First, a word about this year’s gubernatorial contest, particularly about Republican candidate Jack Ciattarelli.
Jack Ciattarelli is a man of outstanding character, intellect, and intelligence. He is a magnificent family man and as a businessman was a consummate success. As a state Assemblyman, he was creative and programmatic.
And although as an insurgent candidate in the 2017 GOP gubernatorial primary he lost to the establishment candidate, Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, his campaign was a thing of beauty. In that year of 2017, Jack Ciattarelli was the political equivalent of first baseman Gil Hodges of my late, beloved Brooklyn Dodgers, a strong, steady reliable leadership presence who rarely made an error.
And yet now, in the campaign of 2021, Jack Ciattarelli is the political counterpart of 1962 New York Mets first baseman Marv Throneberry, a man who found new ways every game of making unforced errors.
On the occasion of Marv’s birthday, his fellow members of the hapless, lovable loser 1962 Mets said to him, “Marv, we were going to give you a birthday cake, but we were afraid you would drop it.”
Jack’s two most pathetic Throneberry-like blunders took place within the past few weeks, specifically 1) his attempts to politicize the Cuban march in Jersey City by making an issue of Governor Phil Murphy’s non-attendance at the rally, an attempt that backfired badly; and 2) his thoughtless – and inaccurate – statements regarding the LGBTQ public school curriculum in New Jersey, an attack which sent Jack plunging headlong into a self-destructive cultural war with the LGBTQ community.
In all fairness, few candidates have begun a campaign with as many severe obstacles as Jack Ciattarelli faces in 2021 -a popular incumbent Democratic governor in Phil Murphy, the Trump albatross, a huge Democratic registration advantage, and an African-American community that in the wake of Trump racism would be totally united against any Republican candidate, even against a distinctively non-racist like Jack.
And it can truly be said that Jack Ciattarelli, a man with all the requisites to be an effective governor, as a candidate in 2021 has made the worst of his situation.
The late, lamented sage of Montclair, New Jersey Lorenzo Pietro Berra, a/k/a Yogi Berra was famous for saying, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” But for Jack Ciattarelli, in the words of Bugs Bunny, “that’s all, folks.” He has as much chance of overtaking Phil Murphy’s lead as Chris Christie and I have to successfully compete in the Mr. Universe event.
Instead of a carefully modulated campaign, Jack, in over-the-top fashion, attacks the calm, collected Phil Murphy as if he were the Devil Incarnate. And the Ciattarelli campaign missteps are reminiscent of the famous words of the great French leader, Charles de Gaulle, “Monsieur, it was worse than a crime – it was a blunder.”
With the outcome of the 2021 campaign hardly in doubt, New Jersey Democrats are already looking forward to Campaign 2025. And that campaign has already started this summer with the Magical Mystery Tour through North and Central Jersey of Senate President Steve Sweeney, accompanied by his lifelong close personal and political friend, South Jersey Democratic political suzerain George Norcross.
Four years ago, the Democratic warlords of North and Central Jersey, with abundant anathema towards both Sweeney and especially towards Norcross, were determinedly united in their intense opposition to the Senate President coming close to the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Their united support first of Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop and later behind Phil Murphy made the incipient 2017 Sweeney gubernatorial campaign a nonstarter.
So in order to reduce the intensity of anti-Norcross, anti-Sweeney sentiment, the Magical Mystery Tour has taken on the aura of a South Jersey love festival. Gone is the familiar Norcross aura of political intimidation and pugnacity. Instead, the moguls of the Democratic Party along this journey are being greeted by a kinder, gentler Norcross, reminiscent of the “new Nixon” that greeted Republican Party leaders nationally in his 1968 successful presidential campaign.
And I am finding evidence that this Sweeney-Norcross revisionist effort may be producing some initial favorable results. The Democratic warlords who in 2017 would have preferred Idi Amin or Saddam Hussein to Steve Sweeney are now willing to give the Senate President a second look. Definitely, he is a winter-book top tier candidate for the 2025 gubernatorial nomination.
But as we approach 2025, if it appears that the Sweeney bid for the nomination is futile, what would George Norcross do? He does not want to be again exiled to the New Jersey Democratic Gulag, as he was when Phil Murphy became the governor in 2018.
We may anticipate that under these circumstances, Norcross would attempt to persuade US Senator Cory Booker to seek the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. If Booker decided to make the run for Drumthwacket, his entry would clear the Democratic field, and he would become the prohibitive favorite against any prospective Republican opponent. Ticket sales for the 2026 Cory Booker gubernatorial Inaugural Ball could begin immediately. It would be a star-studded event, attended by celebrities of Hollywood and Sportsworld. In fact, I would buy myself a ticket, since it would be a great opportunity for me to meet my favorite Hollywood producer/director, Spike Lee!
Initially, it appears that Booker would have little inclination to seek the gubernatorial nomination. He is a superstar of the US Senate, a supremely effective solon with exquisite communication skills and a darling of the national media. Without question, at the relatively tender age of 52, Cory Booker is likely to be a top tier contender for the White House for the next 25 years. Why give that up for the relative drudgery of Trenton, where you have to deal with pains in the posterior like Alan Steinberg?
While it is highly unlikely that Booker would return to Jersey for a Statehouse run, there is one circumstance that would increase the possibility. If the Republicans regain control of the US Senate in 2022, Booker would incur a significant loss of power and influence. A run for the New Jersey governorship in 2025, with a certain prospect of victory would become much more inviting to him.
If Booker decided to remain in Washington, the very fact of discussion of him as New Jersey’s first African-American governor would have a major political byproduct. It would increase by a significant factor talk in both Trenton and throughout the state as to why it is long overdue for the Democrats to nominate an African-American gubernatorial candidate. After all, the New Jersey African-American community has been THE most loyal Democratic constituency.
And currently, there are four Democratic African-America political/ governmental figures of both gubernatorial stature and qualification: 1) Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver, 69; 2) State Senator Troy Singleton of Burlington County, 48; 3) Democratic State Committee Chair Leroy Jones, 48; and 4) Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, 51. Each of them merits separate consideration hereunder.
Sheila has been an exemplary Lieutenant Governor. Her role as Commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs has given her unsurpassed knowledge of New Jersey State-local relationships. Her relatively advanced age, 69, is no longer considered to be an insuperable barrier to election.
Oliver’s greatest strength, however, that of supreme independence, is also her major problem. With the exception of New Jersey Democratic Chair and Essex County Democratic Chair Leroy Jones, virtually all the Democratic County Chairs and other Democratic warlords, North, Central, and South would find her to be a supreme source of agita. She would get virtually no organizational support outside of Essex County.
Sheila’s only real path to the 2025 Democratic gubernatorial nomination would be if President Joe Biden asked Phil Murphy to come to Washington and serve in a Cabinet position (e.g., Treasury Secretary). As Lieutenant Governor, Oliver would then become the Acting Governor. Murphy loves being the Governor, however, and it is very unlikely that he would accept an offer to serve in the Cabinet, regardless of the position.
The 7th District State Senator is considered by many to be the most competent policy issue person in either party in the state legislature. He also has virtually no skeletons in his political closet, ethical or otherwise.
Singleton’s major problem is his South Jersey domicile. While his honesty and forthrightness make him a subject of suspicion by nobody, North, Central, or South, he still is a subject of reluctance of support by Democrats outside of South Jersey, due to his de facto alliance with the Norcross South Jersey regime. He is only 48, however, and he has plenty of time in the future to make a gubernatorial run. Keep your eyes on him.
Leroy checks all the gubernatorial boxes, so to speak. He has a wealth of laudable governmental, political, and private sector experience. His communication skills are outstanding. Finally, he is one of the finest political strategists and tacticians of his generation. He appears to be right out of central casting for Governor of New Jersey.
There is only one problem. Leroy displays absolutely no inclination to run for the governorship in 2025. He is a most competent Democratic chair, and he is in an ideal position to act as kingmaker for his good friend, Ras Baraka, the most plausible African-American 2025 Democratic gubernatorial candidate.
The most notable positive for Ras Baraka is that in the eyes of a majority of the Newark political and governmental cognoscenti, he receives higher marks as mayor than his immediate predecessor, Cory Booker, who as mayor received decidedly mixed reviews.
While as a US Senator Booker has selected superb staff, most notably George Helmy, who now serves as chief of staff to Governor Phil Murphy, his staff as mayor of Newark was of a significantly lower caliber and hardly made observers think of JFK’s Best and the Brightest.
Furthermore, Baraka appears to be much more in touch with the heart and soul of Newark, New Jersey’s largest city, than Cory Booker, who was viewed by many as a celebrity mayor, Newark’s answer to John Lindsay. Finally, Booker as mayor was an indifferent administrator, while Baraka has displayed a surprising level of administrative acumen.
The concern you hear most often from Democratic observers outside of Newark is whether Baraka has the “cross-cultural” and/ or “cross-ethnic” appeal to attract voters outside of Newark, who are of decidedly different ethnic and racial origins than the African-American and Latino voters who comprise the majority of the Newark electorate.
I feel Baraka does have the ability to attract voters of majority white ethnic groups who populate Suburban New Jersey. To be sure, he does not have the physical and verbal charisma of Cory Booker. He does, however, communicate clearly and convey a sense of both sincerity and empathy. In this era of skepticism and cynicism, caring can be a much more compelling quality than charisma.
Baraka’s real negative is a lack of political judgment in matters outside Newark. To be sure, he has proven to be a master of the politics of Newark. Outside Brick City, however, Baraka’s political forays have been ill-advised, clumsily executed, and definitely not sure-footed. A prime example was his recent involvement in the Camden mayoral race, as described In InsiderNJ.
There is a way of resolving Baraka’s political deficiencies in both strategy and tactics. He should seek the early endorsement of Leroy Jones and rely almost totally on his political strategic and tactical advice. And supplementing Leroy, he should recruit a team of operatives skilled in the politics of all areas of the Garden State.
Indeed, Baraka does have a path to a primary victory, based upon his securing the support of key county chairs. It is a two-stage path, and the support and leadership of Leroy Jones will be absolutely vital to its achievement.
The first stage involves the unanimous support of all four Democratic chairs within “the Quad”: Hudson (Amy DeGise), Essex (Leroy Jones himself), Bergen (Paul Juliano), and Passaic (former state Democratic Chair John Currie). Leroy Jones would be the absolutely indispensable player for the Baraka team in this effort.
It was the unanimous endorsement of Phil Murphy by the Quad Democratic Chairs in 2017 that made him the presumptive gubernatorial nominee and extinguished the 2017 Drumthwacket aspirations of Steve Sweeney. Likewise, the unanimous endorsement of Baraka by the Quad Democratic Chairs in 2025 would make him the undisputed frontrunner and spell fini la comedie to the Sweeney campaign.
Norcross and Sweeney know this. Expect to see a lot of this dynamic duo in eateries within the Quad over the next year.
The second stage for Baraka would be obtaining the endorsements of other key Democratic county chairs. Two significant chairs come to mind immediately: Kevin McCabe in Middlesex and Peg Schaffer in Somerset.
At this juncture, I am not ready to predict a 2025 Democratic gubernatorial nomination outcome. I will say this: If Ras Baraka and Leroy Jones join forces and form a partnership regarding the 2025 Democratic gubernatorial nomination sweepstakes, the likelihood of 2025 being the year of the New Jersey African-American Democratic gubernatorial nominee will be markedly increased.
A footnote: Some time ago, there was considerable speculation regarding Mikie Sherrill as a prospective 2025 Democratic gubernatorial nominee. Indeed, I participated in this speculation.
Mikie has emerged as a Congressional star in the Washington Democratic firmament. The speculation now, however, for various reasons has shifted to a future US Senate run by her if and when Bob Menendez decides to leave the Upper House.
How about this possibility: A future US Senate Democratic primary involving candidates Mikie Sherrill, Josh Gottheimer, and Don Norcross! The wonders of political futurology never cease!
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.