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New York Times: For Joseph Doria, A Rare Election. He's Not Running.

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Posted by 11-02-03 on November 04, 2003 at 06:10:02:

New York Times, New Jersey Section

November 2, 2003

For Joseph Doria, A Rare Election. He's Not Running.

By TERRY GOLWAY

Caption: Photos: Joseph V. Doria who lost his speakership and then his Assembly seat, walked away with a reputation as a "legislator's legislator." (Photo by Dith Pran/The New York Times)(pg. 1); Though no longer in the Legislature, Joseph V. Doria remains the mayor of Bayonne, a vibrant city that bears few of the scars that have disfigured much of urban New Jersey. (Photo by Dith Pran/The New York Times)(pg. 8)

BAYONNE: JOSEPH V. DORIA JR., the senior member of the state Assembly and keeper of its institutional memory, shifted in his chair when a visitor mentioned the word "tragedy." While certainly overstated, it was the word Mr. Doria's friends and allies chose when describing what happened to him this summer.

"I don't know if it was a tragedy," he said. "What is meant to be is meant to be."

Push him a little more, however, and Mr. Doria becomes a bit less philosophical. "I believe," he added, "that I got whipsawed."

And that, his friends argue, was not meant to be.

For the first time in a generation, the name of Joseph V. Doria will not appear on the ballot in Tuesday's state legislative elections. A onetime speaker and leader of the Assembly Democrats during their decade in the minority, Mr. Doria, 57, lost his re-election bid in a Democratic primary in June.

Neither ideology nor issues figured much in his demise. He was collateral damage in the bitter and bloody civil war between Mayor Glenn Cunningham of Jersey City and Representative Robert Menendez for a control of that celebrated -- and often notorious -- institution, the Hudson County Democratic Organization.

Mr. Doria was part of a three-member slate of regular Democrats that lost to Mr. Cunningham's insurgent team in the party primary. Mr. Doria lost by about 500 votes. First elected to the Assembly in 1979, he will leave office in January, although his career is far from finished. He remains the mayor of Bayonne, a vibrant city of 62,000 that bears few of the scars that have disfigured so much of urban New Jersey.

It was in Trenton, however, that Joseph Doria became a player in New Jersey politics. While his name never became particularly well-known outside of his district, Mr. Doria needed no introductions when he walked the State House halls. A husky man with a beard and a doctorate from Columbia Teachers College (in educational leadership), Mr. Doria gained a reputation for his affability as well as his command of issues. Donald Scarinci, a Hudson County attorney who was Mr. Doria's counsel in the speaker's office, described his former boss as "the Sam Rayburn of New Jersey," referring to the legendary Texan who served as House speaker for all but four years from 1940 to 1961. "That's the kind of stature he had," Mr. Scarinci added. "He was a legislator's legislator"

Few politicians get to lead a caucus as long as Mr. Doria led the Assembly Democrats - a dozen years. Fewer manage to gain the respect and even affection of the opposition. But Mr. Doria did. "Nobody ever asked Joe Doria for an audience and was denied," said one longtime lobbyist, Alan Marcus. "It didn't matter whether you were a contributor, or a friend, or not. Joe wanted to hear all points of view. He was the most policy-oriented legislator I've ever seen."

Alan Steinberg, a former Whitman administration official who was an adviser to Mr. Doria's Republican successor as speaker, Garabed Haytaian, agreed. "In the New Jersey Assembly, Joe was a person of unquestioned decency and boundless compassion," Mr. Steinberg said. "For Republicans, he was a political adversary without being a personal enemy."

With his impressive resume (a bachelor's degree in history from St. Peter's College and a master's in American studies from Boston College to go along with his doctorate from Columbia) and his passion for history, Mr. Doria gained a reputation as the house intellectual, if you will, of the Hudson County Democratic organization. And while academicians in politics are not always known for the common touch, as Gov. Woodrow Wilson demonstrated during his years in Trenton, Joseph V. Doria the powerful legislator never stopped being Joe Doria from Bayonne, a man with a cluttered desk, a straightforward manner and an aversion for slick self-promotion.

Mr. Doria's legislative accomplishments number in the dozens, from his sponsorship of New Jersey's ban on assault weapons to any number of bills related to his main policy interest - education.

"In the Assembly, he was the go-to person on education bills, from pre-K to post-secondary," said John B. Wilson, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in New Jersey.

Mr. Marcus, the lobbyist, said he dealt with Mr. Doria on health-care legislation in the early 1990's, and the Assembly leader was able to bring politicians, lobbyists and insurance executives together to hammer out a compromise.

That quality, political insiders say, marked Mr. Doria as a throwback to an earlier era in Trenton, when access was not so blatantly tied to campaign finance, and when even the inevitable rough-and-tumble of state politics did not seem so, well, rough. "Joe Doria is an example of days gone by when you were expected to be civil and courteous to those with whom you disagreed," said former Gov. James J. Florio. "He is a commendable model of commitment to substance and to civility in public life. The absence of civility precludes the ability of people to come together."

Paradoxically, Mr. Florio said, Mr. Doria was brought down last June by "politics that do not lend themselves to compromise and conciliation."

Welcome to Hudson County, where knuckles are bare, tempers short and memories long.

Mr. Doria's defeat is a direct result of the chaos, divisions and outright hatreds that make Hudson County politics a spectacle like no other in New Jersey. The Democratic organization's patron saint is the late, longtime mayor of Jersey City, Frank Hague, one of the most formidable bosses in American history and author of the deathless phrase, "I am the law."

Often, the mayor of Jersey City is the party's most powerful figure. But in 1993, something highly unusual took place there. Bret Shundler, a Republican, was elected mayor of Jersey City. Suddenly, there was no Democratic mayor in the county's largest city to claim first dibs on patronage, contracts and other spoils. Into the void stepped the Hudson County executive, Robert Janiszewski, who took over the organization and imposed order and discipline. Much of the time, however, Mr. Janiszewski was taking bribes, as he has admitted in court. When the escapades of Mr. Janiszewski caught the attention of federal investigators, he was persuaded to tape his conversations while conducting his transactions. Once that came to light, beads of sweat began forming on the brows of political insiders on and off the public payroll. The Democratic organization of Hudson County plunged into disarray.

Mr. Menendez, a congressman with enormous influence in Washington, is based in Union City in Hudson County, and he cultivated his own alliances within the organization. But when Mr. Shundler relinquished the mayoralty of Jersey City to mount an unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2001, precedent returned to the city and a Democrat, Glenn Cunningham, was elected to City Hall. Mr. Cunningham sought to re-establish the primacy that other Democratic mayors of Jersey City enjoyed over the county organization, but he found Mr. Menendez in his way.

The result was last spring's vicious battle in the 31st legislative district. Mr. Cunningham ran for state Senate (not an uncommon phenomenon in New Jersey politics), and Anthony Chiappone and Louis Manzo joined him as Assembly candidates. Mr. Doria ran on a slate with L. Harvey Smith as the Senate candidate and Elba Perez-Cinciarelli as the other Assembly candidate. The battle lines were drawn; political insiders watched as Mr. Cunningham tested his political muscle against candidates considered to be aligned with Mr. Menendez and his ally, State Senator Bernard Kenny, the Hudson County Democratic chairman.

"It was a case where you had two very strong forces that were inalterably opposed to each other," Mr. Doria said. Mr. Cunningham's strength in Jersey City, which makes up about 60 percent of the district, was too much for Mr. Doria and his running mates to overcome. All three were defeated.

More than the loss itself, it was the reason behind Mr. Doria's downfall that infuriated his allies and surprised agnostic onlookers. Rarely are senior legislators sacrificed so casually in a political blood feud. To Mr. Marcus, Mr. Doria was "a victim of what politics in New Jersey has become - we don't care about policy. We only care about politics."

The battle continued to simmer even into late October in the form of a lawsuit filed on behalf of Mr. Doria and his running mates. The suit, widely expected to fail, charged the Cunningham slate with several electoral irregularities, which is why Mr. Menendez remained unwilling to concede that Mr. Doria's legislative career was over. But if it came to that, he said, "New Jersey will be worse off."

The congressman made it plain that Mr. Doria's unexpected loss has done nothing to ease the bitterness in Hudson County. "It is not unusual to have tough primaries," Mr. Menendez said. "But none of them have ever been of the nature that this one took."

As Mr. Menendez put it, the "lack of any rules of engagement by one side" was unprecedented, "even in my 30 years of public life in Hudson County."

Reiterating charges that the Cunningham team violated state campaign finance regulations, the congressman said: "You ultimately say to yourself, 'Is the right person on the ballot?' One side played according to the rules of the game and the other did not."

Mayor Cunningham, who figures to win his Senate race on Tuesday, had some kind words for Mr. Doria, though none for Mr. Menendez.

"Joe served the people of Bayonne and Jersey City honorably," Mr. Cunningham said. "I'm just disappointed that he hasn't accepted the will of the people" -- a reference to the lingering litigation over last spring's primary. Of Mr. Menendez, with whom he once had a warmer relationship, the mayor said: "He needs to concentrate on being a congressman and stop being the new Frank Hague. The congressman is Goliath in Hudson County. I'm David. And Goliath doesn't think David should have a slingshot."

Mr. Doria's defeat came less than two years after he lost a chance to resume his place as speaker after the Democrats recaptured the Assembly in 2001. But Governor McGreevey, whom Mr. Doria had opposed during his primary campaign in 1996, instead chose Alberto Sires of Union County, an obscure one-term legislator, as the compromise candidate to be the new speaker. This headed off what could have been an acrimonious revolt against Mr. Doria's leadership from Assemblyman Joseph Roberts of Camden County.

Mr. Roberts, an ally of the pre-emininent Democratic power broker of South Jersey, George Norcross III, had been feuding with Mr. Doria over the number of appointments handed out to South Jersey Democrats. This was precisely the kind of headache the new governor did not want, so Mr. Sires emerged as the alternative to outright war.

After leading the Democrats through the wilderness of minority party status for a decade, a "disappointed" Mr. Doria went along with the young governor's wishes. "You can't always get what you want," he said. "Didn't somebody write a song about that?"

Friends say Mr. Doria's conspicuous lack of bitterness, at least in public, is just another part of what made him stand out as a leader and a legislator. The Rev. James Loughran, president of St. Peter's College in Jersey City, where Mr. Doria worked as an administrator during most of his time in the Assembly, described him as "uncomplaining."

"He took the Sires appointment in stride," Father Loughran said, "and he is taking this latest event in stride."

Perhaps that is because he still has a job, unlike many politicians who lose re-election bids. Being mayor of Bayonne is a good deal more than a consolation prize for Mr. Doria, who can continue to preside over the city of his birth, and a city in which he and his wife, Maribeth, are raising their daughter, Margaret Mary. With its low-density housing stock, most of it one- and two-family homes, and its thriving commercial strip on Broadway, Bayonne is "the kind of place that reminds people of what Hudson County used to be," said Mr. Scarinci. "It's a place out of time."

That image is hard to shake as you walk its tidy streets, patrolled by an endless battalion of crossing guards. Every other block, it seems, has a house of worship of one denomination or another. The Catholic churches, like those of the 1950's, often are associated with a particular ethnic group - Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which has a Polish congregation, is adjacent to St. Michael the Archangel, whose worshipers are Lithuanian. The city's main shopping district is long on mom-and-pop operations, including at least two old-fashioned hardware stores that defy the onslaught of big box stores elsewhere.

Still, while it seems well-suited to a mayor described as a throwback to another era, Bayonne has changed a great deal in recent decades. Gone are the thousands of blue-collar jobs that Standard Oil and Texaco once provided along the city's waterfront. Those jobs have not been replaced, but thanks to a light-rail line that offers easy access to Jersey City and the PATH, Bayonne is now attracting commuters who work in financial services and other white-collar jobs. That trend is expected to grow as the city develops the former Military Ocean Terminal, a 430-acre waterfront site on which thousands of new homes will be built in coming years.

With just a little less than three years left on his current term as mayor, Mr. Doria will have lots of ribbons to cut as the terminal development moves forward. But he declined to characterize the project as his legacy to his home town.

"I don't believe in legacy projects," he said. "I hope everything I do leaves a legacy, from the biggest to the smallest."

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