Jones and Essex County Dems Revel in Oliver for People Power Projections, Lean on Middlesex for Insider Power Connections

By Max Pizarro | October 25, 2017

Insider NJ

Sheila Oliver.

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WEST ORANGE – Some pretty grizzled and cynical battle-worn faces dotted the décor of Mayfair Farms Tuesday evening, but with two weeks to go before Election Day in an otherwise fairly flat atmosphere, Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman Leroy Jones went ahead anyway and – completely straight-faced – praised “the little chapel of democracy” sitting in the center of Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver’s (D-34) heart.

It worked.

Hand claps tumbled into an impassioned standing ovation for Oliver, who sat at a front table like one of the Knights of the King Jones Round Table, along with Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos, DiVincenzo COS Phil Alagia, Essex County Clerk Chris Durkin, and special guest Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Kevin McCabe. At adjoining tables hobnobbed state Senator Nia Gill and Senator Ronald Rice; and Assemblyman Craig Coughlin (D-19) and Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-29).

State Senator M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29) hovered.

If, in the hard furnaces of New Jersey politics, Jones’ metaphor strained the limits of credulity, it also represented a gratifying narrative arc for star Oliver, once a legislative back bencher thrust into the spotlight of a speakership on the strength of backroom deal-making, bounced out of power when she ran afoul of the machine, refashioned now as a power-to-the-people voter Essex inducement on a ticket with a private-sector configured candidate.

Sporting sneakers, Oliver top-of-the-ticket running mate Democratic gubernatorial contender Phil Murphy sprinted onto the scene in the middle of the program, and soon found himself at the microphone at the front of a room packed with county committee people, municipal chairs, mayors, freeholders, and other assorted Essex insiders, emblems of the county’s 3,500 county employees and 800,000 residents, hanging on his every word.

“My mother used to say you’re known by the company you keep,” Murphy gushed, Chairman Jones at his elbow. “I’m keeping darned good company.”

He gestured to Oliver amid applause.

“Whether it’s politics or governance, the sun rises and sets over Essex county,” added the gubernatorial candidate.

Applause.

It was the right statement to straighten the spines of some of the slumped souls in the room who annually greedily reawaken to the flattering tones of those seeking Essex County’s approbation. And yet, fracture endured and impaired the Essex establishment. It had seeped – unspoken – into the fiber of the organization, and sapped it of vitality, starting with that sulfuric feud between DiVincenzo and former Senate President Dick Codey. Deposed from the throne because Joe D. backed Sweeney in exchange for getting Oliver the speakership in 2010, Codey debilitated significantly empowered South Jersey, and started the great unraveling of Essex influence. Trading the senate presidency for the speakership, DiVincenzo, de facto leader of the county on the strength of the county’s billion dollar patronage mill, suffered the 2014 indignity of having Oliver thrown out by the barely-known Assemblyman Vincent Prieto, a shift of power from Essex to Hudson, with the South still in command of the senate presidency, the loss of the Newark mayoralty, and then finally the cruel cut of DiVincenzo’s relationship with Gov. Chris Christie – what was supposed to be the good government friendship buttressing everything else – literally going south.

Codey was in the room Tuesday night, acting as if nothing were amiss – but still stung, brutally stung by what he and his allies see as the county executive’s foolish fumbling away of Essex County’s true claim to power. Life on the outskirts gave Codey room to reanimate over the course of several concerted moves, including his support for Ras Baraka for mayor in 2014 over the party-backed alternative, and, most significantly, his  energetic and early backing of Murphy. If one cannot be governor, and if those entrenched powerful interests prevent one from being senate president, ahh, well, there are always those municipal wars to win, and then there are allies to be had – allies who might be governor. So it appeared to sit with Codey.

He didn’t have to say I told you so.

He just let Murphy speak.

At the microphone, the gubernatorial candidate threw some elbows at Republican rival Kim Guadagno, but increasingly insider attention has turned to those unresolved internal agonies and myriad identity crises in the Democratic Party. The old rivalries endured, now worsened by the impending absence of Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who could be the boogeyman distraction a thousand times before the Democratic Party addressed its unresolved demons. And with Guadagno still dancing around the ring of a statewide election, the party threw backroom leather at itself, its years-delayed catharsis hardly made whole by newcomer Murphy. The state party chair fights with the senate president; the senate president fights with the New Jersey Education Association; the sitting speaker of the assembly attempts to stay in power by building majorities in districts where his rivals for the leadership chair don’t see opportunity; Building Trades wars with public sector labor.

Prieto was absent. Absent too were the other vital northern party chairs, including the state party chair, as the event carried all the portents of Essex County’s newfound relationship with Middlesex, McCabe maintaining an up from downtown Mitch and Murray-like presence at the forward table, with Coughlin ever an ear nibble removed at that table with Pintor Marin, presumably the next Budget Chair in a Speaker Coughlin legislative kitchen cabinet, and Essex County’s reward for enabling the Coughlin for Speaker and Steve Sweeney for Senate President deal. Twenty-four hours after his own soiree, Jones was scheduled to go to Coughlin’s fundraiser on Wednesday night in Colonia, as he now looks to shore up that piece of the South Jersey-based establishment network that requires him to pull his delegation for Coughlin in order to weaken that wing of party leadership whose coalition essentially made Murphy the party’s nominee for governor in the pre-primary wing.

In the aftermath of the moves that left the mighty Essex chained to South Jersey, he’s the ultimate swing player right now in Democratic Party politics, having sent a shock wave through the central nervous system of the South when he joined Hudson County Democratic Chairman Vincent Prieto, Bergen County Democratic Chairman Lou Stellato and Passaic County Democratic Chairman John Currie in supporting Murphy for Governor, a North Jersey chess move that prevented powerful South Jersey boss George Norcross III from ensnaring the governorship for his pal Sweeney. Jones would only care his rebellious streak up to a point, however. When Stellato, Currie and Prieto subsequently circled to protect the speakership for Prieto, Jones cut out and joined McCabe, who had kept his delegation held together in hopes of appealing to that precision machine otherwise known as Norcross’ South Jersey delegation for a Middlesex leadership position.

“To show Phil Murphy and Sheila Oliver how strong Essex County is, we have to do or job on Election Day and produce a huge plurality, and by doing that makes our Essex County chairman strong not only in Essex but in the State of New Jersey,” said DiVincenzo.

Jones would back Coughlin for speaker to supplant Prieto, but he needed Pintor Marin as budget chair, a paltry reward for the once mighty county that turns out the most Democratic votes of any county in the state, his detractors seethed; and yet Jones’ allies could argue overall executive-legislative context, and note that the chairman was in fact baby-stepping Essex back to a greater share of power by being able to land Oliver – from his own home town of East Orange, no less, and a former running mate when Jones ran for an assembly seat, as the LG pick.

That was a move no doubt enabled by Murphy Campaign Manager Brendan Gill, chairman of the Montclair Democratic Committee and an Essex Freeholder, who was in the room.

If it irritated some of those South Jersey sources who tired of Oliver’s intransigence on issues like charter school strengthening, the very issue at the height of Christie-Sweeney power that prevented the establishment from re-upping her as speaker and catapulted her into a doomed 2013 anti-establishment U.S. Senate run, it was just good politics.

Jones had whipped East Orange into a model of political efficiency.

And Essex still produced the most raw Democratic Party votes.

Throwing a known Essex brand – a speaker emerita – onto the Murphy ticket, made up in numbers, or so the team hoped, for what a few unable-to-get-over-it Norcross bots might have felt in the way of being unable to escape Oliver.

Anyway, in Essex, after having been on the outside of the operation, she appeared absolutely reborn as the standing ovation for her at Mayfair went on for a long time, the manifestation not only of countywide party pride but of a belief that Essex was indeed getting something tangible in the way of power.

 “My Essex County family,” said the assemblywoman and LG nominee.

Oliver wouldn’t be Guadagno, was a running theme.

She’d speak out if she disagreed with Murphy.

Or so the thinking ran.

Look what happened when she didn’t agree with South Jersey.

In his public comments, Jones kept the mood positive, and brimming with togetherness.

“It has been a family that all of you have helped build,” said the county chair, before training his ire on the GOP. “They want to suppress the vote. They want our folks to stay home. Those venomous ads they’re putting out about sanctuary cities are part and parcel of that, but I’m here to say that’s a no. We’re going to go out and vote in droves countless thousands this state needs a governor who has your back.”

If Oliver gave Jones one more front office phone call opportunity and strengthened his hand as one of those four initial chairs who backed Murphy for Governor, losing Oliver would open up an assembly seat, which could prove more valuable in the end, as the chair – dogged like other northern leaders by a delegation whose individual egos had outgrown their usefulness to him – could build on what amounts now to a two-person strong delegation control room – far short of what he needs to compete with the South – and look to a future where he might be able to build more leadership capital and not have to welcome the likes of McCabe with obvious South Jersey connectivity as a special guest, though they appeared to enjoy each other’s company for the moment.

He had given what he could to the northern chairs in his support for Murphy; he had extracted what he could in the way of a statewide presence for Essex with Oliver; but as Stellato, Currie and Prieto slogged , onward in defiance of the south, Jones pivoted and embraced South Jersey and McCabe.

Codey and McCabe came face to face in the room.

They shook hands stiffly.

But there was no expansive warmth.

Was Jones – calmly navigating chaos – an example to Murphy of how to delicately thread the New Jersey political needle, or was Murphy already too close to Codey, to the urban vote, to public sector unions and to those other northern chairs, and Oliver too associated with the tail end of her earlier legislative incarnation, to prevent anything other than a Gold Dome war when he got there, an unwitting victim of unresolved party circumstances, hurts nursed through the bullying Christie years, the exorcisms his candidacy was supposed to abate merely delayed to explode, full-blown, on his watch?

There was something else to address first.

“We have 13 days [until the election],” Oliver reminded the crowd. “We need everyone to work hard.”

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