NEWARK, NJ - In a show of force intended to dissuade potential primary challengers, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo announced his re-election campaign amid a sea of supporters from Washington, D.C. to Trenton, from Newark City Hall to the outer reaches of West Essex.
"Essex County has never been this strong, not only here, but throughout the state of New Jersey," said DiVincenzo as he stood in front of a human wall of Democratic politicians from up and down the state. "Good government is good politics. And that's what I've done my entire career."
DiVincenzo, a Newark native who now lives in Roseland, is seeking his fifth term. He was first elected county executive in 2002.
Among those showing their support for DiVincenzo were U.S. Senators Cory Booker and Robert Menendez, U.S. Reps. Donald Payne and Albio Sires, Senate President Steve Sweeney, State Senators M. Teresa Ruiz, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, State Assembly members Tom Giblin, Eliana Pintor Marin, Blonnie Watson, Cleopatra Tucker and Ralph Caputo, Assemblywoman-elect Shanique Speight, Bloomfield Mayor and Bloomfield Democratic Chair Mike Venezia, West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi, Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca, Livingston Mayor Shawn Klein, Essex County Clerk Chris Durkin, Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura, Essex County Democratic Chairman LeRoy Jones Jr., and Freeholder Vice President and Montclair Democratic Chair Brendan Gill.
The best example of Joe D's demonstration of strength was the presence of the Garden State's greatest Irish-American politician, there to extol the virtues of New Jersey's most powerful Italian-American politician.
"You've given me great advice. In some cases, it's been tough love advice," said Governor-Elect Phil Murphy, who was repeatedly and pointedly reminded by DiVincenzo of his 'Put Essex First' slogan, as well as of the huge plurality that mostly-Democratic Essex provided Murphy last Election Day. "But at every step, you've been the umpire who called balls and strikes for me. And I will never forget that."
"All of this turnout here today is a testament to the amount of lives of people that the county executive has touched, and the work that he has done over the years to make sure that we have good government," said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.
"We have worked very closely together on many projects," Baraka said. "He has always been a voice for this city. As soon as I came into office [in 2014], he worked tirelessly to make sure that we got everything we needed to move this city forward. Joe D is a partner to all of us in this county to make sure that we get what we need in order to move our cities forward."
Baraka's benevolent tone belies the historical friction between the mayor and county executive. In the 2014 mayoral race, DiVencenzo endorsed Shavar Jeffries, Baraka's rival. In a Dec. 8 advisory issued by DiVincenzo's office, Baraka's name was noticeably absent from the list of political luminaries slated to attend.
Yet when Baraka ultimately did make his appearance at DiVincenzo's re-election campaign launch on Monday morning, all was apparently forgiven.
"I know that he was not always on the right side of things, and he had to pray about it, and God visited him," Baraka said as the crowd of over 150 people laughed. "He came to understand what the right thing to do was, and since then he's been on the right track. We're together. We're tied at the hip. And the county of Essex is together. We're unified."
Other politicians present noted the total municipal unanimity behind DiVincenzo's re-election bid.
"When the county executive gets asked what is his greatest feat, he'll respond that it is making sure that the fiscal crisis that was looming over all of the county's 22 municipalities was fixed," said Ruiz (D-29), whose legislative district includes parts of Newark.
"But the greatest asset that he has is ensuring that our children have a place where they can work, live, and play," Ruiz said. "It may be cold outside, but the heat and passion of putting Essex County first has never been greater than it is now."
DiVincenzo touted his record during his stump speech. He particularly pointed to what he views as his main achievements, including the county bond rating being upgraded 16 times over the last 15 years to the verge of the highest AAA rating, as well as holding the county's annual property tax increase to just 1.6 percent over the last six years, a number that is below the 2 percent state cap.
DiVincenzo also noted several infrastructure improvements, including the overhaul of the county-run Turtle Back Zoo and the planting of more than 5,000 cherry blossom trees in Branch Brook Park, the signature green public garden of the county system, which hosts the world renowned Cherry Blossom Festival every spring.
Some political observers wondered that a Democratic county executive primary rival might be growing in Essex County when Jim Johnson, an attorney from Montclair and an under secretary of the Treasury during the Clinton administration, made a surprisingly strong showing against Murphy in this year's Democratic gubernatorial primary.
But in an interview with TAPinto Newark, DiVincenzo chopped that concept down.
"Listen, I never worry about anybody else. You only worry about yourself," DiVincenzo said. "I don't think anybody would have the record to do be able to do the things I was able to do and accomplish."
DiVincenzo also said that he isn't worried about whether a four-year legal battle with the New Jersey State Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) would damage his re-election chances. He agreed to settle its charges that he misused and obscured campaign funds, consenting to pay a fine of more than $20,000.
"It's been resolved, and it has nothing to do with government. We could have continued to fight it. But I thought that the best thing for everybody was to end it," DiVincenzo said. "People don't care about that. People care about their tax dollars, and what you're doing with them."
Newark native Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver (D-34), now on the verge of becoming New Jersey's first African-American lieutenant governor after serving as Murphy's second on their winning ticket, alluded to age as she backed Joe D's drive for another term.
"He started serving people in Essex at The North Ward Center, while I was in the South Ward. We are the same age. I want you to know that you have not missed your stride," said Oliver, 65.
One reason that DiVincenzo wants to preside over the county government of more than 800,000 people hearkens back to another number: eleven—the number of players on his Newark's Barringer High School football team, where he was the quarterback.
"I learned about being a leader. I grew up with all the other kids in the North Ward of Newark, and I was able to work my way up," DiVincenzo said. "That experience taught me how to be a team member, and it absolutely taught me how to take a shot and get back up."