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Former Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts. (Photo: Totten Communications/YouTube).

The story of a N.J. Assembly Democratic feud and the ‘seven southern castaways’

Removal of Sweeney from redistricting panel leads to rumors of another South Jersey revolt

By David Wildstein, January 31 2022 12:01 am

The decision of Democrats to dump Steve Sweeney, the former Senate President, from his seat on the Legislative Apportionment Commission, has led to speculation – so far unfounded, that South Jersey will retaliate through diminished cooperation with the Gov. Phil Murphy and the legislative leadership.

In late 1999, seven South Jersey Democrats bolted the Assembly Democratic Caucus and formed the Southern New Jersey Assembly Democratic Caucus.  It was headed by Joseph Roberts (D-Bellmawr), one of the most skilled politicians of his generation.

Two years earlier, Roberts had run for Assembly Minority Leader against the incumbent, Joseph Doria (D-Bayonne).  He had lost by just three votes.

As a result, Doria stripped Roberts of his job as Democratic Budget Officer.

Frustrated by their continued minority status — Democrats needed nine seats to win control of the State Assembly in 1999, but only won three in GOP Gov. Christine Todd Whitman’s second mid-term election — South Jersey Democrats thought they were being ignored.

They had no leadership positions and no seats on the influential Assembly Budget Committee.  Roberts lost his post as Democratic Budget Officer after his failed attempt to take out Doria.

A skilled politician and an exceptional head counter, Roberts saw that the votes were not there for a rematch with Doria, so he and six other South Jersey Democrats — Louis Greenwald (D-Voorhees), Herbert Conaway (D-Delran), Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D-Barrington), Mary Previte (D-Cherry Hill), Robert Smith (D-Washington), and Jack Connors (D-Pennsauken) — boycotted the vote and formed their own group.

The seven lawmakers refused to join the other 28 Democrats in the lower house in caucus meetings.  Instead, they met separately to decide how they would vote on proposed legislation.  The Republican speaker, South Jerseyan Jack Collins (R-Elmer), effectively recognized the caucus by keeping an open line of communication to Roberts.

A big part of the infighting was connected to the upcoming Democratic primary for United States Senator.  South Jersey was backing former Gov. Jim Florio for an open seat – Frank Lautenberg was not seeking re-election – but key Democratic leaders in North Jersey recruited Jon Corzine, the former Goldman Sachs co-chairman, to run for Senate.

Corzine won the primary by 69,004 votes, 58%-42%, to capture the nomination.  Florio won only six South Jersey counties against the self-funder.

The seven South Jersey Democrats sided with the GOP majority to support a $12 billion plan to finance school construction.  Most Democrats, along with the Legislative Black Caucus, opposed the bill because it imposed stricter oversight on urban school districts than its suburban counterparts.  Not all Republicans were on board and Whitman needed the seven South Jersey votes to get the bill passed.

Despite Roberts’ decision to lead a pack of Democrats out of his party’s caucus, he still won election as a Democratic National Committeemen from New Jersey in June 2000.  That came at the urging of Corzine, who was on a path to spend more than $75 million of his own money to win a U.S. Senate seat and wanted to bring South Jersey into the fold after the fractious primary against Florio.   Roberts’ election was uncontested.

Assembly Democrats were not pleased.

“The appointment conflicts with the widely held belief that only Democrats who have shown a true loyalty to our party and its cherished principles should have the opportunity to serve on the national party’s governing board,” Doria and four others in the Assembly minority leadership said in a letter to the DNC chairman, Joseph Andrew.

Roberts responded with a scorching letter that was also send to President Bill Clinton, Gore and others.

“I acknowledge that my removal (as budget officer) was the price that one pays after a leadership challenge, but Mr. Doria’s vindictiveness toward others in the caucus created a division that has severely affected our ability to work together,” Roberts said.

According to Roberts, “the pattern of saying one thing and doing another continued when Mr. Doria decided to become a candidate for mayor of Bayonne after having told the Democratic Caucus he had no intention of doing so.”

“Frankly, this distraction from his responsibilities as minority leader is troubling as is the degree to which campaign funds earmarked for Democratic legislative candidates have been used to promote his mayoral candidacy in Bayonne,” Roberts wrote.

Doria reluctantly became a candidate to protect his Assembly seat, since there was a long-standing agreement that the Bayonne mayor gets to decide who holds the city’s seat in the 31st district.

But Roberts claimed there was more to his complaints.

“Mr. Doria once again failed to keep his word.  In an effort by many party leaders in our state, an agreement was reached whereby Mr. Doria would relinquish his minority leader post and support my serving in that capacity by the 2001 legislative election cycle.  Mr.  Doria abandoned this and other agreements, though attested to by the other parties present when these arrangements were made,” Roberts told the White House and national party officials.  “I politics, your word is supposed to be your bond. Mr. Doria simply does not honor his commitments.”

Two South Jersey Democratic county chairmen, David Luthman of Camden and Michael Angelini of Gloucester, told national party leaders that Doria was present at the state party meeting that elected Roberts to the DNC but “did not utter a single ‘nay’ when the vote was taken.

“While the Assembly Minority Leader likes to talk tough, when push came to shove, he was nowhere to be found,” they said.  “It is sad that an individual a leadership position in our party could stoop so low as to attack one of New Jersey’s finest Democratic legislators yet lack the courage to speak up at the appropriate time to express his views and challenge his opponent in a fair democratic process.”

While attending the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in August that nominated Al Gore for president, Doria sought to remove Roberts from his DNC seat.  Roberts had sought a private meeting with Doria, but the minority leader told him he wasn’t authorized to sit with him.

By 2001, the feud was over.  Roberts became the New Jersey Democratic State Chairman after James E. McGreevey won the gubernatorial nomination.

On election night 2001, Democrats, bolstered by a redistricting win when a Princeton University professor named as a tiebreaker picked their map, picked up nine seats to capture control of the Assembly.

Doria thought he was about to become speaker, but McGreevey had other ideas.  As he walked off the stage after claiming victory in the governor’s race, McGreevey told another Hudson County Democrat, Assemblyman Albio Sires (D-West New York), that he wanted him to be speaker.

The new coalition, which included South and Central Jersey and lawmakers of color – and a secret ballot — gave Sires the votes he needed to win.  By the time the Assembly Democratic Caucus voted, Doria didn’t even bother running.

Roberts became the new Majority Leader, and when Sires went to Congress five years later, he became Speaker.

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