Home>Governor>A coup d’état in the State Assembly — and the week of five governors

Rep. Albio Sires. Photo by Nikita Biryukov for the New Jersey Globe.

A coup d’état in the State Assembly — and the week of five governors

Newly-elected governor backed a hostile takeover of the New Jersey General Assembly

By David Wildstein, August 13 2019 1:46 am

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Politics stopped for a week on September 11, 2001 after the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center.

The Republican gubernatorial candidate, former Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler, was in Israel on 9/11 and unable to return to New Jersey for a week.

McGreevey beat Schundler by 328,679 votes, a 57%-42%.  Schundler carried only Morris, Somerset, Sussex, Warren and Hunterdon – and Cape May by 353 votes.

Demcorats picked up 9 Assembly seats, giving them control for the first time in a decade.  Minority Leader Joseph Doria, who was also the mayor of Bayonne, had been waiting to again become Assembly Speaker since he was ousted in the 1991 anti-Florio Republican landslide.

McGreevey’s first act as the governor-elect was to back Albio Sires, (D-West New York), then a freshman assemblyman and the mayor of West New York, to run against Doria.  Joseph Roberts (D-Bellmawr), who led a group of seven South Jersey legislators to withdraw from Doria’s caucus, was running for Majority Leader on Sires’ ticket.

Roberts and Doria have been at odds since 1998, when the Camden County Democrat nearly defeated Doria for Minority Leader. Roberts became State Chairman as part of an accommodation with South Jersey Democrats during the 12 Days of Torricelli.

McGreevey and Doria have never been political allies. Doria supported Rep. Rob Andrews (D-Haddon Heights) in the 1997 gubernatorial primary against McGreevey. In 1998, McGreevey campaigned against Doria in his successful race against Bayonne Mayor Leonard Kiczek, and Doria backed Torricelli for governor.

Doria’s support eroded rapidly during the week as McGreevey applied extreme pressure to Democratic legislators.

For a very short time, the possibility of a second coup existed in the Senate.  McGreevey insiders briefly discussed a plan that would make State Sen. Bernard Kenny (D-Hoboken) the Co-Senate President if Hudson Democrats were to drop their support of Doria and back Roberts for Speaker.  It was only one of the ideas thrown up against the inside walls of the McGreevey camp but was considered strong enough to at least send out some trial balloons.

Senate Republicans lost five seats in 2001, leaving the upper house evenly divided at 20-20.

That crated a small constitutional crisis for a state that was still eight years away from electing a lieutenant governor.

DiFrancesco’s term in the State Senate – he didn’t run for re-election – was due to expire one week before McGreevey’s inauguration.  That meant the new Senate President would become governor for one week.

In a complicated line of succession, Democrats and Republicans agreed to a power-sharing agreement where Codey and John O. Bennett III would serve as co-Senate Presidents.

Still,  there is no such thing as a co-Acting Governor.

Codey and Bennett agreed to split the week, with each serving as Acting Governor for 3 ½ days.

The 84-hour Bennett administration was full of hoopla and fanfare.

He moved into Drumthwacket, printed letterhead, and had pens made that said “John O. Bennett III, Acting Governor” to use when he signed his name to official documents.  He delivered the State of the State address to the Legislature, hosted an engagement party for his daughter at the governor’s mansion, and issued daily schedules for himself and his wife, the Acting First Lady.

He even pardoned an old friend and campaign contributor.

The definitive historical account of the Bennett governorship was written by the New York Times’ David Kocieniewski, who said Bennett carried himself “with the measured exuberance of a high school yearbook advisor” and said that John and Peggy Bennett “toured New Jersey like a conquering Caesar visiting the provinces.”

Also in 2001, Hudson County Executive Bob Janiszewski, one of the most powerful Democrats in the state, resigned his post and disappeared amidst considerable speculation that was in a federal witness protection program.  It is now known that he was a federal cooperating witness and working at a ski shop in upstate New York.

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