News Column

Speaker Oliver Balks at Idea of O'Donnell as Dem Chief

May 13, 2013

Charles Stile

While some Democratic Party officials are beginning to warm to the idea of Hudson County Assemblyman Jason O'Donnell as the next state party chairman, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver of Essex County is not one of them.

Oliver, the state's second most powerful Democratic official, still remains wary of O'Donnell, who was among more than a dozen Assembly members in 2011 who backed then-Majority Leader Joe Cryan's failed attempt to oust her. Oliver beat back the insurgency and Cryan was later replaced with Lou Greenwald, a Camden County Democrat.

But for Oliver, whose legislative district includes Clifton and Montclair, the issue still rankles.

"I need to have a level of trust with the person I am working with as we launch a statewide campaign [for the Legislature]," Oliver said in an interview on Friday. "How do I know that he doesn't want to use the next six months to launch the next coup d' etat?"

O'Donnell could not be reached for comment on Friday. But Oliver's cool reaction could complicate matters for state Sen. Barbara Buono, D-Middlesex, the presumed Democratic nominee for governor. O'Donnell is apparently on a short list of Buono's candidates to run the Democratic State Committee. Middlesex County Assemblyman John Wisniewski announced last week that he was stepping down when his term ends in June.

Custom dictates that the nominee gets to choose the state party chairman for the duration of the general election contest. But some party officials privately expressed their opposition to O'Donnell when his name surfaced last month as a leading candidate. Despite the threat of internal party backlash - and Oliver's clear displeasure -- O'Donnell remains in the running.

David Turner, Buono's campaign spokesman, declined to respond directly to Oliver's comments, saying only that the party is considering a number of qualified candidates and wants to make sure that the person chosen can lead Democrats to victory in November from the governor's race down the entire ticket.

Concern over intraparty backlash prompted a group of Buono allies - mostly party leaders from Republican-leaning counties -- to take the rare step last month to publicly defend Buono's right to choose the next chairperson through a joint letter.

Buono's campaign took steps to broaden that support last week through a conference call with a larger group of county chairmen, including several from South Jersey, according to Bergen County Democratic Chairman Lou Stellato. Buono and Frank Pallone, the veteran Democratic congressman from Monmouth County, also joined the call, he said.

O'Donnell, meanwhile, waged his own mini-campaign last week to drum up support, winning conditional endorsements from Passaic County Chairman John Currie and Stellato. Both said they would support O'Donnell if Buono decides to name him to the post.

"I said to him, the assumed standard-bearer of the party has the right to pick the state chair,'' said Stellato, who met on Thursday with O'Donnell. "If that's her choice, then I have no problem with that."

But O'Donnell apparently has plenty of work to do. Phil Thigpen, chairman of the Democratic stronghold of Essex County, which delivered a 73,000-vote plurality for former Gov. Jon S. Corzine's loss to Christie in 2009, says he is opposed to O'Donnell because his role in the failed coup. But he said he would be willing to hear O'Donnell make his pitch for the job.

"I'd at least listen," Thigpen said, but added, "I don't know if I would be amenable" to supporting him.

The 2011 revolt stemmed from Oliver's decision to advance legislation forcing public employees to pay more for their health and pension benefits. The bill was later signed into law by Governor Christie, who cited it as an example of his success in brokering bipartisan deals with the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Oliver's move infuriated rank-and-file Assembly Democrats, who saw it as a betrayal of public employee unions, a core Democratic constituency. Some of those lawmakers, including Cryan, are actively involved in Buono's campaign.

But Buono has also remained at odds with South Jersey Democratic leader George Norcross and Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, the party power brokers who engineered Oliver's ascendancy in a deal that also installed Stephen Sweeney of Gloucester County as Senate president.

Oliver, who warmly endorsed Buono at a rally last month, did not rule out the possibility of supporting O'Donnell, but she said she would wait to see whether he will be able to solidify widespread support among the 21 county chairmen. And that's assuming that he eventually does emerge as Buono's choice. "It depends upon how it would shake out," she said.

Oliver also warned that the Buono campaign runs the risk of losing party enthusiasm for her candidacy if she fails to choose a state chairman who enjoys widespread support.

"If I were in her shoes, I would be concerned," Oliver said.

(c) 2013 Record, The; Bergen County, N.J.. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.

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Source: Copyright Record, The; Bergen County, N.J. 2013

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