The power of power: Rice grouses about DiVincenzo but backs Jones for chair in Essex

By Max Pizarro | November 16th, 2013


WEST ORANGE – State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-28) paced in the wings of the West Orange High School cafeteria with pen in hand, jotting 11th hour words on a scrap of paper, amid rumors of a coming Joe DiVincenzo-dress down.

He was a few speakers removed from his moment at the microphone.

The most memorable political productions attributed to Steve Adubato, Sr. over the years have a ring of grandeur and symbolic suggestion somewhere on the order of the best Broadway renditions of Titus Andronicus.

Today bore some of that dramatic allusion, as the Essex County Democratic Committee regrouped following the general election to anoint a new chairman to succeed the late Phil Thigpen, a loyal Democrat who died at 87 amid optics of the most powerful countywide elected official in Democrat-powerful Essex campaigning with Republican Gov. Chris Christie.

That would be Essex County Executive DiVincenzo, who appeared today along with the other stars of the party, including U.S. Senator Cory Booker, U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, Jr. (D-10), State Party Chairman John Currie, state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29), state Sen. Nia Gill (D-34), Assemblywoman (and former Speaker) Sheila Oliver (D-34), Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-28), Assemblywoman Grace Spencer (D-29), Assemblyman Tom Giblin (D-34), and Rice, in a brace of party district leaders and other elected officials anchored by the proud East Orange contingent here to affirm the organization’s new chairman, Leroy Jones of East Orange.

“We’ll address that later,” said Jones, when asked if he was ready, moments after he became the new chair, to commit to the re-election of DiVincenzo.

But he doesn’t need to answer the question.

He’s already answered it.

A longtime DiVincenzo ally, Jones leads 1868 Public Affairs, a consultancy firm that counted among its team members at one time or another Ocean County GOP Chairman George Gilmore and Joe DiVIncenzo, Jr., son of the powerful county executive who bear-hugged Christie routinely in his campaign appearance leading up to Christie resounding 60-38% victory.

Insiders say Jones would sooner endorse Rand Paul for president than back someone other than old chum DiVincenzo.

Early murmurs of an organized statement against the county exec as party payback for embracing the GOP governor frayed somewhat when the Democrats assumed their seats here in the high school cafeteria.

A giggling, devious insider pointed to the front row seating arrangements, where DiVincenzo occupied a chair alongside SEIU 1199 leader Milly Silva, the unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Barbara Buono.

Silva had to choke down a season’s worth of Christie-DiVincenzo setpieces as she vainly attempted to get traction for team Buono-Silva.

There's continuing chatter about her emerging as the infuriated renegade leader of the boot Joe D. movement.

Today she was here as part of yet another orchestrated setpiece.

“I’m here to honor Chairman Thigpen and to embrace the next chairman,” a patiently smiling Silva told, when asked if her proximity to DiVincenzo should be interpreted as a 2014 endorsement of the Democrat who backed the opposing team in the general.

Rice was less charitable.

The Vietnam veteran and former Marine went to the microphone following Booker’s love hug with Essex and the U.S. Senator’s recognition of a home county that overwhelmingly backed him in his special election as he prepares to run in 2014 or a full six year term.

“If it wasn’t for a mighty powerful turnout in Essex County,” Booker told the crowd, “I might not be here right now.”

Then it was Rice’s turn.

“Some people in our own party did some things to him,” he said of the late Mr. Thigpen, referring to a years-old effort by Adubato and DiVincenzo to overthrow the chairman. “This is a party of Democrats. The chairman is looking down on us as we deliberate.”

There was anger in his voice as he spoke about a comeuppance.

“Speak, Ron,” voices in the crowd said.

There were people who wanted a rebuke of DiVincenzo for what he did.

But ultimately Rice backed Jones for chairman, adding his voice to the chorus of others.

An insider pointed out that the maverick senator from Newark can buck DiVincenzo at the peril of his freeholder, Rufus Johnson - who’s up for re-election next year - losing the line.

Sources said Payne is already inked to back DiVIncenzo’s re-election.

As for the county executive, he left no doubt about his own designs.

“I’m running,” he said, and laid out the case to party members – Triple A bond rating, $40 million county budget surplus, etc.

The buses pulled out of the parking lot.

This production was nothing compared to what’s coming, DiVincenzo promised as the executive contemplates his 2014 kickoff in a few weeks.

“Wait till you see it,” said the powerful county executive, who bear-hugged Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop following the latter's address to Essex Democrats amid chatter of a 2017 Fulop run for governor.

Fulop’s presence underscored the power of Essex in a future Democratic Primary for governor, where right now the mayor of Jersey City, who claimed to be in attendance on behalf of the 12 mayors of Hudson County, finds himself in an early rundown with Senate President Steve Sweeeny (D-3).

One party insider, his eyes sagging morosely through the web of his hands covering his face, said, “Not only is Joe D. organizationally insulated by Donald Payne and Cory Booker in 2014 and protected from any party payback, but he’s in great shape – as county executive of Essex - to pick the next Democratic governor. Watch, as both Sweeney and Fulop try to kiss his a**.”

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