Lesniak Touts Experience and Ability in Bid to Lead Democratic Party

Barbara Buono’s selection of Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell (D-Hudson) to head the state Democratic party is not sitting well with many in her party. The Democratic gubernatorial candidate has traditionally been given the right to choose the state party chair. But Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-20), who is now vying for that job, tells NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider that these are not traditional times.

According to Lesniak, the Democratic party is in shambles and needs somebody with his experience and ability to bring members back in line and help Buono’s gubernatorial bid. He compares Buono’s predicament to the one Gov. Jim Florio faced after two years in office.

“Gov. Florio came to me and said, ‘I want you to be my state chair cause I need your help,'” Lesniak recalled. “We brought the party back. He came within one point of winning. His approval rating at the time was 18 points. He was down by more than 30 points just like Barbara Buono is now. So there’s a challenge that I took on and I feel that it’s needed now because the party is falling apart.”

It’s not just Buono who is in danger of losing in November, says Lesniak. He fears the party will lose control over the entire legislature.

“Unless we have strong leadership, including a strong state Democratic chair who can close the gap or help win the election for Barbara Buono, that there’s a real likelihood that we will lose both houses, and that’s one of the responsibilities of a state Democratic chair,” Lesniak said.

Although Lesniak says he finds nothing wrong with Buono’s pick, he acknowledges that O’Donnell has been something of a lightning rod within the Democratic party.

“He’s a controversial figure within the Democratic party, has split the Democratic party in the past, took on the Speaker of the Assembly,” he said. “It’s not a healing nomination and I think we need somebody quite frankly who has the gravitas.”

One key Democratic leader who publicly spoke out against O’Donnell as party chair is Senate President Steve Sweeney, who described O’Donnell as a “beard,” or a front-man for Joe Cryan, the Union County assemblyman who served as state party chairman during former Gov. Jon Corzine’s failed 2009 reelection campaign against then-Republican candidate Chris Christie.

It’s a description of O’Donnell Lesniak says he doesn’t agree with, but he does question O’Donnell’s ability to lead the party during what he calls “very serious times.”

“I’ve been in office for quite awhile, [having been a] pretty effective legislator to say the least, and I’ve been up to the mountain with Bill Clinton. As a matter of fact, James Carvllle, before he was Bill Clinton’s political advisor, worked for me. David Plough, before he was President Obama’s political advisor worked for me.”

When asked why Buono’s choice shouldn’t be honored, Lesniak pointed to the number of defections by a number of Democrats who have thrown their support behind Gov. Chris Christie, not to mention the fundraising gap between the parties.

“I have national fundraising contacts I can go to. A lot of people have told me … if you’re there, we’re in, but if not, we have no interest. This unusual time calls for different solutions,” Lesniak said.

One of those solutions would be naming him to lead the party come Thursday when the state committee meets, he says.