Conservative Candidate Loses Legal Fight in N.J. Governor's Race

By Jeff McKay | July 7, 2008 | 8:27 PM EDT

( - New Jersey's 2001 race for governor, perhaps the most closely watched election in America this year, is mired in lawsuits. Within hours of a Superior Court judge dismissing an attempt by conservative Republican candidate Bret Schundler to block the inclusion of a more liberal opponent in the Republican primary, the Democratic State Committee filed its own lawsuit. Democrats argue that the law that allowed former U.S. Rep. Bob Franks to step in and replace acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco as the GOP establishment's favorite candidate on the ballot last month was unconstitutional.

The Democrats' lawsuit, much like the suit filed by Schundler, contends the Republican majority in the state Senate violated house rules the day it introduced a bill to move the June 5 primary to June 26. Democrats allege that the New Jersey GOP illegally manipulated the primary date in order to give the sinking DiFrancesco more time to get out of the race and be replaced by Franks.

While the New Jersey Legislature's rules require 21 members to be present for the Senate to conduct business such as the introduction of bills, the Democrats' suit contends it took the GOP from 10:00 a.m. to 2:52 p.m. on April 20 to get that many senators to Trenton to officially register their presence. By the time the 21st senator showed up and the bill was formally introduced to set up a vote on April 23, only one of his colleagues was still there, according to the lawsuit.

The suit asks a state court to invalidate the law, which in moving the primary also extended a deadline for DiFrancesco to withdraw from the race and name a successor. If that deadline had not been moved, DiFrancesco's withdrawal on April 25 would have left Schundler as the only GOP candidate in the race.

The state GOP has been against Schundler's entry into the primary race from the beginning, and remains very uncomfortable with the thought of having the conservative Schundler as the leader of what is generally recognized as a liberal-leaning state GOP.

Charlie Smith, the campaign manager for Bob Franks, believes the Democrats were resorting to "frivolous legal tactics" in light of a new poll that showed Franks in a dead heat with the Democratic candidate, Woodbridge Mayor Jim McGreevey.

In the suit brought by Schundler, the candidate's attorney Brian McAlindin noted that the stated reason for moving the primary was to allow courts time to decide whether the state's new redrawn legislative districts were constitutional. McAlindin argued that since the gubernatorial race isn't affected by legislative districts, the only reason the gubernatorial primary was moved was to allow DiFrancesco time to drop out of the race to be replaced by Franks.

Schundler's campaign also wanted the court to rule that it would be an unfair advantage for Franks to receive public funds for his election and spend up to the regular cap. McAlindin contended that Franks benefited from DiFrancesco's advertising.

Judge Linda Feinberg ruled that Franks may remain a Republican candidate for governor, and spend the maximum allowed under the state's matching fund program. Feinberg also rejected Schundler's contention that $1.2 million in donations DiFrancesco handed over to Franks, including the money DiFrancesco had already spent, should be counted against the $5.9 million ceiling of how much Franks may spend during the primary campaign.

But Feinberg's ruling didn't end the court fight for Schundler. McAlindin vowed an appeal to the state Supreme Court. And Franks must still face the Democrats in court.

Although Franks' camp alleges it is McGreevey who is behind this latest litigation, a spokesman for McGreevey said the candidate did not instigate the lawsuit, but is sympathetic to its goal.

"We do agree the Republicans manipulated the system and exploited the power they have in Trenton to try to perpetuate political control," said McGreevey spokesman Richard McGrath.

Smith counters, "People across America are tired of courtrooms being involved in their elections."

All of the legal wrangling began when DiFrancesco, just three days after formally announcing his candidacy, dropped out of the race due to numerous ethics allegations and pressure from within his own party. Republican insiders feared DiFrancesco could not beat the Democrat McGreevey, and his loss might also allow Democrats to seize control of the state legislature. Polls had showed DiFrancesco behind as much as 18 percent to McGreevey, while Schundler, the mayor of Jersey City and a favorite of national conservative leaders, was gaining steadily in the primary.

Schundler now faces a dilemma outside of the dismissal of his lawsuit. At the onset of his candidacy, he stated he would not take taxpayer generated matching funds for his campaign. However, he has already spent money against DiFrancesco, who is no longer a candidate, and his new opponent not only said he would accept matching funds, but was given over $1 million from the DiFrancesco campaign. By refusing the matching funds, Schundler would be at a huge financial disadvantage with just under eight weeks left in the primary campaign.