Into the Bowels of 2017: The Unfolding NJ Dem Party Gov. Race Backs Drama

By Max Pizarro • 08/19/16

PolitickerNJ

Bergen County Democratic Chairman Lou Stellato.

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New Jersey does its best to masquerade as one of the proud 50 states, even as it insists on keeping in place old world models to perpetuate one of the best—and most painstakingly realized—21st Century living replicas of early medievalism.

Democracy is great on paper—but what the people really want is someone who’s not elected and accountable actually running government, kind of like countywide versions of the kings of Spain and England—or so it would appear.

Nowhere is the design better preserved than in county party organizations, whose warlord leaders award the line to those most sycophantic attendants, whose assumption of public power hinges on the underground affections they heap on their behind-the-scenes benefactors.

The biggest ring in the state belongs to George Norcross III, and when he showed up at a meeting in  Mountainside Wednesday night, the boss sought a head count of those other bosses, functionaries, luminaries, shadowy operatives on their BlackBerrys, and all their respective details. It was time to examine where the organization stood vis a vis the 2017 gubernatorial contest.

Norcross will play a major role in that venture, arguably the single most important role of a noncandidate, and certainly the role of counterweight to Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, who’s running for governor against Norcross childhood chum Senate President Steve Sweeney of Gloucester County.

In a press release, establishment Democrats characterized Wednesday night’s soiree as an opportunity to celebrate “diversity” in the party, but the event actually represented a critical early moment for the inner circle to ascertain Sweeney’s chances in a Democratic Primary.

Right now the race pits Sweeney from South Jersey against North Jersey’s Fulop.

Both sides feel confident that they have divided between them the loyalties of county party organizations critical to victory.

A third candidate, former U.S. Ambassador to Germany and Goldman Sachs Executive Phil Murphy, continues to position himself as everyone’s number two choice. If Fulop or Sweeney stumbles, Murphy could rocket from zero to 100 overnight.

For the moment, Norcross favors Sweeney.

The Building Trades favor him.

He has deep alliances in his senate caucus.

But who else favors him?

Norcross wanted to know.

Yearly, PolitickerNJ places him at the top of its power list of party bosses owing to the organizational clout he maintains through his and his allies’ control of Democratic organizations in South Jersey, and through the ties to regional bosses he keeps in other corners of the state.

The South Jersey machine that Norcross leads holds sway over consists of Camden, Atlantic City, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, Salem and—to a lesser extent—Ocean and Burlington. There’s not a lot of population in  those counties compared to North Jersey but in the words of former Speaker Joe Roberts, “We knew if we were ever going to have any influence statewide, we needed to be unified.”

That unity went hand in hand with division up north. Bigger—but slower, less disciplined, and more prone to stubbed toes and hurt feelings—counties like Bergen, Essex and Hudson—found themselves the victims of a classic divide and conquer strategy.

Taken in isolation, Essex, Bergen and Hudson blew away Norcross’s South Jersey breadbasket in terms of voter turnout on Election Day 2013. Victorious U.S. Senate candidate Cory Booker received 83,558 votes in Bergen, Hudson and Essex in the Democratic Primary, while receiving 31,543 in Atlantic, Camden, Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland and Cape May. Granted, he’s from North Jersey, but most statewide outcomes look the same.

Still, the population and performance record don’t begin to compensate for Norcross’s superior inside game moves-making, and the unified front presented by South Jersey’s legislative delegation.

Example?

The south backed Senator Steve Sweeney for senate president in 2009, in exchange for giving Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver from Essex County a crack at the speakership in the legislature’s lower house.

The most plentiful North Jersey Democratic county, Essex (pop. 797,434) outsizes any individual South Jersey county, the biggest of which is Camden (pop. 512,854). But it’s two longest standing political players—County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and former Governor Dick Codey—hate each other. That fracture is useful—if you’re from South Jersey.

When North Jersey couldn’t summon the support to re-up Oliver for speaker in 2014 after she served two terms, Norcross skipped over Essex and Oliver’s benefactor DiVincenzo, and went next door to Hudson and state Senator Nick Sacco of North Bergen, backer of little-known Assemblyman Vincent Prieto of Secaucus.

Norcross cut the deal with Sacco to make Prieto speaker.

Sweeney remained as senate president.

Whether it was Oliver from Essex or Prieto from Hudson, the one constant was South Jersey occupying the main legislative throne of power: the senate presidency.

When earlier this year Prieto defied South Jersey’s Atlantic City takeover agenda, Bergen emerged as a possible supplier of a North Jersey speaker to offset South Jersey’s Sweeney as senate president. According to Bergen Record columnist Charles Stile, the Democratic County chairman there, Lou Stellato, apparently engaged in talks with Norcross around making Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle of Englewood the speaker.

Essex, done.

Hudson, done.

Bergen, here’s your big chance.

Throughout, Sweeney would stay planted.

Nothing came of the reported talks other than greater political enmity between Norcross and Stellato, as Prieto dug in and retained his speakership amid a deepening gulf ahead of next year’s gubernatorial election.

This much was clear at the start of the week: Norcross wanted anyone but Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop.

Stellato appeared to want almost anybody but Senate President Sweeney. The Bergen chairman apparently has built an alliance with Passaic and Hudson counties, which likewise appear least disposed to support Sweeney and more inclined to back fellow North Jerseyan Fulop.

Sources in Fulop world are confidant that they have Bergen, Hudson and Passaic in their corner, a surmise reinforced by the fact that none of the chairs of those counties went to that Mountainside meeting Wednesday.

Based on attendance at the dinner, Norcross and Sweeney can certainly count on South Jersey. Duh. They also have solid alliances in Union and Essex counties, which very likely place them in a very strong position to secure the lines in those counties. The trouble is there are significant fractures countywide in each case. In Essex, former Governor Codey backs Murphy for governor, and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka backs Fulop.

They also believe that even if Sweeney doesn’t get the line in Bergen, they possess strong allies in state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg of Teaneck and Senator Paul Sarlo of Wood-Ridge. Just as Baraka is prepared to support off-the-line candidates in his backing of Fulop, South Jersey is convinced that Sarlo and Weinberg will run off the line in support of Sweeney if indeed Stellato denies the senate president the coveted line.

So far, here’s the  bar napkin map in what looks RIGHT NOW like a two-man contest  in next year’s Democratic Primary: South Jersey, Essex and Union for Sweeney; Bergen, Hudson and Passaic for Fulop, with varying degrees of support cutting both ways presumably in opposition to whatever the chairs of those counties decide.

If that’s what the map looks like, one very long pair of antennae had to go up in that room Wednesday concerning the absence of Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Kevin McCabe.

He was MIA.

So was state Senator Bob Smith of Piscataway.

So was state Senator Joe Vitale of Woodbridge.

A big northern county, Middlesex was the elephant in the room this week.

Now there are those who claim McCabe really can’t go anywhere in the end but to the senate president. He works for the Carpenters, after all, and the Building Trades are big in with ironworker Sweeney. But McCabe has strong ties, too, to Murphy. There’s a bond there. So much so that the least likely person of the three main candidates right now to nab Middlesex appears to be Fulop, whose best chance at competing exists in pocket alliances he has in places like Edison and Old Bridge.

A source told PolitickerNJ that McCabe has sufficiently strong feelings for Murphy’s candidacy to back him, but he sees no purpose in being the only chair in the state giving him his support.

If those county lines outlined above hold up, Fulop and Sweeney will go to war—a very, very bitter political war with no clear upper hand visible at present – leaving no oxygen for Murphy, and forcing the coy McCabe to pick a side between the two heavyweight competitors. DiVincenzo fought a war like that in  Essex in 2014, when Baraka beat his candidate for mayor of Newark. It was  close and brutal and he lost in the end.

Would Norcross risk an outcome like that against Fulop?

If the answer is yes, Murphy’s candidacy could be over before the end of the year. But Norcross—fiercely devoted to Anybody but Fulop, could also theoretically put himself in the best position to win the contest by prevailing on Sweeney to stand down.

How? Why?

Stellato is almost as staunchly resistant to Sweeney as Norcross is to Fulop. If Sweeney bowed out, and Norcross kept intact all that support for Sweeney (the county party lines in South Jersey, Union and Essex), might he be able to entice Stellato to meet him half way?

Stellato is reported to like Murphy.

He leans Fulop, but he likes Murphy.

So does McCabe.

By ditching Sweeney, could Norcross quickly pick up Middlesex and Bergen to add to what he has now, And with those two counties jarred, might Passaic County Democratic Chairman John Currie scramble to get on board?

That would leave Fulop with only his home county of Hudson.

Game over: Murphy.

While some sources acknowledge the efficacy of such a plan, others doubt that Norcross would follow through with it, citing his absolute loyalty to Sweeney, in addition to his own pride. He doesn’t want to have to go hat in hand to Stellato, of all people. He also doesn’t want to boost Codey, an old deposed rival and the most recognizable name in  Murphy’s circle. Plus, there’s arguably a control factor involved. Can he control a former Goldman Sachs executive?

Still others say Stellato wouldn’t take that deal, and make the case that Hudson, Bergen and Passaic will stick together through all weather.

Norcross has recent precedent to make such a move. The aforementioned 2014 Newark mayor’s race was initially a three-man contest, and DiVincenzo initially backed longtime ally North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos. Before too long, however, the county executive dumped Ramos and put all his energies into Seton Hall Law Professor Shavar Jeffries.

Ramos was the sturdy loyalist with a base, friendships, a good record and a steady-as-she-goes style.

Jeffries was a newcomer with some pizazz, and the ability to lay his own pockets of support on top of DiVincenzo’s machine.

“No way George would ever do that,” an Essex insider told PolitickerNJ. “He’s too proud.”

Another Democratic source groaned away the Murphy theory with a pointed observation that he’s “[former Governor Jon] Corzine with a personality, and has no real support outside of McCabe, who’s sufficiently politically astute to fear being on an island alone with the animated former Goldman Sachs chief.

Still, others noted with sadness the presence in Wednesday’s meeting of DiVincenzo himself, who could put Essex County in overdrive if he were the gubernatorial candidate. The county executive has not attempted to quell suggestions that he could or should run for governor. Some sources in the party say he can’t, not with his 2013 endorsement of Republican Governor Chris Christie draped around his neck.

“It’s unconscionable what Christie made Joe do,” a source told PolitickerNJ. “By insisting on Joe’s endorsement, Christie prevented Joe D. from succeeding him as governor. That’s how selfish Christie is. No doubt he genuinely likes Joe. But his own career was far more important than the friendship.”

At issue now is Norcross’s friendship with Sweeney.

Will it hold?

Were the players in that room on Wednesday evening a sufficient starting point to defeat Fulop, or might the boss examine the possibility of laying the groundwork for a Shavar Jeffries option, a la Joe D?

A source who attended Wednesday’s meeting dismissed the suggestion that Christie killed DiVincenzo’s chances at governor, arguing that if the key players aligned behind him, he’d be as good or better than Sweeney, having the formidable heft of Essex as his home base.

Alas, the Democratic Party bosses aren’t what they were, pre-Christie, one of them told PolitickerNJ. Then U.S. Attorney Christie took down John Lynch of Middlesex and laid the groundwork for his former office to bag Joe Ferriero of Bergen—two powerful chairmen on a scale with Norcross and, to a lesser degree, DiVincenzo. In the future, the source insisted, the party leaders from county to county won’t matter as much, but for now, the intensifying governor’s race appears to be, as much as anything, a testing ground for their enduring power. Those un-elected bosses newer to the game seek definition as something more than miniaturized Norcross clones, while Norcross alone seeks to maintain the upper-hand.

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