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Our Towns: You Can't Buy Publicity Like This

New York Times, March 7, 2001


BELMAR, N.J. -- IT'S tough for any New Jersey politician to become a household name. There's no statewide network television, and only the governor and United States senators are elected statewide.

Consider what it took for Jon Corzine to go from anonymous Wall Street mogul to senator: more than $60 million of his own money. By that standard, Donald T. DiFrancesco is having his name blasted around the state for a paltry sum: $225,000. And it's not even his money.

That's the amount that the K. Hovnanian Companies, one of the state's largest home builders, provided to help Mr. DiFrancesco satisfy a legal judgment in a failed real estate venture involving Mr. DiFrancesco, his brother and a cousin in their hometown of Scotch Plains. Mr. DiFrancesco, a lawyer, wound up accused of malpractice and wedged in a messy conflict between his relatives and local officials, whom he represented as township attorney.

The recent revelation of the oozing real estate deal has provided Mr. DiFrancesco with the biggest and most embarrassing headlines of his long political career just as people might finally be paying attention. The president of the State Senate, Mr. DiFrancesco also became acting governor on Jan. 31, after Christie Whitman exited for the Bush administration. He is also the leading Republican candidate for governor in the November election.

With more titles than Prince Charles, you might think Mr. DiFrancesco would be better known.

He got respectful applause at a soggy St. Patrick's Day Parade in this shore town on Sunday, marching behind two banners reading: "Acting Governor Donald DiFrancesco." But when he stepped out from behind the banners to shake hands, he seemed about as famous as a freeholder.

"Are you our governor?" asked Donna Cate, a medical supplies saleswoman. A moment after they had shaken hands and he had moved on, she was asked his name. She thought hard. "Donald Somebody."

In fact, to most voters, he is Acting Governor Fill In the Blank, the pride of his township who was awarded the governor's office the way someone might win a free patio set for being the one-millionth customer at Costco.

HE hopes to turn his right-place- right-time governorship into the image of a candidate deserving to be elected. "By the end of June I want to establish some record," he said. "I want people to say, while he was there, he did something for the people of New Jersey."

While that is certainly a noble strategy - when in the governor's office, act gubernatorially - even some Republican leaders fear it might be overshadowed by questions about what he did in Scotch Plains.

"He was just getting known and bang, this thing hits," said Bill Dowd, the chairman of Monmouth County and a DiFrancesco supporter. Political handicappers say it could make him more vulnerable to his Republican primary opponent, Bret D. Schundler, the Jersey City mayor.

Anyone you ask about Mr. DiFrancesco answers by first saying how nice a person he is, helpful, nonideological, a consensus builder. The first two dozen times it sounds like a compliment, and then you begin to wonder what is not being said.

The same is true of the real estate deal. Mr. DiFrancesco and his supporters say it was simply a matter of his helping his brother. But there's also the appearance of the Senate president essentially accepting money from a major builder.

Mr. DiFrancesco helped his brother Paul and cousin raise money for a proposed Scotch Plains housing development in the mid-1980's. The development never came to fruition, and an investor sued all three DiFrancescos, accusing Donald of malpractice. In the mid-1990's, with Hovnanian interested in buying the DiFrancesco land, Donald DiFrancesco settled the investor's lawsuit for $225,000 and arranged for Hovnanian to cover the cost of the settlement, as part of the transaction. Scotch Plains foreclosed on the land for nonpayment of taxes, the DiFrancesco project ended up in bankruptcy, and Hovnanian and other creditors never recovered their money.

It is no surprise this is emerging now, just as Mr. DiFrancesco is emerging. He had had a relatively smooth ride from his election as president of the 1962 senior class at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School to his 24 years of representing a safe Republican area of central New Jersey in the Legislature. Mr. DiFrancesco comes from a big and influential family in Scotch Plains, where his uncle was once mayor. As one county Democratic official said: "Donnie has no scars."

He still doesn't. Just a few fresh bruises.

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