Home>Articles>The Life and Times of Paul DiGaetano

The Life and Times of Paul DiGaetano

By David Wildstein, February 08 2018 2:22 am

There was a time back about a generation ago when Paul DiGaetano was a bright, rising star in New Jersey Republican politics.  He he was one of the most powerful politicians in the state.  Some Republicans openly fawned over the idea of a young, blue-collar, Catholic, Italian-American Republican running for statewide office.  He was likeable, popular, and incredibly ambitious.

Jump ahead thirty years, and sadly for him, the only thing he’s got left is his ambition.  At age 64, his political career, jump-started several times over by strategic relocations, seems like it’s about to end.  Even though he has not made a formal announcement, the conventional wisdom is that he won’t seek re-election as Bergen County Republican Chairman in June – clearly because he doesn’t want to be embarrassed.  DiGaetano has had a few tough years.

Understanding DiGaetano requires a history lesson, one that takes him from urban New Jersey to a quintessential blue-collar town, and finally to the tony Bergen County suburb made famous by some of the Real Housewives of New Jersey cast.

DiGaetano grew up in Passaic and graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in aerospace engineering.  He was forced to give up his dream of becoming a Navy pilot when his father died, taking over his father’s construction business to support his mother and sisters. He also replaced his Dad as an auxiliary police officer in Passaic.

In the winter of 1980, the 26-year-old DiGaetano got involved in local politics after Mayor Robert Hare cut the auxiliary police program from the budget.  He ran for the Passaic City Council in the May non-partisan election and won.   He helped Joseph Lipari, a butcher-turned-councilman, recall Hare in 1983 and become mayor, and was easily re-elected in 1984.

In 1985, the very popular Tom Kean was seeking a second term as governor.  Democrats controlled the Assembly by four seats (44-36); Republicans thought they had a good shot to win control of the lower house for the first time in a dozen years.

One of the seats in play was District 36, which included the City of Passaic and a bunch of South Bergen towns.  The incumbents were two nice guys, Robert Hollenbeck and Richard Visotcky.  Both elected in 1973, they were re-elected five times – sometimes narrowly and sometimes by wide margins.  On paper, it was a competitive district.

The Republicans carefully crafted their ticket.  The popular 36th district Senator was Joseph Hirkala, who had spent many years as the Passaic City Clerk.  Since the Senate was not up in 1985, Hollenbeck and Visotcky were running without anyone from Passaic on the ticket.

Their first choice for one of the seats was DiGaetano, who had the potential to carry Passaic against the incumbents.  The other seat was for the perpetually fractured South Bergen.  The first choice was Carmine Savino, a 74-year-old Lyndhurst icon who had served in the Assembly from 1954 to 1964, but he declined.  The GOP then recruited Kathleen Donovan, a 30-year-old lawyer and Girl Scout leader from Lyndhurst who had been the top vote-getter in a 1984 non-partisan race for Bergen County Charter Study Commissioner.

DiGaetano and Donovan seized on an issue that polled well: the State Assembly provided a buffet lunch on session days for legislators and staff.  DiGaetano and Donovan criticized Hollenbeck and Visotcky for taking free lunches, and pledged that if they won, they’d pay for their own lunch.  That – and Kean’s coattails – swept them into office.  DiGaetano beat the Democrats by about 700 votes in Passaic and carried Bergen by a decent margin.  He won by 3,258 votes.

One of the more sadistic legacies of the post-One Man, One Vote Supreme Court ruling was the creation of dual-member legislative districts.  Few relationships in New Jersey politics have been more toxic that two Assembly running mates from the same party.  The DiGaetano/Donovan dynamics was strained during the campaign, and after their first few months in office, it became poisonous.

On New Year’s Day 1987, Hirkala, then 63, died of a heart attack.  New Jersey still held special elections to fill vacancies back then, and one was set for March 24.

DiGaetano and Donovan both wanted to run, and DiGaetano was especially vicious in his behind-closed-doors attacks on Donovan.  The GOP state chairman at the time, Frank Holman, believed that DiGaetano had a better shot at turning out special election voters in Passaic.  DiGaetano also had the powerful and well-liked Passaic Republican Chairman, Red Murphy (father of Peter) in his side; Bergen Republicans had just won the first County Executive election and a 7-0 majority on the Board of Freeholders, and they didn’t really care to get involved in another campaign so quickly – it wasn’t their Senate seat to begin with.

In the special, DiGaetano severely underestimated his Democratic opponent, Lyndhurst Democratic Municipal Chairman Gabe Ambrosio.  He also misjudged the political skills of three-term Rep. Bob Torricelli, who wanted his friend Ambrosio in the Senate as he looked toward a 1989 gubernatorial campaign.

DiGaetano was overconfident, cocky, and certain of his ascension to the State Senate. On election day, Ambrosio clobbered him, 11,462 to 7,763 (60%-40%).   Ambrosio beat DiGaetano in his hometown, Passaic, by 417 votes and annihilated him in South Bergen.

After that, DiGaetano checked out.  He returned to Trenton as an angry and bitter man, looking at everyone as if they were the one who screwed him.  Some of them had.

In April, Donovan filed to run against Ambrosio in the 1987 general election for the full four-year term.  Kean, Holman and the Bergen GOP powerhouses all lined up behind her and promised to pour money into her campaign.  That was more than DiGaetano ego could take, so he quit.  He declined to run for re-election to the Assembly and refused to help Assembly Republicans find a replacement candidate from Passaic.

The cost of DiGaetano’s bitterness was apparent in the election results: Ambrosio won 51%-49%, beating Donovan by just 1,030 votes.  Donovan carried the Bergen portion of the district, but Ambrosio won Passaic by 2,190 votes.  Republicans lost the two Assembly seats, with Passaic Council President Louis Gill and Garfield Mayor Thomas Duch winning for the Democrats.

In January 1988, DiGaetano went home to Passaic, where thought there was a consolation prize awaiting him: with Gill now an Assemblyman, DiGaetano wanted to become the City Council President — his vig of sorts for sitting on his hands in the legislative election – but Gill wouldn’t go for it. That May, DiGaetano won a third term on the City Council.

Donovan won a race for Bergen County Clerk in 1988, and with her gone, DiGaetano decided he wanted to return to the Assembly.  1989 turned out to be a disaster for DiGaetano: in June, GOP gubernatorial candidate Jim Courter picked Donovan for GOP State Chairman, and in November, Gill and Duch chastened him with a massive defeat.  DiGaetano finished 4,748 votes behind Duch and 6,768 votes behind Gill.  DiGaetano lost Passaic by 1,537 votes– an even greater humiliation than the Senate race.

In 1991, DiGaetano finally got to become City Council President – a job that actually has more clout today than it did 27 years ago.

Luck was on DiGaetano’s side in 1991, although his lack of testicular fortitude cost him the seat he really wanted.  Legislative redistricting replaced some of South Bergen with Nutley and Belleville in Essex County.  Republicans wanted DiGaetano to take on Ambrosio for the Senate seat, but he remained scared by the special election of 1987 and thought Ambrosio couldn’t be beaten.  Now in a district with the hugely popular John Kelly, DiGaetano beat Gill by 7,509 votes.  That was the good news; the bad news is that John Scott, a conservative activist who had won 22% against Donovan in the 1987 primary, rode the anti-Jim Florio GOP landslide to a 52%-48% win over Ambrosio.

The other problem for DiGaetano would be a long-term issue: his base in the City of Passaic was no longer producing margins for him as a Republican.  Even with his landslide 1991 win, DiGaetano ran 407 votes behind Gill, and just 190 votes ahead of Restaino.

In May 1992, DiGaetano won his fourth term on the Passaic City Council.  Later that year, his political ally, Mayor Lipari, resigned following his conviction of federal tax evasion charges.  DiGaetano, the Council President, dreamed of becoming Mayor of Passaic, but the support wasn’t there for him.  The job went to Marge Semler, a former City Councilwoman who was nearly 70.  In 1996, DiGaetano walked

DiGaetano held on to his Assembly seat every two years for the next decade – sometimes by margins that were a little too close for his comfort.  He came within 1,028 votes of losing to David Sivella in 1997. He took heat for using more than $7,500 from his campaign account to pay for his personal cell phone.

By that race, DiGaetano was already getting crushed in Passaic: he ran 2,461 votes behind Ken Sorkin and 1,635 votes behind Sivella.  His running mate, Kelly, was typically the top vote getter – and by the late 1990’s ran nearly as well as DiGaetano in Passaic.  That drove him crazy.

Through the 1990’s, his political career flourished despite hailing from a swing district.  After Assembly Speaker Chuck Haytaian retired in 1995, Jack Collins became Speaker and DiGaetano replaced Collins as Assembly Majority Leader.

Collins was expected to run for governor in 2001 – he retired instead – and DiGaetano believed he was in line to become Assembly Speaker.  He assumed control of the statewide lower house campaign operation and played a role in redrawing his own district.

That was part was complicated.  In March of 2000, DiGaetano moved out of Passaic and into Nutley.  The Land of the Orechio’s was always the center of the North Jersey political universe – it had outsized power and was one of the great swing towns of the 20th century.  The move from Passaic County to Essex County – switching counties is a rarity in New Jersey politics – gave DiGaetano the chance to shed the heavily Democratic City of Passaic and ease his re-election campaigns while holding the third most powerful post in state government.

That was before he faced Larry Bartals and Donald Scarinci.

Bartals was the tiebreaker Chief Justice Deborah Poritz, a Republican, appointed as the tie-breaker on the Legislative Redistricting Commission; Scarinci was a Democratic power lawyer who had served as City Attorney in Passaic.  Scarinci spent years studying redistricting issues and Democrats kicked Republican ass in that process.  The result was a map that flipped control of the Assembly to the Democrats for a generation.

DiGaetano failed to drop the City of Passaic, which remained in his district.  In 2001, Kelly ran for the Senate and DiGaetano’s own running mate, East Rutherford Mayor Jim Cassella, lost to Democrat Paul Sarlo.

So DiGaetano began 2002 as the Assembly Minority Leader, where Democrats had a 44-36 majority, up nine seats from the year before.  Democrat Jim McGreevey was now governor, and Democrat Dick Codey and Republican John O. Bennett III shared control of the Senate.

And if life could not be any more miserable for DiGaetano, Kevin O’Toole, screwed out of his own Senate seat, returned to the Assembly GOP caucus.

In 2003, DiGaetano tried again to be Speaker.  He figured he was smart and talented enough to overcome a bad map – and he had history on his side: governors always lose Assembly seats in their mid-term elections.  But DiGaetano’s statewide campaign had the opposite effect of picking up seats: Republicans lost three more.  In his own district, DiGaetano watched Sarlo move up to the Senate when Democrats moved Garry Furnari to the bench, and DiGaetano won by just 1,758 votes.  DiGaetano’s running mate lost again, with Nutley Democrat Fred Scalera keeping the seat.

During that campaign, the Star-Ledger reported that DiGaetano paid for a billboard of one of his opponents, independent Giovanni Regalado – an odd move by any candidate.  It seems he was trying to manipulate some votes in Passaic away from the Democrats.

DiGaetano received more meals, trips and golf outings from lobbyists than any other member of the State Assembly, according to reports filed in 2003.

Two days after the 2003 election, DiGaetano announced he was forming an exploratory committee to seek the Republican nomination for governor in 2005.  In a way, it was a move-up or move-out plan.  He no longer had the support of his caucus for another term as minority leader – Alex DeCroce had the votes – and he decided that rather than face another tough re-election campaign in a district that was increasingly shifting to the Democratic column, he might as well take his shot.

That election was a year after McGreevey resigned and U.S. Senator Jon Corzine squeezed Acting Governor Codey out of the Democratic nomination.  Six other Republicans got in the race.

DiGaetano played the county convention game, trying to cobble together enough organization lines to win the nomination in a crowded field.  He wound up winning the lines in Bergen and Passaic counties and an endorsement in lineless Sussex County.  But he struggled to raise money and was sometimes mocked for a photo his campaign used showing him in tight jeans and a hard hat.

By the time the votes were counted, DiGaetano for Governor was a disaster – and a personal embarrassment.  He finished sixth out of seven, with just 16,684 votes statewide – a little more than 5% of the statewide vote.  It was one of the worst showing of a former legislative leader in a gubernatorial primary in state history.

To put DiGaetano’s 16,684 votes in perspective: when Minority Leader Tom Kean lost the 1977 gubernatorial primary to Ray Bateman by nineteen points, he still got 113,298 votes more than DiGaetano did.

Here’s where the results are truly awful for DiGaetano: in Passaic County, his political base, he finished in third place with 2,737 votes – 1,604 votes behind Bret Schundler and 852 votes behind Doug Forrester.  He also finished third in Essex, where he was now living – 3,673 votes behind Forrester and 2,639 behind Schundler.  In Bergen, parts of which he’d represented in the Assembly for sixteen years, Forrester beat him by 6,765 votes, Schundler by 5,844.

In 2016, O’Toole went public with a story that DiGaetano threatened his life in 2005 while seeking the endorsement of the Essex County Republican Committee.  O’Toole says when told DiGaetano that Essex was endorsing Forrester, the response was: “‘You know me,’ he said. ‘I will fucking kill you if I don’t get this. I’m going to kill you. You know the people I hang out with. You hear me? I want the fucking line!’”  DiGaetano denied the accusation and is suing O’Toole.

That fall, Republicans lost two more Assembly seats, but that wasn’t on DiGaetano’s watch. Like 1987, when he lost the Senate special, DiGaetano checked out after the gubernatorial primary.  He left office in January 2006.

Out of office for the first time in 25 years, DiGaetano began to focus on his personal finances – although he never stopped watching out for political opportunities to come his way.

Over the years, DiGaetano has faced some business challengers.  He had to pay off a 1996 judgment against his construction company and settled another suit in 1997. He’s faced at least five other lawsuits and at least one labor complaint.

Early in 2007, DiGaetano explored a challenge to State Sen. Paul Sarlo in his old district.  He had initially decided not to run but agreed to look closely when Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance and Ocean County GOP Chairman George Gilmore agreed to raise money for him.  At that point, Sarlo had over $500,000 in his warchest.

Later that year, DiGaetano decided to run for Republican State Chairman against incumbent Tom Wilson.  Wilson beat former Morris Township Mayor Peter Mancuso by a vote of 28-10 – a 74% landslide.  DiGaetano, who predicted strong support just a few days before the vote, never won any endorsements from state committee members.  He was a no-show on the day of the vote.

For DiGaetano, the worst part of 2007 was that O’Toole moved up to the Senate that year after Hank McNamara retired.  There were rumors that DiGaetano was considering a move to Wayne to run in the 40th, by that never happended.  And speculation that he wanted to run for Essex County Republican Chairman never panned out.

DiGaetano wrote an op-ed in The Record that criticized O’Toole and Assemblyman Scott Rumana for dual officeholding – both served as legislators and as unpaid county chairmen.  He also promoted the candidacy of Joe Caruso, who was challenging Rumana in the Republican primary.  DiGaetano was trying to ally himself with Passaic GOP leader Peter Murphy, a Rumana rival.

He also sought an alliance with Bob Yudin, the Bergen County Republican Chairman. In 2007, DiGaetano backed Yudin’s successful challenge to incumbent Rob Ortiz.  A few years later, when Yudin faced another challenge, DiGaetano helped put a third candidate in the race to draw votes from the challenger, Anthony Rottino.

In 2010, DiGaetano told Republicans that he would run for the Senate if Nutley was in a competitive district after the 2011 legislative redistricting.  Instead, mapmakers moved Nutley into District 28, along with Irvington and part of Newark.  Ronald Rice became his Senator.

So in 2012, DiGaetano sold his house in Nutley and moved to Franklin Lakes.  He was now a Bergen County guy – the third county of a political career that had entered its fourth decade.

DiGaetano’s move to the District 40 was clearly calculated.  He wanted to be in the State Senate, and there was some speculation that O’Toole was preparing to give up his seat.  Anyone who knows O’Toole gets that this wasn’t a guy who wanted to wake up one morning and realize he’d turned in to his predecessor, McNamara.

O’Toole announced in 2016 that he would retire from the Senate the following year.  He endorsed Passaic County Clerk Kristin Corrado as his successor.

The path to the Senate – at least from DiGaetano’s perspective – was through the Bergen County Republican chairmanship.  In March 2016, he entered the race against Yudin.

Yudin claimed that a DiGaetano friend approached him with a deal: DiGaetano would drop out of the race for county chairman, if Yudin promised him party support for a State Senate bid in 2017.  DiGaetano denied it.

DiGaetano claimed that the Bergen County Republican Organization was in debt.  Yudin denied. It.  After the alleged death threats against O’Toole were made public, Yudin called on DiGaetano to drop out of the race.  DiGaetano declined.

In June, DiGaetano ousted Yudin, largely on his strength in South Bergen.

Bergen County has a history of Republican civil wars that extends back almost a century, but the aftermath of the DiGaetano vs. Yudin fight made this battle especially bloody.  Yudin has not gone away, and in many cases, has dealt DiGaetano significant body blows from his new role as an outside observer.

Yudin criticized DiGaetano for the performance of Republican candidates in the 2016 and 2017 cycles, saying that the party has failed to raise money and that lack of party support contributed to the defeat of seven-term Rep. Scott Garrett and more than forty Republican incumbents in local races.  In 2016, DiGaetano tried to undue a deal to make Wyckoff Mayor Kevin Rooney an Assemblyman after Rumana left to become a Superior Court Judge.  He lost that fight.  Corrado and Rooney would team up with former Wyckoff Mayor Christopher DePhillips in 2017.

In early 2017, DiGaetano formally announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for State Senator.  He put together a slate of Assembly candidates that included former State Sen. Norman Robertson and Joseph Bubba, Jr., the son of a former state senator.

Corrado and her team treated DiGaetano and Robertson like they were unpopular incumbents, pulling apart their voting records from their previous service in the legislature.  DiGaetano was hit for voting for the gas tax – fine print was 1987 – for pay raises, and for increased state debt.  The irony here is that DiGaetano was new to the 40th and Robertson, who moved from Clifton to Wayne after he lost his Senate seat sixteen years earlier, was essentially brand new as well.

Even as county chairman, there was some question as to DiGaetano’s ability to win his own line at his own convention.  Historically, Bergen County Republicans had allowed individual legislative districts to determine who received party support.  Among the towns in district 40, DiGaetano didn’t have the votes.  DiGaetano decided to allow all seventy Bergen County towns to pick the candidate.  That’s how he won the line.

DiGaetano carried the Bergen portion of the district, but by only 53 votes.  Corrado won the race in Passaic, where she bested DiGaetano by 3,802 votes – those are the kind of numbers Peter Murphy can crank out.  The result turned out to be a 62%-30% win for Corrado – a plurality of 4,024.  DiGaetano actually did considering worse in 2017 than he did in his first Senate run in 1987.

So now, DiGaetano’s first term as Bergen County Republican Chairman is over in June.  He has not yet announced his plans, but nobody thinks he’s running again.  The overt candidacy of one of DiGaetano’s closest allies, former Hackensack Mayor Jack Zisa, is a sure sign of that; Zisa would never challenge DiGaetano.

Last month, A group of mayors and other local party officials led by former Lt. Governor candidate Carlos Rendo, the Mayor of Woodcliff Lake, met to discuss the future of the Republican Party.  DiGaetano, barely raised enough money to pay rent on the mausoleum-like party headquarters, and provided no funding to local campaigns, according to one critic. Yudin called on him to resign.

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