Speculation on who will be Jerry Speziale’s replacement as candidate for Democratic sheriff on the Passaic County ballot spun full tilt in political circles last week. And the one name that has grown from sleeper to an A-list contender is state Sen. John Girgenti, the veteran lawmaker from Hawthorne.
No one would ever accuse the low-key Girgenti of having the public-relations panache of Speziale, whose abrupt departure for a top post at the Port Authority Police Department stunned the somnolent world of Passaic County politics last week.
But Girgenti brings some political assets to the ballot that could soften the loss of Speziale’s star power and the more than $1 million in campaign cash that he has vowed to give to charities. Girgenti is a formidable fund-raiser in his own right with $342,500 in his 2011 reelection fund. Election laws bar Girgenti from transferring those funds directly to a sheriff’s account. But that rule could easily be dodged — he could simply donate the money to the Passaic County Democratic Committee, which could then, in turn, finance his campaign.
Girgenti, 63, also has name recognition built up over a 32-year career in the Legislature, his first 12 in the Assembly. He has served in the state Senate since 1990 when he was named to fill the seat vacated by the death of former Paterson Mayor Francis X. Graves. And he also has demonstrated cross-party appeal, carrying the Paterson-centric 35th Legislative District from his Republican-leaning hometown of Hawthorne.
Girgenti could not be reached for comment on Friday, but party officials say, at least for now, Girgenti has expressed some initial hesitation. “John in a very deliberative guy,’’ said one prominent Passaic Democrat with knowledge of the replacement discussions. “I would say he has not dismissed the idea.”
Passaic County Democratic Chairman John Currie, who is expected to announce a preferred replacement pick sometime in the next two weeks, also spoke highly of Girgenti.
“He would be on my short, short list,” Currie said. “He has done a good job as senator, he has good name recognition and he is known around Passaic County.”
Despite his hesitancy, the sheriff’s race might give Girgenti the escape hatch to avoid a humiliating close to a long career.
Earlier this year, Girgenti lost control of the Hawthorne Democratic Committee and his chairmanship to Jeff Gardner, the former Girgenti staffer and Garden State Equality activist who ran a relentless grass-roots campaign as payback for Girgenti’s vote against legislation to legalize gay marriages. He could also face a primary from a Paterson-based challenger, eager to tap local frustration of the Silk City not having a hometown advocate in the Senate.
But that challenge assumes that Paterson will remain in Girgenti’s district after the looming redistricting, set to be completed in early 2011. Girgenti could find himself running in a realigned 40th Legislative District that could, for example, ditch Wayne and replace it with Hawthorne and North Haledon. Or the district could be redrawn with a larger, more urban base, which could also put him in a primary fight.
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