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The year the Assembly had three party switchers

Legislators in Bergen, Hudson, Middlesex left the Democratic Party in 2003

By David Wildstein, October 19 2019 4:32 pm

After Assemblywoman Arline Friscia decided to switch parties and seek re-election as a Republican in August 2003, then-Assembly Speaker Albio Sires removed her as Assembly Labor Committee Chair and replaced her with Joseph Egan, a freshman Democrat from New Brunswick.

Egan has chaired the Labor Committee ever since, making him the longest-serving committee chairman in the State Assembly.  He has been an officer of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) union for the last 60 years.

Democrats won control of the Assembly in 2001, after a favorable redistricting map helped them pick up 9 seats for a 44-36 majority.

By the summer of 2003, the majority had dwindled to 41 seats – just enough to pass a bill along party lines, if freshman Assemblyman Jeff Van Drew (D-Dennis) was on board.

Three Democratic legislators switched parties in 2003. Matthew Ahearn, left, joined the Green Party; Rafael Fraguela, center, and Arline Friscia, became Republicans.

On January 24, 2003, Assemblyman Matt Ahearn announced that he was leaving the Democratic Party and joining the Green Party.  He became the first independent to sit in the New Jersey Legislature since Anthony Imperiale (I-Newark) lost his State Senate seat in 1977.

Ahearn’s departure followed speculation that Bergen County Democratic Chairman Joseph Ferriero was prepared to drop party support for Ahearn when he sought re-election to a second term in 2003.

“I can now reach out to people in the Republican caucus and address different issues and start dialogues without being branded disloyal or disruptive, and to me, that’s what democracy is all about,” Ahearn told PoliticsNJ reporter Steve Kornacki at the time.  “Being at odds with the party leadership is a badge I will wear proudly as I seek for another term in the Assembly.”

Ten weeks later, Assemblyman Rafael Fraguela switched parties after losing the support of the Hudson County Democratic organization for re-election to a second term.

The Union City Democrat had gone to the Assembly in 2001 after Democrats dumped Rudy Garcia as both Mayor of Union City and from the legislature.  He had been the running mate of the sitting Assembly Speaker, Albio Sires (D-West New York).

As a Republican, Fraguela decided to run for the State Senate instead of re-election.  Senate Majority Leader Bernard Kenny (D-Hoboken) beat him by an 81%-19% margin.

In a bizarre turn of events, Assembly Republicans threw Fraguela out of their caucus during the lame duck session in December after he voted with Democrats on legislation that would allow stem-cell research.  Three days later, Fraguela rejoined the Democratic Party, where he spent the final weeks of his political career.

Fraguela is the answer to a trivia question: who was the last Republican to represent Hudson County in the New Jersey Legislature?

For extreme political junkies: since the party was founded in 1854, Republicans have never won a State Senate seat in Hudson County.

Friscia, who passed away on Wednesday at age 84, switched parties in August 2003, after losing the Democratic primary for a fifth term in the State Assembly.  She ran instead as a Republican for her 19th district and lost by 3,197 votes to Perth Amboy Mayor Joseph Vas.

Democrats won 47 seats in the 2003 general election.

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