Raymond Lesniak cast his final vote in Trenton on Monday – the final chapter of a 40-year career in the New Jersey Legislature. The current generation knows him as a progressive leader; older people like me also recall, with approbation, the that the first half of his career was spent as an especially powerful party boss who navigated Democrats through the days when Union County was one of the most politically competitive areas of New Jersey.
In his first campaign, 1977, Lesniak was the beneficiary of a vicious split in the Democratic party. Union County Democrats decided to dump State Sen. Thomas Dunn, who was also the Mayor of Elizabeth, and replace him with Assemblyman John Gregorio, who was also the Mayor of Linden. Rather than challenge Gregorio in the primary, Dunn sought re-election as an independent.
Lesniak, a 31-year-old lawyer and Army veteran, ran for Gregorio’s Assembly seat. He was on the organization line with two-term Assemblyman Thomas Deverin, one of the most truly likable guys to ever serve in the New Jersey legislature. Deverin was a former Mayor of Carteret (a throwback to an era when Carteret politicians were as normal as anywhere else), the only Middlesex town in a district that of Elizabeth, Linden and Winfield Park. Deverin always ran scared, especially in Union County primaries.
Their opponents included James LaCorte, whose father was Mayor of Elizabeth, and four others.
Lesniak was the top vote-getter with 9,353, followed by Deverin (8,861), LaCorte (5,306), Henry Kielbasa (1,345), Daniel Manies (1,560), and Luis Bello (1,194). The general was a piece of cake for Lesniak (again getting the most votes) and Deverin. Gregorio beat Dunn in the Senate race by 6,323 votes, with the Republican finishing a distant third.
Lesniak made his big move in 1980, challenging Dunn for Mayor of Elizabeth. An ex-labor leader, Dunn had been Mayor since 1964. The Union County line went to David Conti, who had come within beating Dunn in 1976 by just 262 votes. Dunn just narrowly beat out Lesniak, with Conti finishing a weak third.
In 1981, Democrats threw Lesniak off their organization line and replaced him with John Surmay, who was the Director of Health, Welfare and Housing for the City of Elizabeth. After the public became aware that three barrels emitting radiation was found near an old chemical plant, Mayor Dunn got in the middle of a war between federal and state environmental officials. Lesniak, who chaired an Assembly panel investigating the issue, alleged that the city – specifically it’s health director, failed to shut the chemical plant down.
Off the line – as where all the gubernatorial candidates that year – Lesniak won a massive victory. He received 14,489 votes. Deverin finished second with 12,253, and Surmay got just 7,550.
Gregorio was convicted of conspiracy in late 1982 and resigned. That seat caused Democrat to lose their majority, sort of. The Senate went from 21-19 to 20-19, so Democrats did not have enough votes to pass any bills without Republican support. That turned out to be helpful to the new Republican Governor, Tom Kean. The veteran Union County Clerk, Walter Halpin, tried to help Kean by opposing a special election. Halpin preferred to save the money and keep the seat vacant until the November election.
The Senate needed a vote to authorize a special election, which is what Senate President Carmen Orechio wanted in a safe Republican district. But Kean and the Senate Minority Leader, Donald DiFrancesco of Union County, wanted to leave things alone. They compromised and held the special election on the day of the primary election, effectively splitting the year in half.
Lesniak had no trouble capturing the Democratic nomination. Republican State Chairman Frank Holman tried to recruit Dunn, who had endorsed Richard Nixon in 1972, to switch parties and run as a Republican. Dunn passed, and Lesniak won the Senate seat with 68% of the vote.
Stating the obvious: Lesniak took his Senate seat in June, leaving his Assembly seat vacant for the rest of the year.
He went on to easily win re-election ten times. Lesniak’s only close race came in 1991, when voter anger at Gov. Jim Florio’s tax hikes resulted in the weakest general election of his career. He beat Republican Jeffrey Cohen by a 57%-43% margin.
After the election, Lesniak became Democratic State Chairman. He played a role in Florio’s rehabilitation – and his near re-election in 1993. With dreams, some say, of becoming the U.S. Ambassador to France, Lesniak became a major fundraiser for Al Gore in 2000. He and John Lynch helped create Jim McGreevey as a gubernatorial candidate in 1997 and in 2001. His law firm flourished. He played a role in making Union County a Democratic stronghold; Republicans haven’t won a Freeholder seat since 1994.
After McGreevey resigned, Lesniak became less interested in being a party boss and more engaged on progressive issues. He faked retirement a few times, feuded with Assembly Majority Leader Joe Cryan, and helped send running mate Neil Cohen to prison. His political career ended last June, when he won just 4.8% in the Democratic primary for Governor.