Cultivating Justice in the Garden State

The book drops tomorrow but David Wildstein has Chapter 3 – Settling Scores – on his blog so here is a taste.

For many people, Tom Dunn was Elizabeth. He was a divisive and polarizing figure, a lot like Donald Trump. He foreshadowed Trump’s attacks on Spanish-speaking immigrants when, in the 1980s, he ordered city employees to speak only English at work.

When I emerged on the political scene in Union County, Dunn attempted to get on Ma Green’s good side by giving me a job as attorney with the Elizabeth Planning Department. I worked in City Hall, and often the mayor would bring me in for political discussions, most of which consisted of him telling me how to succeed in politics—one lesson was about the importance of being able to look people in the eye and lie to them. He also bragged about how he was able to get back at anyone who crossed him without them even knowing about it.

And Dunn had his associations with mobsters. In the 1980s, he put Mafia soldier JoJo Ferarra on the city payroll as a municipal code inspector. JoJo was the personal protector of Giovanni “John the Eagle” Riggi, a member of the DeCavalcante crime family. Riggi was the leader of the “Elizabeth crew” in the family where he was a caporegime. Only in New Jersey.

The key to getting ahead in New Jersey politics is having the county organization’s line. Running with the support of the party’s machinery is important everywhere, but it’s especially so in the Garden State, where our county organizations are stronger than in other states.

Dunn played his cards perfectly. He was working against me behind the scenes, and I was blissfully unaware. On the night of the voting, the Rahway Democratic chair flipped against me, and Dennis Estis, the Union County Democratic chair, broke a tie in favor of Dunn’s choice, who of course also had the vote of Elizabeth’s chair. Estis told me I had no chance of winning and it would be in my best interest not to run. After all, he said, “don’t you have a law practice to be concerned about?” A thinly veiled threat. …I later learned that one of my presumed allies, the chair of Rahway’s organization, had sided with the Dunn faction after being promised a ten- thousand-dollar-a-year part-time job as a legislative aide. Malheureusement, he never got the job because I defeated his candidate. If you wonder why politicians prize loyalty, that’s why. Politics is a volatile business, and politicians need to know who will stand by them and who might not. The Rahway chair turned against me for a ten-thousand-dollar promise. Loyalty doesn’t have a price tag.

I turned over my petitions to a young volunteer, James Devine, who was an ardent enemy of Dunn because of a tussle Dunn had had with his dad. I gave him a train ticket to file my petitions with the secretary of state in Trenton. After he returned, Devine said to me with an impish smile, “If Dunn was willing to promise the Rahway Democratic chair ten thousand dollars to knock you off the line, how much do you think I could have gotten to toss your petitions in a trash can and knock you off the ballot.” We both laughed, but it was an indication of how Devine’s mind worked. He would later become a controversial political consultant with a particularly devious side to him.

My Election Night party was at, of course, the Bayway Polish Home.

Speaking of arrogance, when asked by a reporter how it felt to be knocked off the Union County Democratic organization line, I responded, “I am the Union County Democratic organization.” Oops. Nevertheless, my victory surely was sweet vindication for me and a huge embarrassment for Dunn, who spared no moment campaigning against me, even firing a young campaign volunteer who was an umpire in the Elizabeth Recreation Softball League. His name was Chris Bollwage. Big mistake. So now it was my turn to go after Dunn.

That’s when I let him in on my cunning plan. “Chris,” I said, “you’re going to run against Dunn for mayor next year. And when you do, you’ll be able to attack him for holding two offices at the same time.” Chris and I both knew that Dunn almost lost his reelection in ’76 when Conti attacked him for being mayor and state senator at the time. Pretty good plan, I thought. But Chris still was shocked, and at the moment, it’s safe to say he didn’t see how this was going to work out. But work out it did. Dunn went on to win the Assembly seat, and I was reelected easily, but I hadn’t forgotten Dunn’s threat to challenge me. It just had to wait for the right time, as the poet Lady Mary Montgomerie Currie wrote: Tout vient a qui sait attendre. All good things come to those who wait.

I switched positions in the State House in 1983 when I won a special election for state Senate when the incumbent, John Gregorio, resigned from the Senate and from his job as mayor of Linden after he was convicted of income tax evasion, hiding his financial interest in two go-go bars in the city. (At my request Governor Tom Kean later pardoned Gregorio, who made a remarkable comeback, winning election as mayor again in 1990. More on that later.)

2 responses to this post.

  1. […] Wildstein had Chapter 3 – Settling Scores – on his blog which led a blog here. Now the book is out and reveals Union County political power broker Raymond Lesniak to be in line […]

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  2. […] Wildstein had Chapter 3 – Settling Scores – on his blog which led a my first blog. Now the book is out and reveals Union County political power broker Raymond Lesniak to be in line […]

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