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Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso (R-Holmdel). (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Does Monmouth GOP risk DiMaso joining lawsuit to end organization lines?

Losing party support is often a death knell to incumbent legislators, but not always

By David Wildstein, February 08 2021 12:41 am

As county chairs from both parties grow increasingly concerned over a federal lawsuit that seeks to end the practice of preferential ballot position for organization lines, a move to dump an incumbent lawmaker in Monmouth County could provide progressive plaintiffs with a key conservative Republican ally.

Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso (R-Holmdel) is on the chopping block and if Republicans wind up denying her party support for a third term, she could sign on as a supporter of the War Against the Line.

Organization lines generally produce victories, even against incumbents, although not necessarily by wide margins.

Monmouth County Republicans tossed 79-year-old Assemblyman Joseph Azzolina (R-Middletown) off the organization line in 2005 and replaced him with Amy Handlin, a freeholder and former township committeewoman from Middletown.

Azzolina, who had been in the legislature on and off since 1965 – including a term in the Senate – had financial resources and his own political base.  He retained the line in Old Bridge, the only Middlesex municipality in the 13th, and decided to run again.

On the line in Middlesex, Azzolina beat Handlin by just 573 votes, 76%-24% in the head-to-head race.  But Handlin had the line in Monmouth and carried the county by 1,197 votes, a 58%-42% margin.

With both lines holding, Handlin ousted Azzolina in the primary by 624 votes.

Old Bridge is now in the 12th district, and DiMaso doesn’t have another county to rely on in her current district.

Middlesex County Democrats dumped four-term Assemblywoman Arline Friscia (D-Woodbridge) in the 19th district in 2003.  She ran off the line and lost the Democratic primary to Perth Amboy Mayor Joseph Vas by 735 votes.  (Friscia later switched parties, ran as a Republican in the general election and lost by 3,197 votes.)

Usually incumbents get smoked once they lose part support

In 2007, five-term Assembly Speaker Pro-Tempore Wilfredo Caraballo (D-Newark) lost the support of the Essex County Democratic Organization after North Ward Democratic leader Stephen Adubato, Sr. decided to take him out.

Caraballo had voted against a sales tax even after Adubato told him not to.

In the 29th district, Essex Democrats backed Grace Spencer, an ally of then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and Ironbound community leader Albert Coutinho, who had briefly served as an assemblyman for eight months a decade earlier.

Off the line, Spencer and Coutinho swamped Carballo, who lost the primary by 5,448 votes.

In the other Newark legislative district in 2007, the 28th, six-term Assemblyman Craig Stanley (D-Irvington) lost the organization line after he became ensnarled in the politics of a State Senate primary.

That year, Essex County Democrats Freeholder Bilal Beasley for State Senate against Ronald Rice (D-Newark), a seven-term incumbent who had an on-again, off-again relationship with the Essex County Democratic Committee.    Rice beat him by 475 votes, 52%-48%, but lost his two running mates, Stanley, and freshman Assemblywoman Oadline Truitt (D-Newark).

The organization went with Cleopatra Tucker (D-Newark), whose late husband had held the seat until his death days before the 2005 election, and Essex County Freeholder Ralph Caputo (D-Belleville).

Stanley almost won off the line.  Tucker beat him by just 127 votes.  Truitt trailed Caputo, the top vote-getter, by 627 votes.

(Caputo’s election to the Assembly marked a historic legislative comeback: he had been a Republican assemblyman from 1968 to 1972.)

In 2009, Stanley tried his own comeback, but list by a 3-1 margin.

Rice, who has served in the Senate since 1986, has been tossed off the line three times but Democrats have not bene able to beat him.

Still, some of the contests were close.

After Newark Mayor Sharpe James, Rep. Donald Payne (D-Newark), State Sen. Wynona Lipman and Adubato backed for former Newark police officer Larry Brown in the 1997 Democratic primary, Rice ran off-the-line and won by 1,218 votes, 53%-47%.

He defeated former Assembly Minority Leader Willie Brown (D-Newark) in the primary by 986 votes, 54%-46% in 2001, despite James backing Brown.

Former Gov. Richard Codey (D-Roseland), the longest-serving legislator in New Jersey history, has won a few primary fights, on and off the line.

The first time Codey ran for the Senate, for an open seat in 1981, the line produced a 55% win over his two Democratic rivals, West Orange Councilwoman Gayle Brody Rosen (33%) and Orange Councilman James Brown (12%).

Two years later, Codey swamped Orange Mayor Joel Shain, whose off the line challenge was the nastiest and most expensive challenge in Codey’s 48-year legislative career.  Codey won by 9,543 votes, 63%-19%, in a race that also included former Essex County Freeholder Russell Fox (9%).

Essex Democrats dropped five-term Assemblywoman Mildred Barry Garvin (D-East Orange) from the line in 1986.  Running of the line, Garvin lost to Stephanie Bush by 1,259 votes.

When Garvin mounted a comeback bid in a 1991 campaign for State Senate, Codey – with party support — beat her by 3,064 votes, 61%-39%, in the Democratic primary.

In 1993, Thomas D’Alessio, who was the Essex County Executive and the Democratic county chairman, tried to take out Codey, then the Senate Minority Leader..

D’Alessio backed Orange Mayor/Assemblyman Robert Brown, but Codey beat him by 4,885 votes, 60%-40%.

The Senate fight cost Quilla Talmadge (D-East Orange) her Assembly seat.  Essex County Freeholder LeRoy Jones and Montclair attorney Nia Gill ran with Codey and beat Talmadge and Montclair Councilwoman Delores “Bobby” Reilly by more than 7,000 votes.

Gill ran for the Senate in 2001 after redistricting created a new East Orange to Clifton district at the expense of Republican State Sen. Norm Robertson (R-Clifton).  Running on the line in the Democratic primary, she defeated Essex County Freeholder Sheila Oliver by 8,243 votes, 78%-18%.

But two years later, Gill faced a primary that nearly ended her career.

Gill has backed Thomas Giblin against Joseph DiVincenzo in the 2002 Essex County Executive primary. In 2003, she rejected the organization line to run on an off the line slate that included East Orange council candidates backed by Mayor Alan Bowser.

The organization line went to Jones, now the Essex County Demcoratic Chairman.  Gill won by a narrow 1,017 votes.

A new district, with two open Assembly seats, caused Codey to reject the organization line in 2001 in a bid to pick his own running mates.

Running unopposed for Senate, Codey headed a rival line with West Orange Mayor John McKeon and Orange Mayor Mims Hackett running for the Assembly. Running off the line, the Codey slate just narrowly defeated the organization candidates, Freeholders Linda Lordi Cavanaugh and Patricia Sebold.  They trailed Hackett by 626 and 711 votes, respectively.

After State Sen. Leonard Lance (R-Clinton Township) resigned in January 2009 to take his seat in Congress, Assemblywoman Marcia Karrow (R-Raritan) and Assemblyman Michael Doherty (R-Oxford) competed in a special election convention for the Senate vacancy.

Karrow defeated Doherty at the convention, 195-143.  Doherty gave up his Assembly seat to run against Karrow in the GOP primary.  Off the line, Doherty beat Karrow in Hunterdon by 526 votes, 52%-48%, and won Warren, which had no line, by 471 votes, 53%-47%.

The Hudson Democratic line collapsed in 1983 when Nicholas Sacco, the North Bergen mayor,  challenged incumbent State Sen. Thomas Cowan (D-Jersey City). Sacco beat Cowan by 7,046 votes, 67%-33%.  Cowan was defeated, in a small part, because Sacco called him and he never returned the call.  Assemblyman Anthony Impreveduto (D-Secaucus) ran off the line with Sacco and still won.

Two years after endorsing Gov. Christine Todd Whitman for re-election – and 13 years after running for Congress as a Republican, West New York Mayor Albio Sires unseated an incumbent in the Democratic Assembly primary.

Hudson Democrats gave their line to Sires, who defeated four-term Assemblyman Louis Romano (D-West New York) by 9,302 votes.

After five-term State Sen. Joseph Bubba (R-Wayne) fell out of favor with the Republican leaders of Passaic County, County Chairman Peter Murphy and Sheriff Edwin Englehardt, he ran off the line in the 1997 primary and lost by a 2-1 margin against Freeholder Norman Robertson.

In Morris County, which was lineless until 2021, a 72-year-old, three-term Republican senator lost the Republican primary.

James Vreeland (R-Montville) had been slated to become Senate Minority Leader in 1982, but lost a leadership race to a younger upstart, Donald DiFrancesco (R-Scotch Plains).

Sensing some weakness, two-term Assemblywoman Leanna Brown (R-Chatham), 53, took on Vreeland in the GOP primary and beat him by 389 votes, 52%-48%.

In a Hudson County State Senate primary in 2007, the powerful Democratic organization line didn’t matter.

In a race for an open seat between Union City Mayor Brian P. Stack and West New York Mayor Sal Vega – both were incumbent assemblymen – Stack ran off the line and scored a jaw-dropping 77% vote win in the Democratic primary.  Stack ran up a 13,477-vote margin against Vega, the organization candidate.

In 2001, South Jersey Democrats were prepared to throw eight-term State Sen. Raymond Zane off the organization line and back Steve Sweeney, a Gloucester County Freeholder.  Side-stepping a primary he would have surely lost, Zane switched parties and ran for re-election as a Republican.

Sweeney still beat him, by 1,735 votes, 51.5% to 48.5%.

A fight in Hudson County in 2003 cost Joe Doria, a former Assembly Speaker, his seat after 24 years.

A fight for an open State Senate seat led Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham to run off the line against the organization choice, Jersey City Councilman Harvey Smith.

Cunningham won the primary, and brought Louis Manzo (D-Jersey City) and Anthony Chiappone (D-Bayonne) in with him.

Some incumbents have survived being tossed off the line

One of the most memorable examples of an assemblyman winning without party support was in 1979, when the Middlesex Democratic organization tossed David Schwartz (D-Highland Park) from the organization line.

Schwartz was a Rutgers political science professor who won an open Assembly seat in 1977 when John Lynch (D-New Brunswick) retired from the Senate and was replaced by Assembly Speaker Bill Hamilton.  He edged out Piscataway Mayor Ted Light for the support of the Middlesex County Democratic organization.

The former Highland Park council president could be abrasive, but few in the legislature worked as hard.

Light was anxious to go to the legislature and launched a bid to take one of the two 17th district Assembly seats.  He persuaded the county chairman, Nicholas Venezia, partly by threatening to run off the line himself.

Venezia chose to drop Schwartz and not three-term incumbent Joseph Patero (D-Manville), honoring a deal he made with Somerset County Democrats to get one of the Assembly seats in a district that included Manville and Franklin Township.

That deal went badly for Middlesex after Somerset Democrats voted to back Schwartz on the line with Patero.  After Venezia had a little chat with Patero, it was agreed that the incumbent would eschew the line and run with Light in Somerset.

Also in the race but running separately, was Steve DeMicco, the 27-year-old executive director of New Jersey Public Interest Group (PIRG).  DeMicco now works as a political consultant.

In order to secure a better ballot position, Schwartz recruited three of his friends from Highland Park to for Middlesex County freeholder on a line her formed.  One of the freeholder candidates was Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers political science professor of national prominence.

Schwartz turned out to be a vociferous campaigner.  He said that his constituents ought not be deprived of effective representation just because a few political bosses wanted someone else.  He secured the endorsement of the New Jersey AFL-CIO, much to Venezia’s chagrin.

The race between Schwartz and Patero got especially bitter during the final days of the campaign.  Schwartz filed a libel suit against Patero after a campaign leaflet with his former running mate’s disclaimer alleged that he backed legislation to lower the legal age of sexual consent.

Both had voted for a bill that changed the consent age from 16 to 13 as part of sweeping changes to the criminal code, and many legislators claimed ignorance to that particular section of the legislation.  Both Schwartz and Patero voted to raise the age back to 16.

Light said he approved the flyer, and the printer made a mistake.

Primary Day was a romp for Schwartz, who won 5,494 votes.  Patero finished second with 3,786 votes, just 196 votes ahead of Light.  DeMicco finished third with 2,720.  Schwartz beat Light in Middlesex by 1,204 and in Somerset by 700 votes, a near 2-1 margin.

Schwartz outraised Light by a 3-1 margin, $33,000 to $11,000.  Patero reported raising less than $1,000 and DeMicco had a haul of $7,300.

One primary New Jersey didn’t get to see was for State Senate in the 25th district in 1993.

Senate Majority Leader John Dorsey, under fire for a myriad of issues that ultimately caused him to lose the general election, was facing a Republican primary challenge from 30-year-old political newcomer Christ Christie.

But Christie didn’t get enough valid signatures on his petitions and a judge knocked him off the ballot.

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