislative leadership fights and Hudson County turnout

By David Wildstein, December 28 2018 12:22 pm

Albert Burstein, who died yesterday at age 96, was part of one of a great legislative leadership battle in the 1970s and a legendary Hudson County political deal that upset his chances to win a seat in Congress.

Burstein was on a path to become Assembly Speaker, becoming the Assistant Majority Leader in his third term.  In those days, legislative leadership posts rotated every two years.

After Assembly Speaker Joseph LeFante (D-Bayonne) was elected to Conrgess in 1976, Majority Leader William Hamilton (D-New Brunswick) was expected to move up to Speaker and Burstein was to be the Majority Leader.

Hudson County Democrats had a different plan, with Assemblyman Christopher Jackman (D-West New York) mounting a campaign for speaker.  Jackman’s point was that Hudson had made a deal for the speakership after the 1975 election and that they ought not lose a year just because LeFante decided to go to Congress after just one year heading the Assembly.

Democrats eventually cut a deal that let Hamilton be Speaker, with Jackman becoming Majority Leader instead of Burstein.

Hamilton gave up his job as Speaker after one year to run for an open State Senate seat in 1977.

Burstein had two options: run against Jackman for Speaker or run for Congress against freshman Rep. Harold Hollenbeck (R-Rutherford) in the 1978 mid-term election.

He wanted to do both.

With Bergen County’s Democratic Assembly delegation expanding to eight seats after the 1977 election, Burstein thought he might have the votes to pull it off.

But Jackman had some significant leverage.  New Jersey’s 9th district, where Burstein wanted to run for Congress, included Union City, North Bergen and Secaucus in Hudson County.  Jackman threatened to withhold party support from Burstein for a House bid if he remained in the race for speaker.

A key Jackman ally, State Sen. William Vincent Musto, the mayor of Union City, wanted State Sen. Anthony Scardino (D-Lyndhurst) to run against Hollenbeck.

Another risk for Burstein was that Assembly Minority Whip Ernest Schuck (D-Barrington) was securing votes to become Majority Leader.  (Schuck’s legislative aide was a young Democratic operative named George Norcross.)

If Burstein ran for speaker and lost, he might be out of leadership and have a tough time winning his congressional race.

Burstein folded.  Jackman became Speaker and Burstein was the Majority Leader.

In early 1978, Burstein was seeking support to challenge Hollenbeck.  So were Baer and Scardino.

Hudson County, which produced about a third of the votes in a 9th district primary, decided they would try to take the seat in a field full of Bergen Democrats.

Meanwhile, there was a game of musical chairs going on.

Hudson County Democratic Chairman Frank Guarini was mulling a challenge to U.S. Senator Clifford Case in 1978.  He would have faced a primary challenge against former New York Knicks star Bill Bradley, State Treasurer Richard Leone, and former State Sen. Alexander Menza (D-Hillside).

Instead, Guarini said he would take LeFante’s House seat.

That made Jersey City Mayor Thomas F.X. Smith happy, since Guarini’s election to Congress would give him a chance to pick a new Hudson County Democratic Chairman.

Smith brokered a deal with Byrne, who was backing Leone for U.S. Senate.  LeFante would get a cabinet post as Commissioner of Community Affairs, Guarini would go to Congress, and Leone would get the Hudson organization line for Senate.

Nicholas Mastorelli, the executive director of the North Hudson Council of Mayors and the North Hudson Community Action Corporation, had originally been Smith’s choice to head Community Affairs.  With LeFante getting the job, Hudson County Democrats decided to run Mastorelli for Congress.

This time around, Burstein was the first to get in the race.  By March, Baer and Scardino announced they were not running.

Burstein was considered a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination, especially after Mastorelli got in some trouble by saying that Burstein was part of the Bergen County Jewish Mafia – a reference to the all-Jewish 37th district delegation of Matthew Feldman and Baer.  Byrne endorsed Burstein.

In an extraordinary upset, Mastorelli beat Burstein by 2,754 votes, a 51%-43% margin.

Mastorelli’ s win came largely on the heels of huge voter turnout – about 50% — in North Bergen, Union City and Secaucus, and relatively low turnout in Bergen.

While Burstein won Bergen County by 6,714 votes, Mastorelli carried Hudson by 8,468 votes.

Bergen Democrats criticized Burstein for a lackluster campaign.  Burstein said he was fooled by assurances from Hudson Democrats that he should not take Mastorelli seriously.

Mastorelli went on to lose the general to Hollenbeck by a 49%-38% margin, with Helstoski, running as an independent, taking 13%.

Byrne offered Burstein the post of chief counsel, but he declined.

Burstein returned to the Assembly and his job as Majority Leader.  He won re-election to a fifth term in 1979 by 8,295 votes.

Two weeks after the election, Burstein’s political career suffered a fatal setback when he lost re-election for the Majority Leader post.  Alan Karcher (D-Sayreville) defeated him by four votes, 24-20.

Some say that Byrne, miffed that Burstein turned him down, declined to call legislators to help his old friend.

Burstein mulled taking another shot at Hollenbeck in 1980, but Bergen County Democrats preferred someone else. Freeholder Gerald Calabrese, the mayor of Cliffside Park, was the first choice, but he decided not to run.

With no great enthusiasm for his candidacy, Burstein said that he would not run for Congress again.

He announced in February 1981 that he would not seek re-election to a sixth term in the Assembly. He was replaced by Bennett Mazur, a former three-term Bergen County freeholder.

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