Joe DiVincenzo for N.J. governor? He'll think about it

By Matt Friedman | The Star-Ledger
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on July 15, 2014

Democratic Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo is shown endorsing Republican Gov. Chris Christie last year in West Orange. DiVincenzo said today he'll think about running for governor.


WEST ORANGE — Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo is persona-non-grata in some New Jersey Democratic circles, but that hasn’t stopped him from thinking about seeking the party’s nomination for governor in 2017 — or earlier, if need be.

“We’re going to look at it after November,” said DiVincenzo, who is expected to have little trouble winning a fourth term in the fall against Republican Cedar Grove Councilman Peter Tanella. “Listen, I’ve got one race at a time.”

DiVincenzo made the remarks to two reporters after Gov. Chris Christie joined him at a ribbon cutting ceremony with him to open a new building at the Turtle Back Zoo. He acknowledged that his relationship with Christie, a Republican, has hurt him with Democrats.

As Christie campaigned for re-election against former Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), DiVincenzo not only endorsed the Republican governor, he also helped convince several Essex County Democratic mayors to back him.

But DiVincenzo said if he does run, it will be on his record as county executive.

“Everybody talks about what I’ve done with the infrastructure. The best thing I’ve done with this county is get our financial house in order. This county, when I took over, we had a $64 million deficit. Today we have a $44 million surplus,” DiVincenzo said. “I love being the county exec, and there’s no question I would look at it down the road.”

Other Democrats mulling runs for governor include Senate President Stephen Sweeney, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop and former German ambassador Phil Murphy.

Potential Republican candidates include Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, state Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. and state Sen. Christopher "Kip" Bateman.

When told DiVincenzo said he'd think about running, Hetty Rosenstein — state director for the Communication Workers of America — gave out a long laugh.

"For which party?" said Rosenstein, whose union, which represents about 30,000 state workers, butted heads with DiVincenzo over his support for curtailing public workers' pension and health benefits. “Really, I thought he was a Republican.”

But Rosenstein said DiVincenzo would face more obstacles than his support of Christie — most notably, the fact that he's collecting a pension for the job he's still doing, and his use of campaign funds for a number of allegedly improper expenses, including a trip to Puerto Rico and golf games.

“There are ethical issues beyond the issue of supporting Chris Christie and betraying any Democratic values," Rosenstein said.

Krista Jenkins, a political science professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University and executive director of its PublicMind poll, said the endorsement, the pension and the ethical troubles are big obstacles in a gubernatorial run.

“One of these things in isolation, yes, he could probably get by. But when you have a myriad of things, it makes it more difficult," Jekins said, adding that DiVincenzo's name recognition is probably low outside of Essex County.

DiVincenzo said he has plenty of time to think about it.

“It’s a lifetime away. It’s three years away,” he said.

Or maybe not. Trenton has been abuzz in recent months with speculation that Christie might leave office soon after making a decision on running for president, bumping up a contest for governor to 2015 or 2016.

But DiVincenzo doesn’t buy that talk.

“He loves being the governor,” DiVincenzo said. “Everybody’s saying he’s going to (leave office), but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

DiVincenzo said that he envisions Christie leaving office only if he wins the Republican nomination for president.

“I think he’s going to run, and if he runs he’s going to be a strong candidate.The problem he’s going to have is his primary, getting through it,” DiVincenzo said of Christie, who famously embraced President Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. “Just like the Democrats are upset with me, the Republicans are upset with him.”

And if Christie does win the Republican nomination, DiVincenzo will not be endorsing him again. DiVincenzo said he will back whoever Essex County Democratic Chairman LeRoy Jones chooses.

“Listen, I’m a Democrat. I’ll always remain Democrat,” DiVincenzo said.

But then again, he did endorse Christie as governor.

“Yeah, but he was going to win,” DiVincenzo joked.

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