2006 NJ US Senate Election: He was no Cher, and Democrats were not sunny

She wore a slinky black dress with silver sparkles, just like Cher.

She had curly black hair, too. And canned music so she could sing along with Cher's greatest hits.

But this was not your traditional impersonator. Because underneath it all, this lady was a man.

And that created a ruckus when she arrived at the Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City last week to sing and dance at the meeting of the gay caucus.

"We said listen, this is Atlantic City and it's a pretty irreverent place," says Steve Goldstein, founder of Garden State Equality, the state's leading gay-rights organization. "So let's have a little fun, and be a little campy."

Goldstein had no idea what was coming.

Party leaders were not about to let the gay caucus fix this image of the Democrats in the mind of the public. Certainly not during an election season.

So as "Cher" walked the hallways at Bally's Hotel and Casino before her performance on Friday evening, the party sent young workers to tear down the posters advertising her show.

Then Diane Legreide, the party's executive director, marched straight at Goldstein with a full-volume dressing down.

She doesn't recall her exact words and says her major concern was that Cher's performance might make too much noise.

But Goldstein and two witnesses to the confrontation say she didn't mention the music once. It was the cross-dressing that posed a problem.

"We can't have THAT walking in the hallway," they all recall Legreide saying. "What if the press sees that? What if they report on that in tomorrow's papers?"

The tiff has left sour feelings on all sides, at a very awkward moment.

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez is struggling in his election campaign and can use the help from an energized gay community.

Democrats are also bracing for the decisions on gay marriage from the state Supreme Court. That's expected before the November election, most likely before Chief Justice Deborah Poritz reaches mandatory retirement age on Oct. 26.

If the court rejects gay marriage, this fragile alliance could crack under the pressure.

Marriage equality is the top priority of the gay community. But most elected Democrats oppose it, saying the domestic-partnership law that extends some legal rights to gay couples went far enough.

That tension may explain why the dispute over Cher's appearance seems to have struck such a nerve.

"I got calls on this from all over the country," says Barbra Casbar, head of the New Jersey Stonewall Democrats. "The blogs have really gone off on it. We just need respect. It comes down to that."

For politicians, this isn't an easy call. It is safe to support domestic partnerships these days, especially when gay couples present themselves as mainstream family members who throw neighborhood barbecues and attend PTA meetings.

Cher is a different matter.

In private, Democrats say the public is just not ready to support full rights for transgender people. By making this public fuss now, they say, Goldstein is fanning resentments and helping Republicans.

"He's the Ralph Nader of New Jersey," one party activist said.

Emotions are at work as well. Goldstein says he drove away from Atlantic City in tears. Cher's mistreatment, he said, reminded him of the disrespect he has faced as a gay man.

"Behind the Cher wig is an actual human being," he says. "And all these transgender people -- maybe guys wearing wigs, or women who cut their hair short to become men -- they are real people with real jobs and real aspirations.

"What is the Democratic Party supposed to mean if it isn't the party of all the people who are shut out?"

For the record, Cher is a photographer and makeup artist who dresses as a man during the day. She gets $1,000 for her appearances as Cher, usually at weddings.

And she did sing that night, politicians be damned.

Among those dancing was Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a 71-year-old grandmother from Bergen County, who counsels her fellow Democrats to take a pill and relax.

"Cher wasn't great," Weinberg says. "But I survived it. And I didn't catch anything. I'm still wearing women's clothes."

The pit bulls won the argument.

So here we are, on the low road once again. The campaign that was first driven into the muck by the Republican challenger, state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., now seems destined to remain there, thanks to Menendez.

It is a risky strategy. Christie is that rare figure in New Jersey who has won praise from both parties for his efforts against corruption. But in Atlantic City, where Democrats were gathering for their convention last week, he was transformed into an errand boy for Karl Rove's gang.

"Tom Kean Jr.'s entire playbook has been straight out of the Bush-Rove playbook," Menendez said. "And now he's even gotten the U.S. attorney involved."

Once Menendez placed this bet, other senior Democrats had little choice but to push their chips into the pot. To hold back would have made Menendez look even worse.

So they took turns kicking Christie, a man who has sent more corrupt politicians to jail than anyone in a generation.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg called Christie's behavior "sinister." Rep. Steve Rothman said Republicans were trying to "steal" the election. Gov. Jon Corzine said the investigation appears to be "less than objective."

And so on.

Distasteful as all this was, it might not have been enough to outweigh the natural advantages Menendez brings to this race.

He has three times as much money as Kean, and his advisers say they will start spending it on TV advertisements sooner than they had planned, now that their man is on the firing line.

The main effort will be to link Kean to Bush, the president who gave us the Iraq war, the Katrina debacle and the giant deficits for which we have so little to show.

Kean is desperately running away from that record, highlighting every difference he has with the president. But the hard fact is he supports most of Bush's policies. Why else would the White House keep sending surrogates to help him raise money?

Menendez will also point out, no doubt, that he's not even been charged with wrongdoing.

The subpoena was served last week on a social service agency in Union City that rented a house from Menendez until three years ago. Menendez has helped the agency get federal money, so the suspicion is that he may have gotten payback by charging the group an inflated rent.

But this could be entirely innocent as well. Menendez has helped several similar agencies get money, too. And after he sold the house in 2003, the group continued to lease it from the new owner, at a slightly higher rent.

You might think he would simply defend this arrangement, apologize for the appearance, and welcome an investigation to clear his name.

No such luck. Kean was making wild accusations against Menendez long before this latest flare-up. So even as Democrats take cheap shots at Christie, you can be certain that Kean will continue taking cheap shots at Menendez.

In the end, the poor abused New Jersey voters are the only sure losers.

We are destined again to pull the voting lever with one hand while holding our noses with the other.

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