Singed by Christie, Joe D’s Only 2017 Sweeney Play: Ruiz for Senate President

By Max Pizarro • 08/26/16


Senator M. Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark).


In the middle of Newark stands a bronze rendering of Abe Lincoln made by the same sculptor who did Mount Rushmore, and the inspiration perhaps for a platoon of contemporary statues unleashed on the city by powerful Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo.

The iconic political homage includes the late U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, North Ward Democratic leader Steve Adubato, former Governor Brendan Byrne, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Arguably the only New Jersey boss who doubles as an unabashed aesthete, DiVincenzo right now has another pedestal he wants filled, and this one won’t settle for an inanimate object.

He wants the senate presidency, perhaps the only prize that would enable the boss to shake off the 2013 humiliation he suffered as a consequence of endorsing Republican Governor Chris Christie, and for failing, later that same year, to secure a legislative leadership position of consequence once George Norcross III of South Jersey and state Senator Nick Sacco (D-North Bergen) did an end run around Joe D. an Essex in supplanting then Speaker Sheila Oliver with Vinny Prieto.

But now Norcross and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) want something from North Jersey that Sacco can’t deliver.

They want support in a critical northern county so that Sweeney, when he runs for governor next year, will be able to occupy the line A position on the ballot accompanied by the Essex Democrats’ official slogan.

Sacco won’t be able to give Sweeney that, because his young ward in the southern part of Hudson County, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, is running for governor in opposition to Sweeney. The Hudson line – and presumably Sacco’s heft behind it – will go to Fulop.

So after having cut the deal with Hudson around Essex, South Jersey has returned to its preferred north county relationship: DiVincenzo, the man Norcross helped put in office when Joe D. first ran for county executive in 2002.

The question is what can DiVincenzo give Norcross and Sweeney in return for the line?

The county executive doesn’t mind when people suggest he should put Essex in the strong position it deserves by simply running for governor himself, animating a billion dollar patronage countywide machine with his own candidacy. It is said that Norcross doesn’t totally discount the option, and insiders continue to nurse doubts about Sweeney as that robust bronco rider of the political backbone arcing from South Jersey to Essex. Notwithstanding the county’s triple A bond rating under DiVincenzo’s watch, sources worry about some of Joe D’s baggage, starting with the Christie endorsement.

He’s positioned himself as a number two option if Sweeney stumbles and if he and Norcross can’t convince themselves that Phil Murphy’s personality is enough to shake their doubts about installing an unknown (with ties to their political enemy former Governor Dick Codey) in the governor’s office.

But the more likely play for DiVincenzo, according to insiders, is for him to influence the awarding of the Democratic line to Sweeney, who in turn vacates the senate presidency and enables the ascension to the throne of power of state Senator M. Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark), the county executive’s faithful acolyte.

There was a time, and it wasn’t too long ago, that the office of lieutenant governor appeared in the offing for Ruiz. But that post, as demonstrated by the mostly duct-taped tenure of sitting LG Kim Guadagno, doesn’t have enough power. After having been iced by Sacco and Norcross three years ago, if DiVincenzo returned from the 2017 negotiating table having secured the LG position for Essex County, concentration of the most Democratic Party votes among all of New Jersey’s 21 counties, he would be laughed out of New Jersey.

It would be akin to the Romans gambling away their empire and convincing themselves of a win because they kept Sardinia.

DiVincenzo knows all that, and so can ultimately justify nothing less than the senate presidency as the payoff for Essex once again pretzeling itself into an odd spot by backing Sweeney.

Now, it may not hold.

Murphy  continues to make a hard play for Essex.

Fulop, too, is trying to cohere as much North Jersey support as he can.

Questions continue to dog Sweeney, particularly concerning his antagonism with the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) and the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police (NJFOP).

The last time a South Jerseyan tried to come north was 2008, when then-U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D-Camden), challenging the late U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), sought northern in exchange for Norcross largesse. DiVincenzo and his mentor, Steve Adubato, Sr., were ready to go all in with Andrews against Lautenberg. Union was ready to go, too, and so was Bergen. The dominoes teetered, but when U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) stopped the insurrection by getting to then-Bergen County Democratic Organization Chairman Joe Ferrieo, who backed aaway from Andrews and stuck with Lautenberg. That caused Union to follow suit. Adubato and DiVincenzo tapped numerous allies – including most of the Newark City Council – to support the South Jersey upstart – but could not persuade key allies on the county committee to throw in with South Jersey.

Deprived of North Jersey oxygen, Andrews spent the remainder of the campaign looking like a space suit floating lifelessly in space.

There is a jittery organizational feeling right now about Sweeney, who will apparently be depending on Essex to go it very nearly alone up north in concert with his South Jersey backing, with only pockets of support elsewhere. Short of running himself or recruiting a popular Essex ally, DiVincenzo’s only play to create energy is to put the game on his young star, chair of the Senate Education Committee and a staunch Sweeney ally in the senate.

Remember, it’s not only Sweeney that Norcross wants empowered but, so say sources, his brother, sitting U.S. Rep. Donald  Norcross (D-Camden), who’s primed to take advantage of an open senate seat. If Norcross asks Essex to go to war now in spite of its regional allies, his chances of going to the trough twice, pitching his lookalike little brother as a can’t miss – might be going too far with an already stretched DiVincenzo.

With Menendez wobbly in the face of corruption trial court dates, U.S. Senator Cory Booker a potential Hillary Clinton cabinet pick, and Norcross the Younger in waiting, will DiVincenzo and Norcross risk taking a 2017 shot on Sweeney, who might be just as easily be given a feathery leadership landing spot, complete with complimentary suspenders, in a national union.

But if the Sweeney play gets pulled off, it may, one day, land Ruiz and Sweeney a pair of statues in the courtyard of a county that right now has more of a political past to celebrate than a statewide future.

It might also might make DiVincenzo’s own statue unveiling more palatable, if not for liberals at least those machine Dems still irritated over some of his past recent political moves, provided he doesn’t first insist on having a bronze likeness made of Christie.

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