Examining the Joe D. 2017 Trial Balloon

By Max Pizarro | 03/28/16


Governor Christie and Joe D at the Elliott Street School.


Conversations about Joe DiVincenzo as a potential candidate for governor in 2017 are circulating in and around Essex County with greater frequency, according to Democratic Party sources; interpreted as either the aging egotistical murmurings of a guy who stuck his chin too far over the line for Chris Christie, or a legitimate game-changer – a Democratic Party establishment-worthy chariot in the circus maximus that would throw the guv’s contest into junkie-loving chaos.

According to some eye-rolling sources, the powerful county executive is himself the source of the rumors, motivated in part by vague irritation at the presence in the developing contest of a neighbor like state Senator Ray Lesniak (D-20), for example, who appears to be having fun as he runs. As significant a record as he’s put together in Essex since first getting elected in 2002, DiVincenzo feels he should be getting more love as a statewide option, one source said, and that he should be in a position to enjoy himself with the same abandon as the senator from Elizabeth.

But some of the talk goes deeper.

There’s persistent doubt in the party organization about the viability of the South Jersey-based Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) to transfer the goodwill he’s established in his caucus into strong Essex (and North Jersey) Democratic Party support. At times, one source told PolitickerNJ, it appears that DiVincenzo (and that includes his connective tissue cadre of political allies, among them state Senator M. Teresa Ruiz) is Sweeney’s sole booster in a county otherwise underwhelmed by the prospect of going to war for a South Jersey brand name in a Democratic Primary.

Last year’s sit-down among DiVIncenzo and the Norcross brothers in  Puerto Rico prompted speculation about the possibility of a north-south arrangement whereby Donald Norcross gets positioned to run for a U.S. Senate seat and DiVincenzo runs for governor out of North – not South – Jersey, to improve the chances of an old party alliance that goes back to DiVIncenzo’s first run for county exec, an endeavor wholly supported by Norcross. But insiders familiar with the meeting – which didn’t include Sweeney – mostly dismissed this deal as either too early to be real or inconsistent with that longstanding Norcross declaration that if the senate president runs – and Sweeney truly appears to be running, hard – then the brothers and South Jersey Democrats will be with him.

Moreover, Norcross – it is said – continues to prefer – if Sweeney proves untenable – his old clear-the-field option: U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), which would put Essex votes in overdrive.

In any case, “Joe D. wants to be in the conversation,” one source said. “He wants to be considered. If the party can’t come to an agreement regarding the guys who are already running, he wants to be the guy.”

Over the weekend, PolitickerNJ floated that notion to a longtime progressive Democrat who dismissed it out of hand as delusional warbling from a Democrat who in  2013 backed the reelection of Republican Christie. There’s a wing of the party that will never forgive DiVincenzo for that transgression, and would welcome him into a primary merely to see him tomahawked from the field.

But if he does ultimately make the decision to get in the race, how would DiVincenzo impact those other candidates already making moves to secure the job?

  1. Sweeney. First of all, it’s highly unlikely that the county executive would buck the senate president. They have a longstanding and successful political relationship, their lock-stepping held in place by Norcross glue hardened by years of party deal-making. Skillful at maintaining relationships within his senate caucus, Sweeney has done a good job these past few months of staying alive with power projection in all counties. But the affection of senators does not necessarily translate to the demonstrable love of county chairs. If he can’t transpose senators like Paul Sarlo and Loretta Weinberg into northern lines, and the lack of northern support everywhere else precludes Essex from wanting to stick its neck out alone for Sweeney, might the case for the establishment exist to pull Sweeney and swap in Joe D? DiVincenzo would start convincingly with a big portion  of Essex – not all of it, chopped as it is into islands of influence that include Newark and a dominant Mayor Ras Baraka, and west Essex, the domain of DiVincenzo for former Governor Dick Codey. But he’d begin with a lion’s share. But what the county exec might be able to muster with a billion dollar patronage machine he commands from Essex would not equal, Sweeney’s people could argue, in the way of deep Building Trades backing. A former ironworker, Sweeney can dig out pieces of support elsewhere based on those sturdy labor ties, that Joe D. might not be as well-heeled to secure. Take Middlesex, for example; jump ball territory by the reckoning of many watching this game. Wouldn’t Chairman Kevin McCabe – a labor leader in the carpenter’s union, and already overseeing a senate delegation predisposed to like Sweeney as a matter of self-serving advancement in the caucus  – be more willing to get behind Building Trades animal Sweeney than DiVincenzo? If the other two power players in their triumvirate (and Norcross is decidedly the Julius Caesar to Sweeney’s Pompey and DiVincenzo’s Crassus) lean on him to get out for the sake of securing Essex, Sweeney could dig in hard, noting too the early success of the Sweeney for Governor-supporting PAC.
  2. Fulop. Sources say the Jersey City mayor has a big leg up for the lines in Hudson, Bergen and Passaic. If a hitherto-reported on quad-county alliance – of which Essex County Democratic Chairman Leroy Jones is a member – is for real, the mayor does indeed have a head-start to get a piece of Essex. Jones keeps walking around at events telling people that the four northern counties will be united in 2017. That gives heart to Fulop allies who see him as the favorite for the lines in the other three counties, starting with Hudson, his own. But if Joe. D. were to get in thee race, Jones – a longstanding Joe D. ally – would presumably have to back the home county guy. That decision could bleed into the other counties. Might state Senator Brian P. Stack (D-33) – who like DiVincenzo backed Christie for governor amid Democratic Party hand-wringing – be easily peeled away from Fulop to back Joe D? That’s 10,000 North Hudson votes in the bank. In any event, Fulop to date has enjoyed his northern perch as the closest access point to vital northern county support. DiVincenzo in the contest would complicate matters, as the executive – notwithstanding the hatred of those purists who see him  as a turncoat – would instantly muddy matters as a north Jersey doppleganger.
  3. Former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy. As Fulop and Sweeney tear early into the party lines like a pair of hungry hounds, enjoying the benefits of years of relationship building, the likeable and politically energetic Murphy stands poised to prop up either of their drooping banners should the senate president or mayor become unhorsed at any point. In the words of one insider, “Murphy is in position to be a consensus choice; the number two pick of enough people to get the nomination.” Apparently that’s what Joe D. and/or his allies see for him: opportunity to be that consensus guy. If, for example, Sweeney stumbled out of contention, Murphy conceivably would be better positioned than Fulop to try to get his support. Sources say Fulop has not exactly endeared himself to Norcross. having successfully backed Baraka in the 2014 mayor’s race, over establishment darling Shavar Jeffries. Joe D. presenting himself as a Plan B “stop Fulop” alternative would complicate matters for Murphy.
  4. Ray Lesniak. The state senator tells people he intends to run a race for governor based on liberal causes, an effort that over the past six or seven years has included routine opposition to Christie, most significantly on the issue of a Christie administration settlement with ExxonMobil that the Elizabeth senator said was too lenient on the energy giant. DiVincenzo in the contest conceivably would give Lesniak a chance to sharpen his Christiecrat rhetoric and brand the executive little more than a third term for the departing Republican governor.
  5. John Wisniewski. Like Lesniak, the 19th District assemblyman wants to gain support from the progressive wing of the party. Partly it’s an admission that he won’t be able to muster much organization backing, but he’s tethered himself to Bernie Sanders’s presidential war wagon, come what may. The legislative overseer of the Bridgegate investigation, Wiz could potshot DiVincenzo at will over the executive’s ties to Christie, possibly using the Essex target as a springboard to greater heights with the Blue Jersey crowd.
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