2019 Elections: Is there a Future Governor in the House, and Other Trail Tales (Part 1)

Rep. Jeff Van Drew

The state legislature used to be a reliable place to find a future governor, congressperson or senator, but times have changed, leaving insiders to mostly skeptically dismiss this off-year election roster as the next 20-30-year nesting phase of a non-upwardly mobile breed, consigned by money to permanent moulting.

Consider the following: Jeff Van Drew was the only congressperson elected in 2018 who did it the old fashioned way, crawling hand over hand upward from mayor to freeholder to assembly to senate to congress.

Every other new congressperson materialized as a well-financed, biography-driven outsider with no experience in elected office: Mikie Sherill, Tom Malinowski, Andy Kim (and Josh Gottheimer in 2016). Kim, it should be noted, narrowly defeated Republican Tom MacArthur, who had been a mayor but not in the district, and incurred the wrath of footsoldiers craving altitude when he moved to Ocean and bigfooted them with insurance money.

The same trend exists in gubernatorial politics, of course, where James McGreevey (elected in 2001) was the last governor to run as a sitting state senator. One veteran insider described McGreevey as more mayor than lawmaker, however, noting his relative short stint in Trenton, and his locally-grounded profile as the chief elected executive of Woodbridge. The insider described Governor Tom Kean (1981-1989) – a former speaker of the General Assembly – as the last true emblem of transmogrified statehouse chops. Democrats ran two Goldman Sachs alumni in 2005 (Jon Corzine) and 2017 (Phil Murphy, and in between nearly completely disregarded the statehouse service of their 2013 nominee (Barbara Buono) in favor of nonresistant con-existence with Republican Governor Christie (another non-Trenton formed statewide player). Two veteran establishment hands, state Senator Ray Lesniak and Assemblyman John Wisniewski, ran serious, and institutionally grounded gubernatorial primary candidacies in 2017, and found themselves relegated to laugh track status as the Democratic Party coalesced around Murphy.

A slew of sitting congresspeople – Bill Pascrell, Bonnie Watson Coleman, Frank Pallone, Donald Norcross and Albio Sires – come immediately to mind – embody a tradition of Trenton transferred to higher office, but only Norcross and Watson Coleman made the move in the new millenium. Of those currently in the U.S. House of Representatives, Watson Coleman’s story is arguably the most old school defiant to the trends of these times. Passed over by the establishment for a spearkership that instead went to Sheila Oliver of Essex County, Watson Coleman was not the favorite when she ran for the 12th District seat in 2014 and beat state Senator Linda Greenstein (D-14). U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) comes from the same old school, but again, he made the cut to higher office only when Corzine became governor and picked him to replace him ahead of the 2006 election.

“Three things all of the recent freshmen members of congress [Kim, Malinowski, Sherrill] have brought with them is an exceptional ability to raise money,” said Dr. Brigid Harrison, political scientist at Montclair University. “Tom Malinowski’s campaign, it can be argued, gained traction because of fundraising.

“These candidates also bring with them a different background and experience,” Harrison added. “There were lots of shadows of Obama and Clinton [going back to former Bill Clinton speechwriter Gottheimer]. These are people who had some kind of Washington experience. Mikie Sherrill with her military and prosecutorial background made for a great narrative for that district. I think it also translates into the governor’s contests, as there has been no shortage of individuals since Jim McGreevey who have wanted to compete for governor and they have been outmuscled by big money competitors. The races tend to be dominated by big money candidates.”

That kind of money generally doesn’t individually occupy the seats at the statehouse.

So a question this week by a veteran operative, “Is Chris Brown gubernatorial material?” met with a candid InsiderNJ answer, alert to these times, “He might be, if he weren’t in the legislature.”

Names routinely circulate as possible future trend-defiers, including state Senator Vin Gopal, Senator Troy Singleton, and senator Joe Lagana. But of those three, only Gopal is routinely identified as obvious congressional material, while the other two give off a long-play statehouse power vibe. If he gets through his general election campaign in less than two weeks, Cumberland County GOP Chairman Michael Testa is seen as a comer.

Their ranks dwindled in the Donald J. Trump era, two financially pretty well-connected Republican leaders are attempting to buck the anti-Trenton tide.

The first is senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr., who’s running for Congress in 2020 (against Malinowski). The younger Kean’s third shot at federal office, it appears to be a D.C. or bust move, or at least would have to be if his running mates, Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick and Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, fall in 12 days and leave him relegated to hail mary mode.

If Kean is done, Brown would be a likely contender for his leadership post.

The second GOP leader is former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-16), who ran unsuccessfully in 2017 and is running again for his party’s nomination in 2021. Already there is trouble, however, as a powerful wing of the establishment of what if left of the badly mangled party appears more inclined to back big pharma magnate Bob Hugin, who lost to Menendez last year by double digits. “Jack’s great,” a source told InsiderNJ. “But he doesn’t have Bob’s money.”

Said Harrison, “It begs the question; in 2021, can anyone beat the big money guys? There is this appeal among the parties that they would like to have people move up, but they are not the ones in control of the narrative.”

The tension between a class of people consigned by the game to a farily rigid political existence and the freebird suddenly trying to occupy the same cage could well describe the heart of the fractured and dysfunctional narrative of the Murphy era. As former Governor Dick Codey – a brief contender for the governorship before Corzine unpacked – once shared with Michael Aron the political advice he gave to his son, “Make your money first.” That too, comes with its own set of problems (just ask Murphy) starting, arguably, with cultural disconnect.

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