2019 Postscript: The Last Lee Van Cleef Reference and other Trump-NJ Observations

Lee Van Cleef

Trump makes New Jersey’s skin crawl, therefore Democrats will have an extraordinary night, seemed to be the conventional wisdom heading into Tuesday’s election. Yes, but Governor Phil Murphy, in a war with his own party, continued to track significantly to the left, out of the radius of the party establishment, both in his policy positions and in some of the statements he made. Won’t matter. Trump is so bad, the Democrats could reenact Titus Andronicus in public with real casualties and still win a super majority in the assembly.

But South Jersey Democratic Power Broker George Norcross III, fighting openly with Murphy, stands at the center of a federal and state investigation into the state’s use of Economic Development Authority (EDA) tax incentives purported to help the poverty-stricken people of Camden, which benefited the boss’ business interests and the interests of his corporate friends. Not an issue. Democrats could pull a collective stick up job on the state in broad daylight and people would surrender their goods sooner than align with Trump. Didn’t you hear? Trump is a twittering fool and the subject of an impeachment inquiry by the U.S. House of Representatives. You don’t like them either? But they’re not Trump.

What about Bob Andrzejczak? War hero. Gave his leg to his country. He embodies virtues of self-sacrifice and heroism and pragmaticism. He transcends politics. He’s even a Democrat. Democrats are supposed to be diplomats, not tough guys. They could be duplicitous and slippery and all things to all people; they could fulfill the designs of convicted felons – but not war heroes. Yet Andrzejcczak was, from the conservative John F. Kennedy wing of the party. That still exists? Yes. “It’s a big tent party,” Governor Phil Murphy – a big Bobby Kennedy fan – told InsiderNJ this past weekend as he barnstormed in a pair of sneakers through Somerset County.

It’s the people of New Jersey versus Trump on Tuesday, or so said the polling, which emboldened the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee (DACC), having dieted on securing LD2, LD14, and LD38, then LD16 and LD11 in the second term years of unpopular Republican Governor Chris Christie, to examine the prospect of new frontiers.

There was LD39. Bob Auth. The assemblyman up there. A nice man. Nice people don’t do well in New Jersey politics. Pour some money in there and Auth will be gone. Why? He occupies a party run by a president that no sane human being could possibly tolerate.

LD21. That was the home of affable Assembly Minorty Leader Jon Bramnick (R-21). Time to pull the plug on Brammy.  Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz (R-21)? Her, too. Done. But Bramnick, he’s a little bit of an old school guy, and funny; a funny kind of popular guy, who never gives the impression – unlike Christie or other Christie types – of liking to hurt people. He even stood up in the Assembly and denounced the most miscreant rhetoric of the president of his own party. Remember that other nice man – who was he again – who served as a congressman in the 7th District? Leonard Lance. He wouldn’t even do that, and seemed genuinely at odds with the president. Doesn’t matter. Bramnick’s a Republican. Trump’s a Republican. “Time to die,” just like Chuck Norris once said. This is New Jersey. And New Jerseyans detest Trump, and detest those in the same party as Trump, even if they don’t like Trump. Even if they have put themselves at some political risk by infuriating the right wing of their own party. They are Republicans. They are Trump. This is not hard to figure out here. people.

Goodbye, Bramnick.

LD25.  There’s that kid up there, what’s his name? Anyway, he’s not his father. Same name. But diffferent guy. Same party. And that’s the Trump party. But Bucco – Tony Bucco – is a name that has stood like a fine oak tree in the leafy realm of Morris for many years. You mean sort of like the name Frelinghuysen? That’s a name that was kind of like that, too, wasn’t it? A sycamore kind of name rooted in the American Revolution. And yet, the name belonged to a man who belonged to a party that belonged to Trump. So rather than face the people last year he nobly uprooted himself from Congress and allowed the Democrats to grab his seat. Surely Bucco, recognizing the utter and total toxicity of the presidency, would similarly shrivel up and go away. Dump some money on the kid. The kind of money that galvanizes those voters galvanized last year. Why? They wanted to absolutely reject Trump. Same principle this year. You don’t have to be Rush Holt to figure this out, New Jersey. Bucco… is… Trump!

LD1. LD2. LD11. LD16. LD138. LD14 (LOL!!! 14, that’s funny). They were all solid blue. Impenetrably blue. Unimpeachably blue. Did somebody say impeachment? The president is being impeached. And the president is Trump. And Trump is a detestable creature in New Jersey, which, like the aforementioned bellwether districts, is unimpeachably blue. And New Jersey is peachy, Unlike Trump, who sucks. Auth? Maybe later. Maybe for fun later.  Make a statement with Bramnick. Throw in Bucco for kicks. Part of this is unfair. The Democrats knew from the beginning they would have trouble in LD1. It’s a Republican district. Trump won the district. Why else would U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-2) – with just one other Democrat in the entire country – oppose the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry? Why else would Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) pull one government-related event in LD1 then physicially disappear for the duration?  Andrzejczak didn’t need the association of other Democrats as he attempted to brand himself a Van Drew-style politician, who was bigger than party. He couldn’t run as a Democrat. If he ran as a war hero under the auspices of Van Drew, he’d be fine. Or he’d have a chance.

But the rest of the districts? Secure. Securely universally opposed to Trump.

So LD21 and LD25 became the targets. DACC saw a real opportunity. Not a head fake. “We wouldn’t be spending that kind of money there if it were a head fake,” said a party source. The D’s polling in particular showed Bramnick in significant trouble. It added up, too. Lost the Republican mayor of his hometown in 2017. Tom Malinowski tortured Lance in 2018. Tom Kean looked like another artistocrat ready to be put out to pasture, just like Lance and Frelinghuysen. So how could Bramnick posibly win? He was going to spend national campaign-sized money. Then so would the Democrats. Democrats ran this state, and did so in defiance of Trump. Bramnick would not be allowed to survive.

But Murphy…

Doesn’t matter.

“The governor is irrelevant,” a source told InsiderNJ back in October.

The establishment knew how to do this.

But the governor was out to get George and George was out to get the Governor.

Doesn’t matter.

It’s a Trump election.

No one’s paying attention to anything other than their own individual sense of torment with Trump in the White House.

But property taxes are…

Trump!

But I can’t afford my kids’….

Trump!

Something Murphy said about this being a single issue… what?

Trump!

LD25 looked winnable.

But Bramnick was toast.

The polling in a place like LD8 showed all the candidates bunched up together.

Stockton University achieved new levels of banalty with a poll that showed Andrzejczak leading Republican opponent Michael Testa by double digits in late October.

Everyone knew that was not true.

LD1 still believes in the Jersey Devil.

But LD21?

Suburban. Educated. College educated. Meritocrats. Shelley Brindle soldiers. Malinowski rank and filers.

It was over for Bramnick, which was ironic, insiders muttered, because he wasn’t reminiscent of Trump at all.

“Yeah, but the public don’t know that,” offered one insider, shrewdly, in the count down.

Murphy heard about the polling, and he pulled on a pair of campaign sneakers.

Watching him, the Trenton establishment, which loathes him, which has pushed him farther and farther from its backrooms into the AOC mob, and delighted to see him relegated to a condition of outsider with his nose pressed up against the window, reacted like little league .300 hitters as the worst player on the team grabs a bat and steps to the plate, determined to take a swing.

No, Phil, don’t!

Let him. Let him. Who cares?

No!

Don’t.

Murphy ran into LD21 and LD25, precisely those two places (along with LD8) DACC-targeted for pickups.

Not LD8.

It was too obviously a Norcross bomb run.

Certainly not 1.

Remember, not even Path to Progress Sweeney would go into 1.

But LD21 and LD25 offered the governor opportunities for individuated heroism.

The candidates weren’t Rutger Hauer replicants forged by the party machine, either, so there was a chance to bond with fellow meritocrats.

Trenton seethed.

“Get. Him. Out. Of. There.”

He went anyway. Dove in. Feet first.

There was real rage.

“How dare he. After all our work. He was in India. He was on vaction. Then he comes in wearing a Superman in the 11th hour. Shameful.”

Branded Trump acolytes in one cruel election cycle, Republicans fought back with the one thing they had at their fingertips: Murphy. And now he was in their longtime Republican districts: that guy from the AOC wing of the “Democrat” Party. On your front doorstep. Telling people – this Boston Brahmin (isn’t that what they call themselves up there?) – this very John Kerry-like dude – telling people that if they care about taxes they should probably pack.

Trump. Trump. Trump. Trump. Trump. Trump. Trump. Trump. Trump.

No, what did Murphy say again?

Why don’t you ask him, Mildred, he’s standing right over there on the train platform in downtown Westfield.

So Bramnick won. Hauled his running mate back in with him. And Bucco won. And his war hero running mate won.

Two (Brian Bergen joined LD8’s Ryan Peters in victory on the night) male Republican war heroes won.

A Democrat in the Trenton constellation writhed in agony. Enduring Trump was like having to watch Kurt Russell beat up Lee Van Cleef in Escape from New York, when you had grown up thinking Van Cleef was supposed to be the hero.

And now this.

“The Democrats did very well with Vote By Mail across the board,” he told InsiderNJ through a spasm of barely contained anger. “Our polls had us doing well and better than the Governor. The Governor heard we may win, he decides he needs to take credit, that it’s a referendum for him. He spends two million dollars using verbiage that the Democrats learned in polling would not propel them to victory, but it catered to the left. He barnstormed with abysmal numbers and any attachment to him hurt the Democrats. Then today he used the Trumpiest of Trump lines: if you had embraced my message and my vision you [Democrats for Legislature] would have one.”

So selfish, so narcissistic, the source said.

Donald Trump, the source added with bitterness, would be proud.

It only told part of the story.

The Republicans who won rose above being cast as merely Trump chattel.

Testa was pro-Trump.

But he was more.

The fact that he picked an African-American running mate named Antwan McClellan, councilman from Ocean City, showed he understood the importance of creating a ticket bigger than the worst nativist tendencies in his party; a move the ugly underarm of his opposition hypocritically tried to make him pay for, with disastrous results.

Bramnick was not pro-Trump.

He was more.

His record bore out more.

It was somewhat more sophisticated than the simple syllogism: Bramnick plus GOP equals Trump.

Ryan Peters’ war record was more than Trump.

Jean Stanfield’s record – and her insistence on a love of books, not unlike Testa, in fact – gently made a more individuated case than the fire blanket campaign thrown over her.

If Murphy-saddled Democrats – glutted on enormous advantages – notwithstanding the inestimable Andrzejczak, lacked candidates with unique stories, deep public service records, and perspectives – they had Trump.

But Andrzejczak, never naturally a politican, found himself in the unenviable position of having to answer for a mail piece that flew in the very face of what Democrats – so long enraged by Trump’s nativism – purported to stand for, giving Testa and McClellan the moral upperhand on a debate stage, while the noble war hero -unimpeachable – could but bite his tongue sooner than disavow the party. On that same night, he said he hadn’t ruled out backing Trump’s reelection, the kind of remark that would enrage the base of his party, for whom war hero might as well be war monger, who could see in their would-be champion now only another emblem of the dreaded ailment that surely would sink us all if not for real resistance: Trump.

Running against a Democratic Party at war with itself, at war with Trump at war with a war hero who would not be at war with Trump, Testa, co-chair of the Trump Campaign in NJ, danced into office last night.

While Democrats tanked in LD21 and LD25 and Trenton Democrats blamed Democrat Murphy, incumbent D’s in 2 and 11 were dying.

You mean we had to pony money for Mandelblatt and Gunderman to take out lovable Bramnick and we’re down here in the fight of our lives?

Make that LD38, too.

It wasn’t just South Jersey.

Murphy people wanted it that way.

They wanted to be able to say GN3 sank his own party down there.

George defeated Andrezjczak.

It wasn’t true.

Testa ran against Murphy and the machine.

But back to 11, 2 and 38.

They were all heart stoppingly close.

Two was supposedly done, but John Armato won by fewer than 500 votes.

LD2 contains Atlantic City, which has a big Democratic pop… mayor, who faces prison time for stealing from kids.

Trump?

No, bub.

Not in LD2.

Or 11.

Or 38.

They were the battlegrounds from the Christie years; much closer than anyone thought they would be in a year when Trump was supposed to galvanize Dems and cause Republicans, out of sheer embarrassment, to stay home.

A phone banker in Monmouth described last-minute desperation GOTV efforts on behalf of Houghtaling and Downey amid curses directed not at Trump, but at Murphy.

Republicans were getting out there for two guys named… what were their names again?

They wouldn’t win.

But without significant money they engendered support, particularly in the western part of the 11th district.

Their names were Mike Amoroso and Matt Woolley, not Trump.

 

 

 

 

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