Charles Stile on Jeff Gardner: “Bona Fide Giant Slayer”

If you didn’t know about the Democratic senatorial primary fight in the 35th legislative district, a column by Bergen Record columnist Charlie Stile at northjersey.com is a clear snapshot and of what divides the two combatants, Sen. John Girgenti and Jeff Gardner. – Rosi Efthim

Round 2 of Hawthorne political fight coming up

by Charles Stile:

Jeffrey Gardner’s shoebox-size law office in Hawthorne’s downtown suits his budget. After all, he opened his practice only a month ago.

The Lafayette Avenue office is also a fitting symbol of his new place in Passaic County politics.

The 42-year-old liberal activist seized a small Democratic Party beachhead last June, taking control of the Hawthorne Democratic Municipal Committee. The precinct-level victory yielded a modicum of power but a bounty of statewide buzz – he defeated John Girgenti, the 35th District state senator who joined the Legislature four years before Hosni Mubarak took control of Egypt.

The victory designated Gardner a bona fide giant slayer and hero to New Jersey’s network of reformers who generally stay out of messy, municipal level street fights. Gardner’s slate of committee candidates won handily, despite the Girgenti team’s attack mail and robo-calls financed by powerful, out-of-town allies – a $5,000 check from the fief of triple-dipper Sen. Nicholas Sacco (North Bergen Municipal Democratic Committee) and $5,000 from Sen. Dick Codey of Roseland, for example.

It also represented the first installment on a promised political payback.

Girgenti’s December 2009 vote against the bill legalizing gay marriage made him a top target for a takedown by the marriage equality activists, like Gardner, who saw Girgenti as a moribund, lowercase “d” Democrat, bereft of core party principles.

“Following his marriage vote, there were people who came out of the woodwork upset with him,” said Gardner, who volunteered for Democratic candidates for years but never ran for office. “It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. For someone who had been there for 30 years, it was symbolic for why it was time for a change.”

Gardner has now set his sights on a much bigger prize – Girgenti’s Senate seat. He announced his campaign in mid-January, just as the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commissioners hiring scandal unfolded. Girgenti has since been linked to the mess.

The state Attorney General’s Office is probing whether PVSC employees were pressured to make political campaign contributions to keep their jobs or earn promotions. Investigators are taking a look at an October 2009 beefsteak fund-raiser Girgenti held at the Brownstone in Paterson. Girgenti has denied shaking down anybody for campaign donations.

For a candidate like Gardner who lacks the cash and political network that protected Girgenti for decades, the PVSC scandal is manna from political heaven. It certifies his chief criticism – that Girgenti was not only tolerant of the cronyism that defines New Jersey machine politics, but that he may very well be waist-deep in it. It’s the kind of issue that drains the public’s faith in government and their wallets when the property tax bill comes due.

“He uses his political platform to hand out jobs to friends and contributors and there is no political capital left to deliver jobs to the people he doesn’t know,” Gardner said, offering a sneak preview of the campaign to come.

Philip Swibinksi, Girgenti’s spokesman, called Girgenti a “true friend of the middle class” who would “never tolerate anyone being pressured to support his campaign, financially or otherwise. These allegations are ridiculous.”

Gardner’s campaign has electrified liberal activists around the state – he raised nearly $3,000 from a Cherry Hill fund-raiser last weekend. But he will need a lot more than seed money and praise. The 63-year-old Girgenti enters his reelection with significant advantages.

He may be an aging institution, but he’s an institution with a popular brand name. Girgenti has also shrewdly navigated the non-ideological waters of Passaic County, forging ties with both parties over the decades. And he’s stockpiled a war chest of $347,000, which makes him an attractive asset for the Passaic County Democratic Organization, regardless of the political fallout from the PVSC probe. That money can provide a lot of help to local, down-ballot candidates. Girgenti’s treasury briefly made him the top candidate to replace former Sheriff Jerry Speziale on the ticket last year after Speziale abruptly quit the race.

Gardner says he will compete for the county committee’s backing but will challenge Girgenti in the June primary if he doesn’t get it. He is careful to insist that he’s not a one-issue candidate or a wild-eyed radical determined to overthrow the moribund party structure.

“My philosophy is that if you don’t like how your party is operating … your job is to get involved and change the candidates in your party,” Gardner said inside his office, where a framed copy of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech hangs near the entrance. But the current redrawing of the boundaries of New Jersey’s 40 legislative districts poses another hurdle. Hawthorne could possibly be moved to a neighboring, Republican-leaning district or the 35th could be recast to the GOP’s liking, which could imperil Girgenti or Gardner’s chances. The new map is still months away.

Gardner, a former National Labor Relations Board lawyer, is not oblivious to the obstacles he faces. Yes, Girgenti is stocked with cash, but it’s been a long time since he faced a serious challenger. Gardner believes the world has shifted under Girgenti’s feet and voters are eager for a change. Girgenti’s generation may be fading, replaced with a newer one that is more socially tolerant and unbothered by Gardner’s gay-marriage activism or the fact that he’s been with a civil union partner for 11 years. It is a generation that may also be a little less tolerant of PVSC patronage and less eager to endorse it with their silence or indifference.

“It should come as no surprise that people should say enough is enough,” Gardner said.

E-mail: stile@northjersey.com

Charles Stile on Jeff Gardner: “Bona Fide Giant Slayer”

If you didn’t know much about the coming Democratic senatorial primary fight in what is currently the 35th legislative district, a column posted this morning by Bergen Record columnist Charlie Stile at northjersey.com is a clear snapshot and keen appraisal of what divides the two combatants, long-time incumbent Senator John Girgenti and Jeff Gardner. Each man has a very distinctive arsenal of skills and opportunities; each his own set of electoral challenges. The column is so sharp, I asked Charlie’s permission to print it here. – Rosi Efthim

Round 2 of Hawthorne political fight coming up

by Charles Stile:

Jeffrey Gardner’s shoebox-size law office in Hawthorne’s downtown suits his budget. After all, he opened his practice only a month ago.

The Lafayette Avenue office is also a fitting symbol of his new place in Passaic County politics.

The 42-year-old liberal activist seized a small Democratic Party beachhead last June, taking control of the Hawthorne Democratic Municipal Committee. The precinct-level victory yielded a modicum of power but a bounty of statewide buzz – he defeated John Girgenti, the 35th District state senator who joined the Legislature four years before Hosni Mubarak took control of Egypt.

The victory designated Gardner a bona fide giant slayer and hero to New Jersey’s network of reformers who generally stay out of messy, municipal level street fights. Gardner’s slate of committee candidates won handily, despite the Girgenti team’s attack mail and robo-calls financed by powerful, out-of-town allies – a $5,000 check from the fief of triple-dipper Sen. Nicholas Sacco (North Bergen Municipal Democratic Committee) and $5,000 from Sen. Dick Codey of Roseland, for example.

It also represented the first installment on a promised political payback.

Girgenti’s December 2009 vote against the bill legalizing gay marriage made him a top target for a takedown by the marriage equality activists, like Gardner, who saw Girgenti as a moribund, lowercase “d” Democrat, bereft of core party principles.

“Following his marriage vote, there were people who came out of the woodwork upset with him,” said Gardner, who volunteered for Democratic candidates for years but never ran for office. “It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. For someone who had been there for 30 years, it was symbolic for why it was time for a change.”

Gardner has now set his sights on a much bigger prize – Girgenti’s Senate seat. He announced his campaign in mid-January, just as the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commissioners hiring scandal unfolded. Girgenti has since been linked to the mess.

The state Attorney General’s Office is probing whether PVSC employees were pressured to make political campaign contributions to keep their jobs or earn promotions. Investigators are taking a look at an October 2009 beefsteak fund-raiser Girgenti held at the Brownstone in Paterson. Girgenti has denied shaking down anybody for campaign donations.

For a candidate like Gardner who lacks the cash and political network that protected Girgenti for decades, the PVSC scandal is manna from political heaven. It certifies his chief criticism – that Girgenti was not only tolerant of the cronyism that defines New Jersey machine politics, but that he may very well be waist-deep in it. It’s the kind of issue that drains the public’s faith in government and their wallets when the property tax bill comes due.

“He uses his political platform to hand out jobs to friends and contributors and there is no political capital left to deliver jobs to the people he doesn’t know,” Gardner said, offering a sneak preview of the campaign to come.

Philip Swibinksi, Girgenti’s spokesman, called Girgenti a “true friend of the middle class” who would “never tolerate anyone being pressured to support his campaign, financially or otherwise. These allegations are ridiculous.”

Gardner’s campaign has electrified liberal activists around the state – he raised nearly $3,000 from a Cherry Hill fund-raiser last weekend. But he will need a lot more than seed money and praise. The 63-year-old Girgenti enters his reelection with significant advantages.

He may be an aging institution, but he’s an institution with a popular brand name. Girgenti has also shrewdly navigated the non-ideological waters of Passaic County, forging ties with both parties over the decades. And he’s stockpiled a war chest of $347,000, which makes him an attractive asset for the Passaic County Democratic Organization, regardless of the political fallout from the PVSC probe. That money can provide a lot of help to local, down-ballot candidates. Girgenti’s treasury briefly made him the top candidate to replace former Sheriff Jerry Speziale on the ticket last year after Speziale abruptly quit the race.

Gardner says he will compete for the county committee’s backing but will challenge Girgenti in the June primary if he doesn’t get it. He is careful to insist that he’s not a one-issue candidate or a wild-eyed radical determined to overthrow the moribund party structure.

“My philosophy is that if you don’t like how your party is operating … your job is to get involved and change the candidates in your party,” Gardner said inside his office, where a framed copy of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech hangs near the entrance. But the current redrawing of the boundaries of New Jersey’s 40 legislative districts poses another hurdle. Hawthorne could possibly be moved to a neighboring, Republican-leaning district or the 35th could be recast to the GOP’s liking, which could imperil Girgenti or Gardner’s chances. The new map is still months away.

Gardner, a former National Labor Relations Board lawyer, is not oblivious to the obstacles he faces. Yes, Girgenti is stocked with cash, but it’s been a long time since he faced a serious challenger. Gardner believes the world has shifted under Girgenti’s feet and voters are eager for a change. Girgenti’s generation may be fading, replaced with a newer one that is more socially tolerant and unbothered by Gardner’s gay-marriage activism or the fact that he’s been with a civil union partner for 11 years. It is a generation that may also be a little less tolerant of PVSC patronage and less eager to endorse it with their silence or indifference.

“It should come as no surprise that people should say enough is enough,” Gardner said.

E-mail: stile@northjersey.com

Comment (1)

  1. Jeff Gardner

    how bout a little bit o’ Actblue love? I don’t need $347,000. But, your contribution will help get me that much closer.

    🙂

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *