Passaic County Democrats awarded their organization line to incumbents after a closed-door screening committee of comprised of municipal leaders from sixteen towns on Saturday morning.
Party leaders also agreed to hold off any discussions on the presidential campaign until after Super Tuesday.
The vote marks a return of county chairman John Currie to the party boss category after a brief dalliance as a progressive leader to win re-election as the Democratic State Chairman.
Progressive activists have made the elimination of organization lines one of their top priorities, but have been more critical of counties that don’t have at least an open convention that allows the full county committee to participate.
Currie sought and won the endorsement of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee Progressive Caucus last December.
“The continued success and growth of the Democratic Party relies on our ability to work with like-minded leaders who are ready to bring meaningful change to our entire state,” he said in a statement after winning the progressive endorsement.
The line went to U.S. Senator Cory Booker and Reps. Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson), Mikie Sherrill (D-Montclair) and Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff ). All four face primary challenges from the left. Freeholders Bruce James and T.J. Best also won party backing for re-election and faced no opposition.
Just two primary challengers attended the screening: Arati Kreibich, a Glen Rock councilwoman who faces Gottheimer in the primary; and Alp Basaran, who is taking on Pascrell.
Lawrence Hamm, a former Newark school board member and chairman of Bernie Sanders’s New Jersey campaign, did not attend. He is challenging Booker in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary.
Also not attending the screening committee were another Pascrell primary opponent, Zina Spezakis, and Mark Washburne, who is challenging Sherrill.
Pascrell had a screening committee vote as a member of the party’s executive committee.
In a back-and-forth that got just slightly heated, Pascrell used his place in the room to grill Kreibich, saying that ideological purity tests won’t help keep Democrats in control of the U.S. House of Representatives, the New Jersey Globe has learned.
None of the candidates taking on incumbents received screening committee votes.
The Passaic screening committee was closed to the anyone not on the party executive committee, including local elected officials and the media.
Currie is New Jersey’s longest-serving county chairman
Currie has served as Passaic County Democratic chairman since 1990, when Pascrell gave up the job following his election as mayor of Paterson.
Currie defeated Rose Girgenti, the former party vice chair and wife of State Sen. John Girgenti (D-Hawthorne), by a vote of 217 to 133 (62%-38%) in a race that sparked a controversy.
The election was closed to anyone who was not an elected county committee member, but the Girgenti campaign was able to monitor the vote after they hid a microphone in the room.
The race between Currie and Girgenti had been expected to be closer, but the disclosure of the hidden surveillance devices appeared to move some Girgenti votes to Currie.
Pascrell, who spent eight years as county chairman and had endorsed Currie as his successor, slammed the Girgenti campaign for their tactics.
Currie’s ascent to county chairman was triggered by the unexpected death of Frank X. Graves in March 1990. Graves had been serving as both Paterson mayor and state senator at the time that he suffered a fatal heart attack.
Pascrell and John Girgenti had been serving as the assemblymen from the 35th district. Pascrell became mayor and kept his Assembly seat, while Girgenti moved up to the Senate.
Girgenti’s Assembly seat was went to Paterson city councilman Cy Yannarelli, who defeated Passaic County purchasing agent Eli Burgos by a vote of 68 to 25 at the special election convention.
Currie, who was serving as executive director of the Passaic County Democrats, criticized party leaders for missing the opportunity to elect the first Hispanic legislator from Passaic County.
Yannarelli lost a November special election to Republican Frank Catania in the anti-Florio Republican landslide that year, and Passaic did not send a Hispanic to the legislature until Nellie Pou won an Assembly seat in 2007.
Currie lost freeholder races in 1986 and 1988.
During Currie’s reign, Democrats have won a 7-0 majority on the Board of Freeholders, control all constitutional offices, and flipped three congressional seats.
Republicans, who did not immediately sense the effect on Gov. Jim Florio’s $2.8 billion tax increase on down-ballot races in 1990, decided not to run anyone against Girgenti in the 1990 special election for the remaining fourteen months of Graves’ Senate term.
Catania won 56%-44%, and Republican Christine Todd Whitman carried Passaic County in the U.S. Senate race by a 51%-47% margin and swept three freeholder seats.
Girgenti held the seat in 1991 by 1,894 votes, 53%-47%, against former Paterson mayor Pat Kramer.