Murphy’s Essex County: Gordian Knot or Maraschino Cherry?

By Max Pizarro • 10/07/16


Murphy and Lincoln.


NEWARK – When it comes to Essex County’s influence on the 2017 gubernatorial contest, it depends on whom you ask. If you talk to an Essex Democratic Party insider, Essex’s endorsement of former Goldman Sachs executive Phil Murphy was the master woodman’s stroke that split and unraveled the Gordian Knot. To party rivals beyond Essex’s borders, it represented little more that a Maraschino Cherry: picturesque but ultimately irrelevant atop the foaming cone of North Jersey.

Murphy, ensconced by a Gladiator‘s set-piece of Essex party diehards led by Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman Leroy Jones, said it was a big deal.

“So much of our future begins right here in Newark,” said the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for governor next year. “As Newark goes, and as Essex County goes, so goes the rest of New Jersey.”

Jones gave Murphy his word that he wouldn’t back anyone, that he’d give everyone in the contest a fair shot, and Murphy told him at the microphone in front of the Lincoln statue and the historic Essex County Courthouse that the chairman had kept his word.

“Every step of the way,” Murphy declared, in a crowd that included Jones and DiVincenzo, U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, Jr., Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, former Speaker Sheila Oliver, Newark North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos, Assemblyman Tom Giblin, Assemblyman John McKeon, Assemblyman Ralph Caputo and elected officials from all levels of government.

Overwhelming force.

Jones happily drove the Essex-Murphy plot line.

“It was Essex County, the banner county, that really made that all happen,” he said of Murphy’s near certain lock down now of the nomination.

The mood was full and sunny and tender. But Murphy’s unmistakable returned embrace of Essex came amid a continuing pushing and shoving match among counties for the former Ambassador to Germany’s attention.

Every chairman and/or his loyal henchmen want their respective bosses to be recognized as “the one who put Murphy over the top.” It’s almost as though Murphy, seated in the governor’s office in 2018, should have a priority list of the state’s party leaders, to which he must assuredly meticulously attend.

If he’s on the phone with Joe D. and Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Kevin McCabe calls, will politics require him to say, “I’ll call you back.” If Bergen County Democratic Chairman Lou Stellato and Passaic County Democratic Chairman John Currie call him at the same time, whose call does he take first? If he’s talking to state Senator Nick Sacco at a Drumthwacket cocktail mixer and Jones tugs at his sleeve, does he tell Sacco he’ll be with him in a minute? Do all of the aforementioned names get their phone calls answered and their egos stroked sooner than the governor takes a phone call from South Jersey Democratic power broker George Norcross?

Must Norcross cool his heels for Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop?

Everyone can make a case, and does, and will, and will and will.

Despite DiVincenzo’s longtime good relations with Norcross, Jones didn’t bite on Norcross’ candidate for governor: Senate President Steve Sweeney. He kept the county’s powder dry on guv, and was alert early to the fact that Murphy’s team, led by Essex County Freeholder Brendan Gill, did a considerable job of building in Essex, starting with the raw materials of former Governor Dick Codey, and former Newark Mayor Sharpe James. Surrounded by Bergen, Passaic and Hudson and Middlesex – all with Murphy  – and faced with a Newark mayor ahead of the county executive’s reelection bid who had no choice but to go with mayor – Jones squeezed the trigger on Murphy sooner than try to drag Essex into a civil war against the odds on behalf of Norcross.


Hudson sources continue to make the argument that it was all Sacco.

When Fulop dropped out he had powerful voices in his ear telling him to make Sweeney happen to stick it to Goldman Sachs. Sacco didn’t do it. He didn’t want to do it on Fulop’s time line, but he wanted to get in on the ticket that bucked Norcross. He didn’t want to give Norcross power over the state attorney general. So he put his county on his back, quietly, as he does, and yanked the Murphy curtain.

Then there was Currie.

Currie’s people say he did this. It’s all his handiwork. The chairman made this happen. The chairman soothed all the wriggling egos and diplomatically got it done for fellow diplomat Murphy. It would take a Currie to handle a Stellato, for example.

Stellato. Well Bergen is Bergen. Okay, he looked weak when Murphy was rampaging through his county and throwing people in front of podiums for official endorsements while the chairman languished. But remember, it was Stellato who fought Norcross in that Bergen executive’s race. It was Stellato who conceived of the quad county alliance, and most aggressively made the case for northern unity. Could he be annoying at times? Yes, like when he had to have yesterday’s press conference in Bergen. But his allies could make a case that while Joe D. was still playing footsie – hard – with Norcross – he was building an alternative superstructure that ultimately held, even with Stellato’s first choice, Fulop, crumbled under Murphy’s onslaught.


McCabe wanted to be with Murphy before everyone and had a (but for Assemblyman John Wisniewski) unified county.

But there would be time to sort all that out later.

For now, Murphy chose to highlight the positives in all those counties he covets, and who now covet him, today emphasizing a Romulus and Remus story line for him and Baraka, who had originally been with Fulop.

Newark finished Essex for Murphy, say Baraka loyalists.

In the best playful spirit of politics, Baraka flung Fulop under the bus when he told a grinning Murphy, “I was more ideologically compatible with you then anyone else in the race.”

Oliver called Murphy a “breath of fresh air.”

Under the watchful eye of Gutzon Borglum’s Lincoln, Murphy kissed all the rings on the triangle-shaped peninsula in front of the courthouse, lingering on DiVincenzo.

 “I get how this county works,” he told the county executive. “The trains run on time here.”

Amid applause, the candidate said he meant the remark as high praise.

An insider in the crowd, face sunken in reptilian repose, told PolitickerNJ out of the side of his mouth, “Inspiring.”

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