President-elect George W. Bush announced in December 2000 that he would nominate New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman to serve in his cabinet as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Next in New Jersey’s line of succession was Senate President Donald DiFrancesco.
DiFrancesco was already facing a fierce primary challenge against Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler when Whitman’s January 31, 2001 resignation made him governor. A February 2001 Quinnipiac poll had DiFrancesco leading Schundler by 29 points, 45%-16%.
A general election poll showed McGreevey with a 41%-26% lead over DiFrancesco and was ahead of Schundler, 46%-22%
Despite a decade as the second most powerful guy in Trenton, DiFrancesco was virtually unknown to most New Jerseyans. He had favorables of 17%-5%, with 63% of the state having no opinion of him at all. Democrat James E. McGreevey, who had nearly been elected governor four years earlier, started out with favorables of 17%-6% — a very public demonstration of how quickly voters forget.
DiFrancesco’s incumbency became his own albatross, and it might have been better for him if Whitman had never left. He was under constant fire, with the revelation of ethical breaches that drove up his negatives and caused his candidacy to virtually implode – mostly at the hands of the New York Times, which put DiFrancesco under enormous scrutiny with a series of damning stories about his legal and business dealings.
The media – still relevant in 2001 — became obsessed with DiFrancesco’s personal and business life, and the feeding frenzy produced one bad story after another. And there was no sign that it was about to let up.
Within a matter of weeks, DiFrancesco’s reputation and 25-years of legislative accomplishments had been complete eclipsed by the news reports that defined him. Party leaders, first privately and then, in some cases, publicly, began to doubt DiFrancesco’s ability to win.
As the filing deadline came and went, there was a sort of death watch as New Jerseyans waited to see if DiFrancesco would drop out.
Jersey being Jersey, DiFrancesco signed a bill moving the primary date from June 5 to June 26 – a new legislative district map had created mass confusion anyway – giving DiFrancesco more time to decide if he would remain in the race.
In the end, DiFrancesco put his family first and ended his campaign for governor in a painful but open news conference for selected statehouse reporters. In retrospect, DiFrancesco may have been better off enjoying his year as governor without the encumbrances of running for office. DiFrancesco was personally unprepared to have his private life scrutinized, and not ready to handle the pressures of serving as Senate President, Acting Governor and gubernatorial candidate.
Former Rep. Bob Franks (R-New Providence), who entered the race as DiFrancesco’s replacement candidate, lost the primary to Schundler.