The State Chair Issue: Why Both Sides Are to Blame

Promoted by Rosi. This post, and the range of comments in response to it, deserves the front page. The NJ Democratic Party seems to be going all to hell. What’s your take?

Over the past several weeks, we have witnessed a grand display of pettiness, arrogance and egotism from the New Jersey Democratic Party, as its two major factions have bickered over the issue of the party’s next Chairman.  On one side, St. Senator Barbara Buono, our nominee for Governor, has pushed Assm. Jason O’Donnell of Bayonne for the position, with the simplistic, but traditional, argument that the gubernatorial nominee picks the state Chairman.  As usual, the so-called establishment of the party, generally considered to be made up of county bosses and their surrogates, have pushed back on the choice of O’Donnell, and instead push St. Sen. Ray Lesniak, the longtime power in Union County.  

The fight has come to consume NJ’s political echo chamber; as if it wasn’t bad enough that the party is split into two factions leading up to a gubernatorial election, we find them having a very public spat.  A split like this only reduces our chances of defeating Gov. Christie, and we all know the odds weren’t that great to begin with.

As it always seems to, the blame game has begun in earnest over this issue.  Buono blames the party establishment for not respecting her decision as de facto leader of the party, continuing a trend of disrespect towards her candidacy by Christiecrats more interested in their own wants than defeating the conservative Governor.  She’s partially right.  The party establishment claims that Buono’s pick of O’Donnell, who has developed bad blood with many Democratic leaders in the state, is inherently divisive, and that Lesniak would both be more effective in the job itself and be palatable to all involved.  They’re partially right as well.

With all that said, here’s my take on the situation:

The gubernatorial nominee traditionally picks the state chair; for the establishment to rail against that practice this time is disrespectful to Buono’s leadership and shows an unacceptable pettiness unbecoming of our political “leaders”.  O’Donnell is not some off the wall pick, either.  He’s a State Assemblyman and local party leader who is himself part of a machine (in this case, the Hudson County machine).

However, while the establishment certainly started the fight, they cannot take all of the blame.  The way Buono responded is important as well.  Her attitude seems to be, Look, this is my decision, and if you don’t like it, that’s too bad.  There has been a tendency for the progressive community to characterize this response as strength, which it is; but strength is not always the proper response to defiance, especially when you aren’t in a position of strength.  Sometimes, you need finesse instead.

What is the goal here?  To defeat the Governor, or to stick it to the party establishment?  We can’t do both.  As annoying (to put it lightly) as the establishment can be, they are desperately needed to defeat Christie.  Buono’s fundraising has been anemic, and this new US Senate race on the horizon is a game changer, as it is probably that race which will be clogging up the airwaves.  This detracts from Buono’s ability to present a clear message to New Jersey voters, which will in turn force her to be dependent on these machines for high Democratic turnout.

This is where I’ve lost faith in Buono’s candidacy: she is a politician who has been pushed around by the party bosses for too long, and with this latest incident, I think she’s had it.  I think she really is more interested in sticking it to the establishment than she is in defeating Christie.  I hope I’m wrong, but this seems to be the path she’s going down (and can you blame her?)  

I think we should all take a step back and ask ourselves, how important is this state Chairman issue in the grand scheme of things?  Does it really matter all that much?  No, it doesn’t.  Some will say that if Buono capitulates to Lesniak, it will show weakness on her part.  And it will, but showing some weakness would be better than continuing to have this issue dragging through the mud, having Democrats eat each other and ultimately getting slaughtered in November.

Now, please don’t mischaracterize my opinion.  I do believe that Buono should have her pick, and that the establishment should accept O’Donnell as Chairman.  But I’m trying to be realistic in my thoughts on this, and the reality is that the establishment doesn’t care enough about this election to have any incentive to give up.  I wish it was any other way, but it’s not.

I also don’t want this piece to come off as anti-Buono; I know I spent a lot more time talking about why she’s partially to blame than I did on the establishment.  This is not because she bears more of the blame, it just took me more words to explain her part in it.  I know a lot of people will disagree with my opinion, and that’s fine.  I’m just hoping we can move past this nonsense issue soon, without sour grapes, and move towards a Democratic win in November.

tl;dr: The party establishment are acting like petulant children over this state Chairman issue, and Buono seems more interested in fighting with them than  moving on and taking the fight to Christie.  Christie is sitting back and laughing.

Comments (44)

  1. vmars

    This is about who gets to decide where the state party money is spent in the fall.  There’s some personal stuff, some progressive/moderate stuff, but mostly it’s about where the cash gets spent and what campaigns get the benefit.

  2. 12mileseastofTrenton

    How can you ask her to compromise when there is no compromise.  It’s either O’Donnell or surrender to the bosses.  And do you really think if she caved, it would result in the other side doing anything more for her?  They’ll keep undermining and badmouthing her, while keeping all the party money for themselves.

    I would rather her tell them to take the nomination and shove it, and drop out, then cave in to people who are bent on selling out this party to Christie and the highest buffers.

  3. firstamend07

    She keeps O’Donnel ,she will be beaten by 25 points.

    She accepts Lesniak,but makes a deal in return. THAT is smart politics.( the deal is money!)

    The author is right,this picking of a Party Chair issue should never have gotten to this,but it is now a big deal.

    Buono’s ego is getting in the way of good ,smart,politics.

    It might be too late for her already ,but it is not too late to save the Legislature.

    Buono can still be helped and maybe make a run.BUT THAT WILL NOT HAPPEN UNDER O”DONNEL.

    Is Buono a big time player. This decision will tell a lot.

  4. RealDem1

    Sweeney wants to run for Governor in 2017 and will screw with Buono anyway he can. Joe D is in the back pocket of Christie since day 1. Now nobody needs to be phony about it anymore. Sweeney, Weinberg, Lesniak and these people were never going to help her, they are about themselves. Can’t wait for the silence from Sweeney and Weinberg when Stack endorses tomorrow. There will be silence on that but they choose to publicly go after Buono’s choice for the state chair.

    If she picks Lesniak, she might as well give the party to Joe D and Norcross – both of whom are supporting Christie.  

  5. ken bank

    I agree completely. If Barbara Buono can’t govern her own party, how can she be expected to govern the state? I’ll wait and see what happens on Thursday, but if O’Donnell wins Buono loses. Hopefully O’Donnell will be a “mensch” and withdraw gracefully, saving Buono the choice between a humiliating defeat or a fractured party.

  6. Gavin Hollerwood

    Buono demonstrated extraordinarily poor judgment by picking this fight.

    The original poster described her as “the de facto leader of the party” which she is not. At best she is the de jure leader of the party; but trailing 30 points with very little money, she is a weak candidate by all objective measures and has little practical influence. Therefore she is in no position to antagonize and alienate the leadership within the party

    Yes, the traditional courtesy of “selecting” the state party chairman is one of the few privileges of power she has a candidate, even if it is really nothing more than a glorified recommendation. It provided her with a good opportunity to affirm her role as a leader, strengthen political alliances, and bring the party together. What did she do? Antagonized and alienated the leadership within the party.

    Those on her side of this debate keep stating that it’s her choice, which it is, but it’s not made within a vacuum. She could have chosen – or at least attempted to have chosen – somebody acceptable to the entire party. That would have still been her choice, but it would have been one made in the spirit of cooperation and teamwork. Instead she made a choice she knew would be divisive and problematic, which proves how remarkably politically inept she is.

    Those on her side of this debate also keep criticizing certain party leaders and their “machines.” But like Senator Buono, they should be appreciative of the fact that barring some sort of miracle, her campaign will ultimately rely on them; I’m not so sure the inverse is true.  

  7. sayitaintso

    to the Republicans?  say on deficit reduction?  or appoint a Republican to his cabinet?

    That should make the people to hate him happy and everyone will get along and rebuild America.

    Same failed reasoning

  8. sayitaintso

    to the Republicans?  say on deficit reduction?  or appoint a Republican to his cabinet?

    That should make the people to hate him happy and everyone will get along and rebuild America.

    Same failed reasoning

  9. kfoster

    She has a right to have someone she trusts. Period. End.

  10. Lesh0317

    I am sick of reading she started a fight with the bosses. The party bosses and steve sweeney lacked moral conviction to challenge Christie so instead they are beating up Buono. Really sickening. There is only one fact one needs to know… the nominee picks The Chair. Period. End of story.  

  11. FreeDem

    Buono picking O’Donnell was probably a reward for his loyalty, and maybe her attempt to go against the bosses for their disloyalty. Lesniak was presented as the bosses’ compromise candidate, ‘within the party’, since Lesniak by some accounts is progressive. To that argument vmars makes valid points here, but the bosses have already been given their compromise ‘outside the party’ deals, by playing with Christie while Democrats are expected to grin and bear it. From firstamend07 and others, it seems Buono’s compromise now is to either kiss the ring or pay the piper. That doesn’t sound like compromise. Sounds more like being bossed. Buono doesn’t seem the type to not stand on principle and cave. Yes, the smart thing to do is to play along and be rewarded. That must be the ‘reality of the world’ Senator Weinberg speaks of here. So if that is the case, then we should all run to be on the winning team always, and the bosses always win.

    Why is the party fractured anyway? Because of Christie’s shrewdness? Because of Democrats not supporting Democrats? Wasn’t King George the III the reason behind the phrase “No taxation without representation.”? If the Democrat leaders are supporting the Republican leader, then who’s representing Democrats? Right now it seems Buono is the only bonafide Democrat in the state. But not for long if the ‘real world’ catches up with her.

  12. ken bank

    Can anybody please answer me this? Other than pension/benefit reform, when was the last time Sweeney/Oliver supported Christie on any other issue? I’m really tired of hearing the same old crap about Sweeney/Oliver and the one time out of countless hundreds of votes they voted with Republicans. I mean 99% of the time they supported progressive legislation, but now we fracture the party and go to civil war as “payback” for one bad vote three years ago? That’s not statesmanship, that’s stupidity.

  13. bluescat1

    of all this fighting. You are either a Democrat or you are not. It is time to get behind our candidate or get out. As far as Democrats endorsing Christie, I would make sure they were never in that column again. You are either a Democrat or you are not. We don’t have the Mafia concept in Mercer everything is transparent and open and we vote on who to endorse and we stick with our candidate. Grow up people.


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