Home>Articles>Raymond Lesniak: Settling Scores

Former State Sen. Raymond Lesniak

Raymond Lesniak: Settling Scores

Chapter 3 from Sen. Lesniak’s Book, Cultivating Justice in the Garden State: My Life in the Colorful World of New Jersey Politics

By Raymond Lesniak, April 21 2022 9:38 am

Tom Dunn and I had a long history together. He was the dominant political figure in Elizabeth from my teens to my early forties, defeating my mom’s candidate, incumbent mayor Steven Bercik, in 1964. I was too engrossed in sports to pay attention to politics at the time, but I know my mom was never a fan of Dunn. She believed he was mean-spirited, which was an insightful and accurate observation. But as he rolled to reelection victories through the turbulent 1960s and the depressing 1970s, he became something of an institution in my hometown. The high school sports auditorium is named after Dunn. For many people, Tom Dunn was Elizabeth. He was a divisive and polarizing figure, a lot like Donald Trump. He foreshadowed Trump’s attacks on Spanish-speaking immigrants when, in the 1980s, he ordered city employees to speak only English at work. Elizabeth’s hardworking Hispanic residents, who made up about a third of the city’s population, took Dunn’s edict as a personal attack. Which is exactly what it was. He was criticized, he was sued, but he refused to back down. In fact, like Trump, he doubled down, saying he would fire any worker caught speaking a language other than English while on duty.

Not far from Elizabeth’s City Hall, many Cuban exiles who fled Fidel Castro’s tyranny were opening up small businesses along Broad Street and Elizabeth Avenue, adding life to downtown. They and other Spanish-speaking immigrants didn’t feel particularly welcomed in Tom Dunn’s Elizabeth, which was ironic given that Dunn himself was the son of Irish immigrants and was as proud of his Irish heritage as I am of my Polish ancestry, and as Elizabeth’s Hispanics are of theirs. Dunn even hosted an Irish music radio program on WJDM for years. But he, like so many other descendants of European immigrants, simply didn’t see the irony of their opposition to new arrivals from South and Central America. They’d often say that their parents or grandparents or great-grandparents were “different.” Not true. The Spanish speakers on Broad Street and Elizabeth Avenue, then and now, are no different from my Polish-speaking grandparents who came to the United States for a better life. Dunn didn’t see it that way, but I did.

The mayor also projected a tough-guy image, again not unlike Trump during the protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. He saw himself as Mr. Law and Order. Early on in his tenure, deadly civil unrest broke out in Newark during five days in the summer of 1967 when a Black cab driver was beaten and arrested by two white police officers for a minor traffic infraction in Newark’s Central Ward. The National Guard was called in, twenty-six people were killed, and parts of the city went up in flames. All these years later, the state’s largest city still bears some of the emotional scars of those terrible days. Elizabeth borders Newark, and there was understandable fear in the city that the unrest might spill over. Dunn made a public show of issuing a “shoot to kill” order to police if they spotted anybody causing trouble. This illegal directive infuriated many people, but those who loved Dunn—and there were plenty of them—cheered him on. Many other people were outraged, although Dunn always said that his order prevented the unrest in Newark from spreading to Elizabeth. Despite all his tough talk, the police in Elizabeth weren’t especially fond of Dunn, no doubt because he reduced the department’s size by laying off their fellow police officers. At one point in his tenure, he was recovering at home from a medical incident following a triple-bypass operation and a call went out over the police scanner for an ambulance to respond to the Dunn residence. One wise-guy cop responded, “First one there’s a rotten egg.” Many residents were also not pleased with Dunn. One was particularly sarcastic during a snowstorm when the morning host on WJDM was taking calls from residents, many of whom complained about their streets not being plowed. The caller said, “I don’t know why everyone is complaining. I live on Applegate Avenue and a plow’s been up and down my street three times already this morning.” Dunn lived on Applegate Avenue.

When I emerged on the political scene in Union County, Dunn attempted to get on Ma Green’s good side by giving me a job as attorney with the Elizabeth Planning Department. I worked in City Hall, and often the mayor would bring me in for political discussions, most of which consisted of him telling me how to succeed in politics—one lesson was about the importance of being able to look people in the eye and lie to them. He also bragged about how he was able to get back at anyone who crossed him without them even knowing about it. This was supposed to impress me? More likely to keep me in line. I got out of there as soon as I could—but not before I rewrote the city’s Land Use Planning Ordinance. I must admit Dunn never interfered with my work or the decisions of the Planning Board on which I served as attorney. My redraft of the ordinance was tough but fair, at least in my opinion, if not in the eyes of some developers who complained, but it sailed through Council and was signed by Dunn without a whimper. After completing that task, I left and started my own law practice in the downstairs apartment of my parents’ home on Summer Street. I converted half the apartment into a law office and lived in the other half. If a client had to use a bathroom, they had to go into my living quarters. One time a matrimonial client did just that. She came back and whispered to my secretary, “I’m on welfare and I live better than my attorney.”

Later, as a newly elected assemblyman, I was expected to show allegiance to the Democratic leader in my town—and that would be Tom Dunn. But I had very little respect for him and his disrespect for the city’s Hispanic and African American residents. What’s more, I was elected despite his support for another candidate, so it’s not as though I owed him anything, although he would often mention the job he gave me at City Hall. I realized he had helped me, but that didn’t stand in the way of my objecting to the way he ran the city. I served the city well as its Planning Board attorney, laying out a framework for its responsible economic development, and I wasn’t about to stop there. I had bigger things to accomplish.

Dunn’s enemies in the city noticed me during my early years in the Assembly, and they began to see me as someone who could take Dunn down in 1980—their “Ray of hope,” as they put it. I was intrigued. Dunn had barely won reelection in 1976, scraping past an insurgent named David Conti by fewer than three hundred votes. There was a sense that the city was tired of Dunn and his hard-nosed antics. Still, running against an entrenched incumbent for any office is not something you do without a lot of thought. I knew I’d have the support of labor unions, African Americans, and Hispanics, and that would make up a formidable coalition in a Democratic primary. I was tempted, although in retrospect I realized that I allowed Dunn’s enemies to talk me into doing something I might not otherwise have done. I decided to run for mayor.

It was a pretty bold move on my part, and while I was young and new to politics, I knew the chance I was taking. It was kill or be killed. I wasn’t going to wait around for Dunn to come after me if I didn’t follow his orders. But by the same token, I was well aware there would be a target on my head if I lost.

I demonstrated quickly that I was ready to upset the comfortable status quo in Elizabeth by naming Charles Harris to run with me for the citywide council at large position. Harris was a teacher in the Elizabeth public school district and was African American. No African American had ever run for citywide office in Elizabeth before. That was the point both of us wanted to make: it was time to ensure that this important and vibrant community was recognized on a citywide basis.

Harris was an honorable person who had one request of me before agreeing to run for the post. He asked for my commitment that we would campaign together, as a team, not only in the predominately African American First and Fifth Wards, but throughout the city. It was his way of saying that he had no intention of being a symbolic candidate. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

I knew all of this would trigger an explosive response from Dunn, and I was prepared for it. But I wasn’t prepared for another kind of explosion. And neither was the city of Elizabeth.

It was ironic, in a terrible sort of way, that a business that turned a portion of Elizabeth into a toxic waste dump was known as the Chemical Control Corporation (CCC). Ironic, because the chemicals actually were out of control. On April 21, 1980, those chemicals—including cancer-causing compounds— blew up on a site owned by CCC near the neighborhood where I was born in Elizabeth. The explosion set off a catastrophic fire that enveloped CCC’s two- acre facility along the Arthur Kill waterfront. Newspapers would later report that temperatures in the fire zone reached three thousand degrees, hampering efforts to bring the blaze under control. I rushed to the scene and watched from the waterfront on Front Street, horrified as I saw smaller explosions hurl fifty-five-gallon drums filled with toxins into the air, where they then blew up. It took ten hours to extinguish the blaze, and even that was something of a miracle and a tribute to the Elizabeth firefighters and those from other municipalities that offered mutual aid. Many firefighters were injured battling the blaze itself, and years later about twenty developed life-threatening cancers, lung issues, blood disorders, and other illnesses that they believed were connected to the toxic chemicals released into the air that day, not unlike the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Scary though it was, the Chemical Control fire could have been a thousand times worse had it broken out even a year earlier. The state had begun to clean up the site in 1979 after a grand jury indicted the company’s president and two other officers on charges of illegal dumping. About eight thousand barrels, some of them leaking all kinds of toxic chemicals, were removed from the site in the months before the fire. Even more alarming, inspectors found six quarts of nitroglycerine placed on top of a pile of chemical barrels, along with nerve gas and cyanide. But even with the state taking action to clean up the site, tens of thousands of barrels were still stacked up on the day of the explosion. Months later, in a development that should have surprised nobody, the company’s former president told investigators that a group of mobsters had taken over the property in 1977, ordering him off the site and saying that they were now in charge. Anyone who watched The Sopranos decades later could picture that scene—it was based on reality. The mob bosses controlled solid and hazardous waste disposal throughout the state, and anyone who crossed their boundaries could expect retribution ranging from vandalized trucks to bodies found in car trunks under the Goethals Bridge in Elizabeth to the murder of a competitor’s wife, her body found floating face down in a pool. That all happened, and more.

Multiple federal charges were filed against the company, and a host of defendants wound up going to prison for their illegal storage of toxic chemicals. The fire and subsequent investigations of illegal dumping in New Jersey, especially revelations about the mob’s influence, damaged the state’s reputation and made it the butt of jokes—not all of them coming from comedians. A few years later, when former vice president Walter Mondale and Colorado sena- tor Gary Hart were seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984, Hart told a gathering that his wife, Lee, had been campaigning in California while he was campaigning in New Jersey, since both states would be holding primaries the same day. “I got to hold a koala bear,” Lee joked. The senator smiled and said, “I won’t tell you what I got to hold—samples from a toxic waste dump.” That stung. Mondale called on Hart to apologize, but he refused to do so. For voters in the Garden State, Hart’s words were a reminder of what we in New Jersey were up against—from both a policy perspective and for our image. I was Hart’s New Jersey campaign manager. I liked his youthful presentation, but his putdown of the state sabotaged our campaign and we got creamed.

The Chemical Control explosion went beyond the borders of New Jersey. Breezes from the west carried airborne contaminants across the Arthur Kill toward Staten Island and the rest of New York City, affecting an estimated fifteen million people and reminding policy makers across the country that environmental hazards know no boundaries. There were reports of skin and eye irritation, intestinal discomfort, and other ailments throughout the metropolitan area. People and public officials were outraged. I was among them. The Chemical Control fire confirmed my worst suspicions of what was happening along my city’s waterfront and more generally throughout New Jersey.

My mayoral campaign picked up momentum after the fire because Elizabeth residents were fed up with their city being treated as a dumping ground. People believed that surely the city government knew what was going on at Chemical Control all those years, but no one had the courage to stand up to the mob. And Dunn had his associations with mobsters. In the 1980s, he put Mafia soldier JoJo Ferarra on the city payroll as a municipal code inspector. JoJo was the personal protector of Giovanni “John the Eagle” Riggi, a member of the DeCavalcante crime family. Riggi was the leader of the “Elizabeth crew” in the family where he was a caporegime. Only in New Jersey.

There were three candidates in the mayoral race, complicating matters for an insurgent like myself. There was Dunn himself, of course. But like me, he was running without the support of the powerful Union County Democratic Party. The organization spurned the incumbent in favor of David Conti, who had come within a couple hundred votes of beating Dunn four years earlier. I suppose I could have dropped out of the race and backed Conti when the party gave him the nod, but the anti-Dunn faction saw him as a lesser version of Dunn. The Conti camp was interested in defeating Dunn, but not interested in social justice issues, a cornerstone of my campaign. I campaigned alongside Charles Harris and my other council at large candidates through- out the city and tried to emphasize the need for new blood in City Hall, but in the end Dunn carried the day. I finished a strong second, well ahead of Conti. That alone was a bit of a moral victory, since the party had resources I didn’t have. And I obviously didn’t have Dunn’s power of incumbency. But still, it was a loss. I never liked losing, but then again, I wasn’t terribly upset. I never really had my heart in the campaign. I felt worse for Harris and our sup- porters because they took the loss harder than I did. I knew I’d be returning to Trenton, where I’d be able to work for change in Elizabeth even though I wasn’t mayor. It didn’t occur to me, at least not right away, that Tom Dunn would be looking for revenge. I think he started planning it on Election Night.

I was up for reelection to the Assembly in 1981 and was pretty confident about my chances, especially as I emerged as a champion of environmental protection. The Chemical Control disaster prompted my sponsorship of legislation that required strict licensing requirements for transportation of solid and hazardous waste and drove organized crime out of the business. I was too young and perhaps too naïve to have any fear of retribution, nor was there any, other than a brick through the plate-glass window of my law office. The legislation is still referred to as a milestone in New Jersey’s efforts to rid the state of unlawful, unregulated, and mobbed-up companies in the trash and hazardous waste disposal business. It was my second victory to protect the environment over powerful opposition. (My first victory involved the preservation of the Pinelands. More about that in a bit.) There were plenty more victories to come.

It wasn’t only the mob that created thousands of toxic sites throughout New Jersey. Because of lax federal and state environmental regulations, New Jersey, with its huge petrochemical industry, was drowning in a sea of contaminated properties, many of which were abandoned. Others just went about their business contaminating land, water, and air without much of a peep from state and federal regulators. I changed that dynamic with the Environmental Cleanup Responsibility Act (ECRA), which required companies to clean up their sites before any sale of their property or before a cessation of operations. But there already were thousands of abandoned sites that needed to be cleaned up that didn’t have a responsible party to pay for its cleanup. While ECRA was forcing responsible parties to clean up contaminated sites and put them back to productive uses, I sponsored a law placing surcharges on petrochemicals coming into the state, which provided a revenue source to clean up the abandoned toxic properties. Opposition from the national petrochemical industry was intense, but I had established the high ground on the need to clean up New Jersey from being a chemical wasteland. Opponents gained little support from my colleagues in the legislature or from Governor Tom Kean, but they were persistent and determined.

Opposition came not only from the petrochemical industry but also from the entire business community—bankers, developers, realtors, the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, and the Chamber of Commerce. They insisted that ECRA would ruin New Jersey’s economy. The opposite was true.

With ECRA and the surcharge on petrochemicals, tens of thousands of contaminated sites were cleaned up. Without these two laws, New Jersey would be swimming in a toxic mess and our economy would have been ruined. By that time, because of the horrifying stories of contamination and pollution in the press nearly every day, I could have gotten a ham sandwich passed by the legislature if it was good for the environment. My victories made me a champion of the environment in a state and at a time that desperately needed an environmental champion. The petrochemical industry, how- ever, did not give up after ECRA was signed into law. When Jim Florio, then a member of Congress, sponsored the federal superfund bill, the industry stopped making payments into New Jersey’s fund, asserting federal preemption. I put on my lawyer’s hat and filed a lawsuit—Lesniak v. United States—in federal district court, seeking a declaratory judgment that my law was not preempted. The court agreed. It was another notch in my environmental belt. In politics, the more notches in your belt, the easier it becomes to gather more.

Not only had I compiled a good record on environmental policy, but my legislative office helped many constituents with their needed services from government. People in Elizabeth knew they could come to my district office with their problems and complaints, and my political allies in the Union County Democratic organization knew that I was reliable and a person of my word—which is no small virtue in the world of politics. I assumed that record alone would get me support from the Union County Democratic organization as I prepared for reelection in 1981. The key to getting ahead in New Jersey politics is having the county organization’s line. Running with the support of the party’s machinery is important everywhere, but it’s especially so in the Garden State, where our county organizations are stronger than in other states. I took nothing for granted, but I also had no reason to think that the county organization would turn its back on me. I should have been prepared. A Dunn ally, Dennis Estis, had become county chairman. I took a head count of my support as I moved into campaign mode. The organization’s municipal chairs in Linden, Carteret, and Rahway were in my corner, which was the majority I needed to secure the organization line. Only Elizabeth, which was controlled by Dunn, was not on my side. Plus, I had other friends in the organization, thanks to Ma Green’s legacy (she had passed away by this time) and my mother’s decades of work on the party’s behalf. What I wasn’t counting on, but should have been, was Tom Dunn’s determination to take me out. It was politics in its most basic and brutal form. I tried to beat him and failed. Now it was time for him to exact revenge.

Dunn played his cards perfectly. He was working against me behind the scenes, and I was blissfully unaware. On the night of the voting, the Rah- way Democratic chair flipped against me, and Dennis Estis, the Union County Democratic chair, broke a tie in favor of Dunn’s choice, who of course also had the vote of Elizabeth’s chair. Estis told me I had no chance of winning and it would be in my best interest not to run. After all, he said, “don’t you have a law practice to be concerned about?” A thinly veiled threat. Not running never crossed my mind. I was too stupid to realize I had no chance of winning. Dunn had arranged to dump me in favor of John Surmay, who was the city’s director of health, welfare, and housing. And now I had all of two days to gather petition signatures so that I could run “off the line”—meaning on the equivalent of a third-party line. Of course I had to do all of this by myself and with my cadre of supporters without help from the Union County Democratic Party. The organization wasn’t about to help me now that I was cast aside. I later learned that one of my presumed allies, the chair of Rahway’s organization, had sided with the Dunn faction after being promised a $10,000-a-year part-time job as a legislative aide. Malheureusement, he never got the job because I defeated his candidate. If you wonder why politicians prize loyalty, that’s why. Politics is a volatile business, and politicians need to know who will stand by them and who might not. The Rahway chair turned against me for a $10,000 promise. Loyalty doesn’t have a price tag.

Gathering signatures to get a ballot line, not just for me but for three candidates for freeholder, was a formidable task and was necessary to form a line and not be buried on the ballot. But I had a cadre of supporters who were upset with the treatment I got from the Democratic organization and got the number of petition signatures needed to secure my own line in the election. I turned over my petitions to a young volunteer, James Devine, who was an ardent enemy of Dunn because of a tussle Dunn had had with his dad. I gave him a train ticket to file my petitions with the secretary of state in Trenton.

After he returned, Devine said to me with an impish smile, “If Dunn was willing to promise the Rahway Democratic chair ten thousand dollars to knock you off the line, how much do you think I could have gotten to toss your petitions in a trash can and knock you off the ballot.” We both laughed, but it was an indication of how Devine’s mind worked. He would later become a controversial political consultant with a particularly devious side to him.

I knew I could count on many to work on my behalf and pound the pavement in Elizabeth and throughout the district, including organized labor activists who were on my side and who hadn’t forgiven Dunn for supporting Richard Nixon in 1972. They also were grateful to me for my efforts to get a new exit ramp off the Turnpike into Elizabeth, a project that opened the area for development—which would include the Jersey Gardens Mall and Ikea— and create thousands of jobs. I also had the good fortune to have support from the most popular political figure in Union County. The day after I was knocked off the party line, my campaign got a big boost when respected Union County sheriff Ralph Froehlich announced he would be my reelection campaign manager, despite running himself for reelection on the organization line, an unheard-of action.

Froehlich, a former Elizabeth police officer, remembered I had supported him in his entry into politics against the Dunn political machine. It was an admirable position for Froehlich, a Marine veteran, but in military terms, it would be called an action above and beyond the call of duty. Dunn’s candidate, Surmay, had the county organization on his side, but I had my supporters on the ground. And soon I had something more: In the aftermath of the Chemical Control disaster, more barrels of toxic waste were found in Elizabeth. Dunn got into a feud with environmental officials about how to handle the issue. I had a simple question: who was in charge of health issues in the city of Elizabeth? Wouldn’t you know—that job was held by my opponent, John Surmay. I made sure to make that point. What’s more, as chairman of the Assembly’s Environmental Protection Committee, I was in position to investigate what was going on along the city’s waterfront and pass legislation to clean up the mess. Governor Byrne, in appreciation of my support for the Pinelands Protection Act, sent DEP commissioner Jerry English to helicopter in for a campaign rally. Environmentalists from throughout the state volunteered and went door-to-door on my behalf. While I wasn’t prepared to get knocked off the party line, I left no stone unturned during the campaign.

My Election Night party was at, of course, the Bayway Polish Home. Things were looking good. During the day, I received a call from a reporter with WPIX, the station that covered New Jersey politics, asking where I would be taking election results that night. I told him where and asked if he would be coming to interview me. The reporter said, “Actually, it’s only a story if you lose.” Yikes. Over at my opponents’ headquarters, it was like a wake. Dunn’s candidate, John Surmay, was devastated. He was told nobody runs off the line and wins, but the race was never about, at least in my mind, who would win, but about who would come in second to me. There were two Assembly seats in play, the other was won by Tom Deverin, not John Surmay. Thanks to my extensive support, my activism on environmental issues, and my mother’s network of friends, I won a smashing victory, taking more than fourteen thousand votes to Surmay’s seventy-five hundred. We were so confident that as a lark my campaign produced flyers touting my three county freeholder candidates who were on the ballot only to give me a line so I wasn’t buried on the ballot. They had no chance of winning countywide. We distributed the flyers in the home district of the county chairman, Estis, just to get him riled up. Oh, the silliness of youth. And its arrogance.

Speaking of arrogance, when asked by a reporter how it felt to be knocked off the Union County Democratic organization line, I responded, “I am the Union County Democratic organization.” Oops. Nevertheless, my victory surely was sweet vindication for me and a huge embarrassment for Dunn, who spared no moment campaigning against me, even firing a young campaign volunteer who was an umpire in the Elizabeth Recreation Softball League. His name was Chris Bollwage. Big mistake. So now it was my turn to go after Dunn. I had matured enough to wait for the optimum time to strike back. As the next battle in our feud began to take shape with the coming of a new decade—the 1990s—I was in a much stronger position and was about to get even stronger. By then I was in the state Senate (more on that later) and was up for reelection in 1991. I had continued to champion environmental causes, sponsoring the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Pesticide Control Act. Although I took nothing for granted, I had every reason to believe that voters would reward me with another term based on my work in Trenton and in the district. But I heard through the grapevine that Dunn was looking to challenge me in a primary. Dual office holding was commonplace in New Jersey back then and still is to some extent, although the practice has been severely limited. Dunn had held my Senate seat for four years in the 1970s while serving as mayor. Now he wanted it back. I don’t think he was pining to return to Trenton so much as he wanted me out of the way.

Dunn would have been a formidable challenger. I was no fool—I knew that beating him would certainly be satisfying, but it would also take significant energy and resources. Maybe, I thought, there was a way to avoid this battle while also preparing for the next one. That’s the hallmark of any good strategist: fight the battle you choose to fight, when and where it’s most advantageous. I came up with a plan, and while it was a pretty crafty bit of New Jersey politics, it involved disappointing a friend and supporter.

Chris Bollwage, the young man who had been fired from his job as an umpire in Elizabeth because he supported me over Dunn’s candidate in the 1981 Assembly race, was now a member of the Elizabeth City Council, representing its Fifth Ward. He was not just an ally but a friend, and remains one all these years later. Chris wanted to run for an Assembly seat that became vacant because of redistricting. He understandably expected my support for his bid to become one of my two legislative running mates. I had another idea, and I knew it was not what Chris wanted to hear. My plan was to offer Dunn the Assembly seat in exchange for him agreeing not to run against me for Senate. A sell out? I’d call it practical. If I had to fight Dunn again, I wanted it to be on a field of my choosing, and at a more advantageous time. Besides, I was also setting a trap.

Dunn took the bait and agreed to run for the Assembly with my support. This wasn’t the kind of news you break to a friend over the phone or, these days, by text message. I wanted to look Chris in the eye and tell him the truth—the opposite lesson that Dunn tried to teach me years earlier, when he talked about being able to look people in the eye and lie to them. I invited Chris to a Devils hockey game at the Meadowlands Arena. Sitting in the box of team owner John McMullan, I got around to shop talk. “Chris,” I said, “you’re not going to be my choice for Assembly.” He hadn’t seen this coming. He was stunned. “Who is it?” he said, sounding very disappointed. I didn’t hesitate. “Tom Dunn,” I said. His jaw dropped. It took a moment for Chris to make sure he had heard correctly and maybe to look into my eyes to see if I was playing some kind of cruel practical joke. “What?” he said. “Why, Ray? Why? What about me and why Tom Dunn?”

That’s when I let him in on my cunning plan. “Chris,” I said, “you’re going to run against Dunn for mayor next year. And when you do, you’ll be able to attack him for holding two offices at the same time.” Chris and I both knew that Dunn almost lost his reelection in ’76 when Conti attacked him for being mayor and state senator at the time. Pretty good plan, I thought. But Chris still was shocked, and at the moment, it’s safe to say he didn’t see how this was going to work out. But work out it did. Dunn went on to win the Assembly seat, and I was reelected easily, but I hadn’t forgotten Dunn’s threat to challenge me. It just had to wait for the right time, as the poet Lady Mary Montgomerie Currie wrote: Tout vient a qui sait attendre. All good things come to those who wait.

Back to the Assembly—I returned to Trenton in 1982 after my victory over John Surmay, determined to continue my work on environmental issues and to support my running mates, State Senator John Gregorio and Assemblyman Tom Deverin. Both were to the right of my liberal beliefs, so we agreed to disagree on some issues while uniting on others as we fought on behalf of our constituents. One issue we did agree on led to a vote to reinstate the death penalty—a vote I later came to regret and which I felt the need to repent and repair. New Jersey, like other states, was considering passage of legislation reinstating the death penalty after the U.S. Supreme Court reversed its previous position that it constituted cruel and unusual punishment. State death penalty statues had been tossed out in 1972 in the Court’s Furman v. Georgia ruling, which faulted how, when, and where capital punishment was applied. All death penalty sentences reverted to life in prison after the Furman decision. But then in 1976, in Gregg v. Georgia, the Court reinstated the death penalty because it found sentencing guidelines had improved and made its application less capricious. But new state death penalty laws had to be written to comply with the Gregg decision.

The death penalty was popular—national polls at the time showed that about two-thirds of the country favored capital punishment. Many cities were experiencing high murder rates, which people believed were the result of not having the death penalty. New Jersey was no different in that regard. There was a clamor to return to the days of capital punishment, and legislation to do just that made its way to the Assembly floor. It gave many lawmakers the opportunity to brandish their “law and order” credentials—a senator from South Jersey, Joe Maressa, spoke in favor of the death penalty bill on the Senate floor but argued that capital punishment didn’t go far enough. Only in New Jersey.

Not long thereafter, Maressa decided not to run for reelection after he and several other New Jersey politicians got caught up in the Abscam debacle. Maressa was prosecuted for taking ten thousand dollars from a supposed Arab sheik. Maressa came up with a novel argument to defend himself: he said it was “patriotic” of him to take the money because it meant money from OPEC would come back to the United States. Only in New Jersey.

I took the politically expedient route and voted to reinstate the death penalty. Years later, after a spiritual conversion, I championed abolishing the death penalty. It was an evolution of my soul that changed my position. I cast another important vote during my Assembly years, and this was one I never regretted. I was the deciding vote on a bill to increase the drinking age from eighteen to twenty-one. States were under pressure from the federal government to raise the drinking age to twenty-one in the early 1980s. I was on the fence about the issue—I saw merit in both sides of the argument. We had sent eighteen-year-olds to the battlefields of Vietnam back when I was young, and we continued to recruit young people still in their teens for our armed services. Were we really saying that somebody eighteen, nineteen, or twenty was old enough to die for our country but not old enough to buy a beer? Then again, studies seemed to show that at least some of the carnage on our roads and highways—more than fifty-one thousand Americans died in car accidents in 1980—could be reduced significantly if we raised the drinking age.

I was still sorting things out one Sunday night—the night before the vote— as I drove home from a ski weekend at Hunter Mountain in the Catskills. My car broke down on the way to the New York State Thruway. Luckily I had one of the first car phones. It had to weigh ten pounds. I called a gas station, whose owner came by and picked me up in his tow truck. After some small talk, I told him I had to get back to New Jersey the following day to vote on a bill to raise the drinking age. I still wasn’t sure how I was going to vote, and I told him that. I was just making conversation, so I wasn’t expecting what came next. The driver was quiet for a second and then he started crying. He reached up to his visor and showed me a picture of his daughter. She looked to be about eighteen years old. He said his daughter was dead, killed several years earlier by a drunk driver. A teenage drunk driver. “You’ve made my decision for me,” I told him. “I’m going to vote yes.” The driver said, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” He fixed my car that night, and I was in Trenton the following morning. The bill passed with no votes to spare.

Even though I wasn’t exactly a political veteran in Trenton, I didn’t shy away from flexing some political muscle, even when the battle was with other Democrats. I was determined, even then, to leave a mark and to earn a reputation as somebody who could withstand intense political pressure. After the 1980 census, New Jersey, like every other state, had to draw up new maps for its congressional and state legislative districts, which the legislature had to approve.

At one point late in the process, the legislature was presented with a congressional redistricting map that had the support of Governor Byrne, Assembly Speaker Jackman, Senate President Merlino, and the entire Democratic congressional delegation. But I had a problem with the map, even if all those Democratic leaders liked it. The man who helped inspire me to enter politics, Adam Levin, was getting ready for a rematch in 1982 with Congressman Mat- thew Rinaldo, who beat Levin in 1974. I had told Levin that I would support a new map only if Rinaldo’s district, the Seventh, was drawn in a way that made it more competitive for Democrats. But the map the Democratic leaders drew up did not accomplish that goal. The lines may well have been drawn up by Rinaldo; if fact they were. Rinaldo had more Democratic than Republican friends because he crossed party lines often. So I balked, and I wasn’t alone. I had become close friends with my colleagues Bob Janiszewski of Hudson County and Bill Flynn of Middlesex County. We shared a summer house in Point Pleasant, which had a cast of friends—Jim McGreevey, my best friend Marilyn Lennon, Senate Democratic flack Jim Manion, state Senator John Russo’s daughter Carol Russo, and Paul Byrne. I also shared a ski house at Hunter Mountain with Janiszewski and Flynn, and together we formed a caucus of three working on Levin’s behalf. Along with the legislature’s Republicans, we stonewalled the leaders’ map. Republicans hoped for a stalemate, which would throw the map making into the court where they believed, understandably, they would get a better shake. We wanted a map that would give Levin a fighting chance against Rinaldo. That’s how politics works, and it has served us well for more than two hundred years, never mind what took place on January 6, 2021. Governor Byrne was puzzled that the map that the entire Democratic leadership supported had not been approved. He sent his chief of staff, Harold Hodes, to ask what I wanted in exchange for my support for the map. I told Hodes that nothing would change my commitment to Adam Levin. He then went to Janiszewski and Flynn, and they pointed to me. Hodes went back to the governor’s office in something less than a good mood. Years later Hodes told me he told Byrne that I wouldn’t change my mind even if the State House fell on my head. And he was right.

The map was amended to make it friendlier for Levin, or any Democrat for that matter. It was invariably described as looking like a fishhook—the district included Elizabeth, ran down the Route 1 corridor to include several Democratic municipalities in Middlesex County, and then moved south to Princeton before finally curling up to take in parts of Republican Monmouth County. It’s not just Republicans who gerrymander districts. Levin wound up losing the rematch despite all that effort. But my toil on Levin’s behalf and my willingness to stand up to the governor, my own legislative leaders, and the Democratic congressional delegation earned me credibility in the State House and in the broader world of New Jersey politics. My candidate lost, for which I was very sorry, but I emerged a winner because I was willing to take a stand and fight for my position. People noticed.

I switched positions in the State House in 1983 when I won a special election for state Senate when the incumbent, John Gregorio, resigned from the Senate and from his job as mayor of Linden after he was convicted of income tax evasion, hiding his financial interest in two go-go bars in the city. (At my request Governor Tom Kean later pardoned Gregorio, who made a remarkable comeback, winning election as mayor again in 1990. More on that later.)

Gregorio was well respected in the Senate, and while he was on trial, Senate Majority Leader Tony Scardino pulled me into a walk-in coat room at Lorenzo’s Restaurant in Trenton, a favorite gathering spot for legislators and lobbyists, and said, “We’re going to have a conversation that never took place. If Gregorio goes down, will you be his replacement?” I said yes. “Okay,” Scardino replied. “This conversion never took place.” Scardino was afraid Gregorio would find out that he was asking about his replacement while he was fighting in court to save his seat. I’ve used Scardino’s phrase now and then in the years since: We’re going to have a conversation that never took place. My election to replace Gregorio after his conviction was without much drama other than some procedural craziness. I ran at the same time in both the special election to fill Gregorio’s seat until the end of his term the following January and also for the Democratic nomination for the entire term, which was for two years. (In New Jersey, Senate terms are for four, four, and two years to correspond to the ten-year census.) I had different candidates running against me in the two elections on the very same day. Voters had to vote in two voting machines that were adjacent to each other. I cut through any confusion with a campaign theme, “For Clean Air and Clean Water, on Election Day, you can vote twice for Lesniak for Senate” and “For Job Creation, on Election Day, you can vote twice for Lesniak for Senate.” It was a brilliant campaign message created by political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who was later instrumental in the successful political campaigns of Mike Bloomberg and Andrew Cuomo in New York.

My transition to the Senate was seamless. After my farewell speech to the Assembly, I was sent off with the running joke when a member of the Assembly went to the Senate: the average IQ of both Houses went up. As I walked through the corridor to the Senate chambers, I was stopped by a very outspoken senator, Frank Graves, who jokingly said, “Lesniak, there’s not room enough in the Senate for both of us.”

I remained friendly with my Assembly colleagues and continued to hang out with my Assembly buddies Bob Janiszewski, Bill Flynn, and Dennis Riley at the shore in the summer and at local ski resorts in the winter. Inevitably, given my own work ethic, there was some mixing of business with pleasure. For example, I wrote significant parts of the Environmental Cleanup Responsibility Act (ECRA) while drinking beer—I hadn’t discovered wine yet— during a weekend at Riley’s Elk Mountain resort home in the Poconos. Our favorite hangout at Hunter Mountain was the Hunter Village Inn, where, in addition to featuring local rock-and-roll bands, a mug of beer cost twenty cents! We used to buy five at a time for a dollar to bring to our group of revelers.

Not long after I got to the Senate, my colleague Dick Codey—a lifelong teetotaler—shamed me into settling down. “Ray,” he said, “you’re in your mid- thirties and you’re still partying as a teenager.” That really got to me. It truly was time to settle down. I bought a retirement home for my parents in Monmouth Beach, where I could go on weekends in the summer, and gave up my winter and summer party rentals at Hunter Mountain and Point Pleasant. My friend Don Petroski would bring his thirty-five-foot boat to the canal off the Shrewsbury River to the Monmouth Beach home and would take my dad and me to cruise by the tall ships when they docked in the Hudson River. We circled the Polish ship and saluted its sailors. It was a special treat for my dad.

But I still had to settle a score with Tom Dunn.

I was in a perfect position to influence Democratic Party politics throughout the state and especially in my hometown and my district. Governor Jim Florio, who succeeded Tom Kean in 1990 and had been a champion of environ- mental issues when he was in Congress, named me as chairman of the state Democratic Party in 1992. He knew he was going to be in the political fight of his life the following year because of the outcry against tax hikes he rammed through the legislature to close an enormous budget deficit. He needed a warrior on his side to ward off a primary challenge. Florio decided I was that warrior.

But before Florio hit the campaign trail, there was another election that meant a lot to me: the mayoral contest in Elizabeth. Tom Dunn was intent on winning an eighth term. And I was equally intent on making sure that didn’t happen. As state Democratic chair, I had the resources and power I needed to make sure it didn’t happen. My candidate was Chris Bollwage, the young Council member I had disappointed a year earlier when he wanted to run for Assembly. He got over it and now was all-in with my plan to bring real change to the city we both called home. Needless to say, throwing the weight of the state party behind an insurgent against a Democratic mayor of the state’s fourth-largest city was an extraordinary and risky move on my part. Dunn, of course, was furious. He asked the state attorney general to investigate me for using state Democratic Party funds to support Bollwage. I did no such thing, but I did use my considerable political power to raise campaign funds for Bollwage. Dunn didn’t like it, to say the least. Too bad. It was perfectly legal. If Bollwage lost, I was a goner as state chairman, and Dunn would come back at me again. But putting aside the personal animosity and rivalry between us, I believed that Dunn’s policies and politics belonged to the past, if they ever actually belonged at all, and that it was time for a mayor who was connected to the new Elizabeth of the late twentieth century. Our first poll, by John Anzalone of Frederic Schneiders Research, showed that we had our work cut out for us. Dunn came in at 30 percent, another candidate, Councilman Bob Jaspan, had 21 percent, and Bollwage was third at 17 percent. Some people were understandably worried about it, but I took one look at the cross-tabs, smiled, and said, “We’re going to win.” If you looked past the top-line numbers, it was clear to me that Dunn and Jaspan didn’t have enough support to move beyond the numbers they already had. Only Bollwage had room to grow. And he did. Bollwage was a fierce door-to-door campaigner and out- worked them both. Bollwage also had a great message: nobody should be mayor for more than twenty-eight years. (Ironically, Bollwage was reelected in 2020 to his eighth four-year term.)

We put together a diverse team of at-large Council candidates, including Patricia Perkins, who would go on to become the first African American to win a citywide race, and Orlando Ehreida, who would become the first Hispanic elected official in Elizabeth’s history.

Dunn decided to go after me personally in the late stages of the campaign, sending out multiple mailings that attacked me for raising campaign contributions from out of state for Bollwage and other attacks against me personally. It was unusual, to say the least, for a campaign to attack someone other than the opposition candidate. We didn’t know how to respond, or even if we should. So I decided to call one of the smartest political consultants I had met through his work with me at the State Democratic Party, James Carville. James was working for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, but he took the time to hear me out as I explained the situation. Carville took it all in and then asked, “Are you on the ballot?” The answer was obvious. “No,” I said. “Then don’t do anything,” replied Carville. We didn’t. We ignored the mayor’s attack and instead kept the focus on Dunn. There was no need for me to get into a contest with Dunn when I wasn’t even on the ballot. Dunn was just wasting campaign funds.

It was clear as Election Day approached that Bollwage had momentum and posed a real threat to Dunn’s long tenure—there were adults in Elizabeth who had never known anybody else but Dunn as their mayor. On the day before the election, Florio’s chief of staff, Joe Salema, asked me how I thought the vote would go. “We’ll win by about fifteen hundred votes,” I said. “Good,” Salema said, with a knowing look in his eyes. “That’s good.” Salema and I both knew the consequences if I was wrong. I would have had to resign as state chairman, which would have been bad not only for me but also for Florio, since I was his protection against any insurgent Democrats thinking about challenging the governor the following year. On the night before the election, some of our young and mischievous campaign volunteers celebrated the end of an arduous few months with some playful shenanigans. The mayor’s campaign slogan that year was “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” which was pretty much the only message he had left after nearly a quarter century in office. A few volunteers pasted bumper stickers across Dunn’s signs, reading, “It’s broken.”

I had the usual Election Day jitters as the polls closed, and we waited for returns at the home of our supporters, John and Joann Malone. The first results were from my own home election district—Dunn took it by twenty-two votes. I was pretty shaken up because these were my neighbors and friends. Bollwage noticed that I had gotten quiet, and he reminded me that it wasn’t just my district, it was Dunn’s home base as well. “He should have carried it by fifty votes or more,” Bollwage said. He was right. My mood brightened. An hour later, we were ahead by a thousand votes with just four districts left to count. There was no longer any doubt. I grabbed Bollwage and John Malone (a future superior court judge) and we shared a big group hug. The victory party went on for hours. Cars drove past our party at the Cedars Restaurant on North Avenue in Elizabeth (now the site of a school named after my former teacher, Chessie Dentley Roberts, an Elizabeth education and civil rights trailblazer) honking their horns. I saw a lot of happy faces that night, but none as happy as mine. Elizabeth had a new mayor, and my nemesis was beaten for good.

Excerpted with permission from Cultivating Justice in the Garden State: My Life in the Colorful World of New Jersey Politics by Raymond Lesniak with a foreword by Bill Clinton published by Rutgers University Press. Copyright © 2022 by Raymond Lesniak.

Spread the news:

 RELATED ARTICLES