The ink was barely dry on our policy makers Insider 100 list when we started getting phone calls from worried elected officials who wanted to know if InsiderNJ had changed our focus from politics to policy.
Don’t worry, we see you.
Come on, we didn’t forget about you guys. You’re still the stars. You’re still the lawn sign yard jockey bullies out there. Not those egg-headed policy wonks. You’re still those fragile egos we all know and love.
Now, having said that, and having done our due diligence, we know numerous people will read the list below looking for their own names and – not finding them there – will reach for the phone.
Please – to those rankled and prickly politicians who chew on their own names in print the way a hound savors a bone – observe the words at the top of this piece.
In other words, your InsiderNJ power ranking could change.
You might find yourself at the top of this list next month.
As always, it’s volatile.
1. Brian P. Stack and Nick Sacco
The battles they used to wage up there on Bergenline for years resembled a KGB hot zone. Now it’s more like the chess set version of Caesar versus Ptolemy, with fewer actual casualties – but no less frightening mental intensity and velocity. Relevance? The senator from the 33rd District/Union City Mayor essentially ended the Jersey City and Hoboken mayoral contests when he respectively endorsed the reelection of Steven Fulop and Dawn Zimmer. Both endorsements had the effect of Riff taking the basketball away from the gang in that early West Side Story playground scene. That’s Hudson. You want statewide? Stack was the first domino to fall on the way to Sweeney (apparently) securing another term as senate prez. Then there’s Sacco, the 32nd District senator and mayor of North Bergen, and famously phlegmatic and politically pragmatic kingpin who once proclaimed of Speaker Sheila Oliver, “Unsustainable,” before putting the deal together to make his acolyte Assemblyman Vincent Prieto speaker. Now apparently master builder Sacco’s at work again to help Prieto craft the necessary political architecture to allow a third term as speaker. There’s Stack just next door helping South Jersey secure Sweeney, and there’s Sacco slyly on the other side of that statewide checker board, countering the move by protecting Prieto. You want more? Apparently Sacco’s the one who’d like to see Democratic front-runner select Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez as his AG – not just to diversity his cabinet but to make Hudson look good. Take a look at the numbers on primary day. While others snooze in acquiescence of inevitability, Sacco – but mostly Stack – will be out there for Murphy, each trying to outperform the other in order to exist, once and for all, excised of the Siamese twin syndrome that politically glues one to the other, and stand like a solitary colossus between the Hudson and Hackensack – and declare himself sole supreme ruler.
2. Steve Sweeney
The senate president has enough votes in his caucus to continue as a muscled-up senate president, but that’s right now. What happens after the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) dumps millions into the 3rd District and tries to muddy him and deplete his reputation will cause his colleagues to reevaluate come late fall with any new information. With the target of the NJEA on him, everything he does in the intervening months with Fran Greiner in the opposing corner makes him leading man material.
3. Vincent Prieto
In a “Trenton ain’t big enough for the two of us” leadership showdown with Sweeney, the speaker has done an impressive job of constantly differentiating himself from the South Jersey crowd. A couple of years ago, more than a few people mistook him for the lunk-headed sergeant tasked with doing all the dangerous recon missions for then-North Jersey battalion commander Steven Fulop. But even after the Jersey City mayor’s short-circuiting, Prieto has carried on in the role of independent injun country specialist, eschewing those safety first precautions that might endear him to the ever-imposing GN3 and company.
4. Jack Ciattarelli
Democrats fear him. Politico’s Matt Friedman wrote about that here. By running for governor, the 16th district assemblyman single-handedly pumped life into an otherwise lifeless statewide cycle and a GOP all but flat-lined by a Jerry Jones skybox-enamored Chris Christie. Ciattarelli has cash and organization deficits, but by staring down cancer and making arguably the most authentic and intellectually honest case for governor, the Hillsborough resident restored faith in the sacred concept of a real political contest. He’s a long-shot, but if the assemblyman somehow squirms past Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno on June 6th, the hair of the entire Murphy for Governor universe will simultaneously and instantaneously turn white.
5. Cory Booker
He’s defined himself on the national stage as probably the most obvious anti-Trump individual in U.S. politics. If the president’s default facial expression is a pulped scarlet scowl, Booker walks around with a look of Joel Osteen-like loving wonderment, tempered only occasionally by that Kirk-on-the-bridge-of-the-Enterprise stare into space that conjures faraway visionary among wretched mortals. But is he too nice for the job? Will he end up pulling a jujitsu move on someone like Ben Sasse in the senate cloakroom just to prove he’s not beyond showing a Tysonesque mean streak just in case Putin “rears his head”?
6. Tom MacArthur
With his eye on a speedy zoom up the GOP ranks in his home state, the CD3 congressman gambled with a national-sized move by getting behind the so-called MacArthur Amendment to break the Gordian Knot on Trump’s healthcare overhaul. It gave him a Rose Garden moment – and exposure as a guy willing to put his neck on the line. But it also put him at the vanguard of Obamacare haters and will potentially galvanize those warpaint-wearing challengers motivated to reassert CD3 as a Democratic-controlled district. A fascinating note: the late U.S. Rep. John Adler (D-3) voted against Obamcare and narrowly lost the 3rd District seat in 2010 after just one term. Can one of the chief architects of the Affordable Care Act as we knew it lose his seat because he voted for its repeal? Every move MacArthur makes now is akin to watching Nik Wallenda at work. He labored commendably in the lion’s den when he went to Willingboro for a post-vote town hall, but he also looked a little gnawed on, too, on the other side of that encounter. Whatever the other dynamics of this campaign cycle, Ciattarelli and MacArthur – both ambitious guys in a hurry, whose private sector punch clocks don’t allow them to stand still for very long – are fighting for sole occupancy of the throne of the soul of that once proud, Christie-shredded institution known as the New Jersey Republican Party.
7. Chris Christie
Finally, he’s relevant. Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno keeps the Governor of New Jersey close at hand at all times to faithfully reinact the Gene Hackman beat-down of Richard Harris scene in The Unforgiven. When she’s not pummeling Christie – the guy who first put her on his ticket in 2009 – Ciattarelli’s pummeling her and him. If Donald Trump wouldn’t pay attention to him, Ciattarelli hopes the primary voters will, while taking the extra crucial step of conflating Christie into Guadagno. For her part, the LG wants voters to remember that she’s not Christie.
8. Nick Scutari
The intellectually hyper-kinetic state senator from the 22nd District – chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee – turned himself into a household name this year with his bullhorn-style advocacy for recreational marijuana. Keep an eye on him. If Prieto slaps down Assemblyman Craig Coughlin (D-19) and the NJEA snow blows Sweeney with negativity, Scutari’s the kind of consensus name that could surface if leadership bedlam – or at least a sudden vacuum – ensues.
9. Brendan Gill
The Bruce Wayne/Batman personality plays mild-mannered Essex County freeholder by evening, then – for much of the rest of the time – morphs into ruthless political operative and statewide strategist as part of the Phil Murphy for Governor brain bubble. Part of the intrigue in state politics right now centers around whether Gill will finally fully occupy one of the two halves of these split personalities and settle into the role of silver-haired kindly congressman – or silver-tongued behind-the-scenes pit viper.
10. Mike Doherty
The 23rd District state senator has two more weeks to fan will-he/won’t plot lines around himself as politics watchers wonder whether two moderates (Ciattarelli and Guadagno) can galvanize the base of the Republican Party. Steve Lonegan rules out both of the GOP gubernatorial candidates because they’re pro choice, but Doherty – leader of the conservative movement in the state senate – has let his gaze more than linger on the candidacy of Ciattarelli. Although wary of the Somerset politician on some issues, he likes him of school funding. Plus, a Ciattarelli candidacy would help propel former Assemblywoman Donna Simon back into office.
11. Rodney Frelinghuysen
Jim Morrison once said no one gets out of here alive, and that really is true in political terms when you consider the Republican Congressman from the 11th District. He’s run out of leafy shrubbery to hide behind in Harding, with candidates enraged by Trump theatrics and Rodney’s own compounding high jinks, lining up hip-deep to run against him. No one cared about Frelinghuysen three years ago. Now the guy can’t sip a diet soft drink without people trying to interpret some deep political meaning.
12. Kim Guadagno
She showed up at that debate on Thursday. She’s got the warpaint on. She’s got a pulse. She looks willing to fight this out either through the primary or through the general. But she’s in a tough spot – let’s face it. After seven plus years aboard the LG1 tinted SUV glass rubber chicken circuit, the circuit breaker-advocating GOP gubernatorial candidate has the ghastly albatross of complicity in the Christie years to break out of against a live wire like Ciattarelli. The CW is that if she gets past the assemblyman, Democratic Party kingpin Murphy can spend the rest of the cycle sequestered in his Italian bungalow and still win handily.
13. John McKeon
The assemblyman has spread-eagled himself in terms of political relevance to fill district, federal and state-level pockets of conversation. In Trenton, he’s on top of things and regularly making headlines as a feisty, don’t-you-dare-pull-any-shenanigans-in-here chair of the Judiciary Committee. Then he’s in talks with the DCCC to depose Frelinghuysen. Then his name’s getting kicked around as a potential attorney general or Department of Environmental Protection commissioner. We even hear his name invoked as a consensus choice for speaker if the assembly gets FUBAR. Keep an eye on him.
14. Bob Smith
The mastermind from Middlesex quietly engineers most of the heavy lift political items in his county, and has always maintained close working relations with the birds in South Jersey. He’s cemented into the Coughlin for Sweeney deal, but here’s a thought: if Prieto stares down Coughlin, might the senators from Middlesex reevaluate their support for Sweeney – if those northern forces that muster support for Prieto – back Smith for senate president? We can picture the scandalized phone calls coming in from Middlesex right now. “That would never happen. You’re jeopardizing an important deal with speculation like that.” Fine. But if Prieto’s right and he has the votes, doesn’t that play havoc with Middlesex, and if so, might Smith’s name be precisely the way to bring in the sprawling Central Jersey county, particularly if Murphy’s minders seek an alternative to Sweeney. We’re not saying they will – but if perchance – following an NJEA shitstorm in LD3 – they do. In a word. Smith. Relevant.
15. Craig Coughlin
Nice guy. Where have we heard that before? Prieto was a nice guy. Once. Now he’s a menace to society, if you listen to South Jersey. No, really, Coughlin is a super nice guy. The perpetual gentleman from Woodbridge appears to have no agenda other than to make those people around him feel comfortable; in other words, he’s the perfect instrument for powerful forces to wreak absolute freakin’ havoc. The off-the-reservation Prieto claims to have the votes to beat him for speaker, but Prieto also had the votes for Atlantic City takeover until people in his caucus started getting tummy aches and rushing out of the room prior to the voting session.
16. Leonard Lance
In the ultimate drunken sailor on the deck of the Morro Castle theater piece, after years of running rightward following the public excoriation he endured for voting aye on cap and trade, the 7th District Congressman now scrambles leftward, starting with his nay vote on Obamacare repeal. The pro knows he has to dance to survive in a district that for years presented him with the thankless task of having to face the GOP Primary efforts of a self-described 2nd Amendment fierce gentleman farmer who proudly packed heat. Now it’s a bullhorn-wielding Joey Novick at the head of a barbarian army on the left that has the congressman on the move. He’s working it. Every move bears a pointillist painter’s significance in the grander political scheme. No one’s watching him more closely than his own party, and if the polling looks grim come 2018, there’s a judge’s robe with his name on it ready to be unpacked. Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean (R-21) may be weary of mouldering in the minority. Then there’s Ciattarelli, who’s already showed an impatience with waiting in line. Lance has never worked harder than now.
17. Marty Small
Since running and getting run over in his last run for mayor, the council president says he’s older. Check. He says he’s wiser. Well, we don’t know yet. He’s got to get past At-Large Councilman Frank Gilliam in the June 6th Democratic Primary, in what might be – on paper at least – the marquee match-up of the cycle, one that will say a lot about the condition of Atlantic City Democratic Party politics. Based on Small’s and Ernie Coursey’s (see below) bracketing with him, AC might be exactly the spiking theater of operations that catapults anti-establishment Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Johnson past John Wisniewski for a second place finish statewide in a low-turnout election. Not that anyone else cares about second place, but we do! that might be the showing Johnson needs to don the warpaint for a state senate run against Nia Gill – or for a U.S. senate run, now that’s had a taste of the bigger stage.
18. Frank Gilliam
It’s all or nothing for the At-Large Atlantic City councilman. He beats Small, he has a shot for it all against Mayor Don Guardian in the general. He loses, he goes home. Season over. GN3 wants him in there. So does Sweeney.
19. Holly Schepisi
20. Josh Gottheimer
After his gay slur in caucus, the GOP seemed happy to get rid of the human anvil otherwise known as Scott Garrett in the 5th Congressional District. They’d endure Democrat Gottheimer for two years then revert the district to its natural Republican shape in 2018. But the Trump debacle has complicated that plan, and as he constituent services the hell out the 5th, Gottheimer seems more happily disposed than anybody. Had Hillary Clinton won, he’d be the most miserable person in New Jersey’s congressional delegation. As is, he’s whistling while he works – and delightful company.
21. Jen Beck
A competitor by nature, the 11th District incumbent GOP Senator faces a credible opponent in Vin Gopal, the former Monmouth County Democratic Chairman.
22. Chris Brown
The pro-labor, independent-minded and anti-AC takeover Assemblyman from LD2 scared Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-2) from the senate seat, and now must get through former Freeholder Colin Bell to succeed retiring Senator Jim Whelan as the district’s occupant of New Jersey’s version of the House of Lords.
23. Kip Bateman
The veteran senator from the 16th District has stepped up his game this year in anticipation of same-district Democratic rival Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker’s reelection efforts and a likely dump truck of Dem money in the 16th, where there are other nettlesome dynamics as well. Bateman will be on his toes for the primary, too, as he wants local guy made good Ciattarelli to win and occupy the top of the ticket – not the Christie-impaired Guadagno.
24. Dick Codey
The former governor received new life as one of the prime political movers behind the reanimation of the kind of guy whose money heartbreakingly prevented Codey from carrying on behind the constraints of being acting governor, this time with the twist of being likeable, Irish American and a natural Codey ally. For months in the lead-up to their mutual destruction, the campaigns of Murphy’s rivals said the bosses would never get behind the former ambassador to Germany (and, like Corzine, a former Goldman Sachs executive) because the presence of Codey in his locker room would infuriate GN3. It never happened. Murphy stepped over those objections – with the re-empowering Codey.
25. Steve Oroho
The Republican state senator from LD24 – a wonky tough guy with a penchant for policy and transportation and financial expertise – has only to stare down a primary challenge this cycle in order to reenter the chamber with another lawyer of reinforced political muscle on his already imposing frame.
26. Troy Singleton
Heading to the senate, the very competent Assemblyman from the 7th District – who grew up politically on the knee of Speaker Joe Roberts – is trading up with retiring Senator Jim Whelan as that required South Jersey upper chamber vote.
27. Kristin Corrado
The Passaic County Clerk is in the election of her life for the senate seat with two weeks to go in the Republican-dominant 40th District.
28. M. Teresa Ruiz
You always have to keep the name of the 29th district senator – respected chair of the Senate Education Committee – in the mix when discussions turn to possible successors to Sweeney. We’re not saying Sweeney’s going anywhere, but if Prieto fights to hang on and the North County Quad Alliance makes a play to pull Essex back to its regional destiny, sources say Ruiz empowered would be precisely the play to turn South Jersey suddenly into a frozen political tundra. Very, very unlikely. But she should be watched – just in case. If Essex runs the play, watch Ruiz godfather Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo zoom up the list.
29. Betty Lou DeCroce
Having voted in favor of the gas tax hike to pay for the replenishment of the state Transportation trust Fund (TTF), the 26th District Republican Assemblywoman must fend off a pair of taxpayer anger-fueled primary challengers.
30. Andrew Zwicker
The Princeton physicist who won his 2015 election by fewer than 100 votes – a Democrat and arguably the smartest guy in the legislature on paper with the possible exception of Herb Conaway – will try to get his seat back in the face of come-backing GOP Assemblywoman Donna Simon.
31. Shaun Golden
The activity of the sheriff from Monmouth County who doubles as chairman of the Monmouth County GOP will prove critical to Guadagno on Election Day.
32. Randy Brown
33. Don Guardian
34. Michael Patrick Carroll
One of the fiercest movement conservatives in the state legislature, the 25th District assemblyman has two more weeks to decide whether he intends to endorse a candidate for governor.
35. Kelly Yaede
Mayor of Hamilton, the state’s political bellwether, Yaede is a stout Guadagno backer whose boots-on-the-ground Election day presence could make or break her choice in a low-turnout, close contest.
36. Joe Vitale
Chair of the Senate Health Committee, Vitale going forward will wrestle with Trumpcare and – in the event of a Coughlin deal meltdown – could be a senate prez play for the North to overnight boost Middlesex’s sagging political fortunes.
37. Bill Pascrell
The veteran Congressman from the 9th district continues to bronco bust Trump’s tax return, and looks like an aggressive heads-up ballplayer now with the appointment of Bob Mueller as special prosecutor.
38. Frank Pallone
Having put his own fingerprints on the Affordable Care Act, the 6th District Congressman is a strong veteran voice for progressive Democrats.
39. Sheila Oliver
The former speaker of the General Assembly from the 36th District – a policy wonk to end all policy wonks from politically potent East Orange – has emerged as a real LG possibility for front-running Democratic gubernatorial candidate Murphy, who will have 30 days to make his choice following the layup June 6th election.
40. Shavonda Sumter
The vibrant Patersonian assemblywoman from the 35th District with a passion for equal opportunity and funding for urban school children is in contention to serve as the running mate for Murphy and must elbow past Oliver (and maybe others, see below).
41. Hank Lyon
The animated Morris County Freeholder is trying to drum up support to the right of DeCroce in the 26th district Republican Primary.
42. Chris Durkin
The likeable – and politically savvy – Essex County Clerk (son of legendary political animal Ray Durkin) is eyeballing a run at Frelinghuysen.
43. Ras Baraka
The mayor of Newark is up for reelection next year. No one appears strong enough to take him down, but he could always stumble.
44. John Cesaro
In his run for a 26th District Assembly seat, the Morris County Freeholder hopes to drive big numbers out of Parsippany to get past DeCrice and Lyon. The trouble though, is that DeCroce also hails from Parispanny.
45. Jimmy Davis
Up for reelection in 2018, the mayor of Bayonne will likely face no-joke former Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell (D-31), who will have the added incentive of waiting to avenge pal Mark Smith’s 2014 loss to Davis.
46. Kevin Rooney
The assemblyman from the 40th District wants to hold onto his seat as a team member of the Corrado slate.
47. Ernie Coursey
The hell-no-I’m-running Atlantic County Freeholder is undertaking an off the reservation Democratic Primary run for the assembly in the 2nd District as part of a bracketed construction with Small (for mayor) and Johnson (for governor).
48. Vince Mazzeo
The helluva nice-guy Assemblyman wants another term in the legislature and has to get through a primary first on his way to the requisite tough sledding general (see Small and Coursey above, for details).
49. Sam Thompson
The LD12 State senator has to swat past challenger Art Haney of Old Bridge in a June 6th Republican Primary.
50. Loretta Weinberg
She’s Weinberg. So we pay attention.
51. Bob Menendez
Slowed by an indictment and teetering as he tries to scramble to safety on the other side of a fall corruption trial, the senior U.S. Senator from New Jersey appears poised to be a strong voice on immigration issues.
52. Donald Payne, Jr.
The king of exceeding expectations serves as the 10th Congressional District representative, and issued the strongest early statements in the delegation when Trump’s tanking took on even more epic implications.
53. Jay Webber
With two weeks to go, he won’t get into the gubernatorial drama, but one can always hope!
54. Steven Fulop
Mayor of the state’s most populous city, up for reelection this year in what looks like a bore snore
55. Dawn Zimmer
The mayor of Hoboken faces a reelection bid this year against Councilman Mike DeFusco.
56. Joe Cryan
When the Sheriff of Union County (probable successor to Ray Lesniak this year in the 20th district) endorsed Sweeney, that appeared to end the rebellion. Watch him zoom up the list in the coming weeks.
57. Paul Sarlo and Gary Schaer
Always pay attention to the chairmen (respectively) of the senate Budget Committee and Assembly Budget Committee from the 36th District.
58. Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins
An early backer of Murphy for Governor, Newark’s Central Ward Councilwoman may run for governor against Baraka next year.
59. Nick Chiaravalloti
The former state director for U.S. Senator Bob Menendez has a Jersey City primary challenger this cycle who’s trying to consign Bayonne to political oblivion. Just keep an eye on him.
60. Adrian Mapp
61. Jerry Green
Survival instincts have kept the 22nd Assemblyman (and Union County Democratic Chairman) intact through the flame outs of people all around him (including Lesniak and slate mate Assemblywoman Linda Stender).
62. Alex Mendez
As indicted Paterson Mayor Jose “Joey’ Torres flounders, Mendez presents himself as the 2018 favorite to graduate from the third floor to the second floor of City Hall.
63. Mark Caliguire
The Republican Somerset County Freeholder is trying to move up – in choppy political weather – to take an assembly slot in the 16th District (the retiring Ciattarelli’s seat).
64. Serena DiMaso
The Monmouth County Freeholder is moving up to take Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon’s 13th District seat as O’Scanlon rise to claim the senate seat left unoccupied by retiring state Senator Joe Kyrillos.
65. John Wisniewski
That magnificent NJTV debate performance provided a blueprint for how to go out on one’s shield.
66. Frank LoBiondo
Never rule out the indefatigable LoBo, the 2nd District Congressman.
67. Donald Norcross
68. Ray Lesniak
One of the most intellectually impressive – and productive – lawmakers in his recent times continues to keep a hand in Christie’s face with his headline-grabbing (if unsustainable, to borrow a word from Nick Sacco) suit of the Christie Administration over Christie’s $300 million renovation of the statehouse. Oh, and he’s running for governor.
69. Hector Lora
Now that he has four years in front of him on the job and can get rid of the acting in front of his title as mayor, Lora will be called on by the Democratic State Party to do statewide Hispanic leadership duty. With his political organization freshly operational after his big win in nonpartisan elections earlier this month, the Passaic City Mayor will have a fully functioning pro-Murphy partisan effort up come June 6th.
70. Wilda Diaz
The state’s only Latina mayor’s big for Murphy, and stands over a 7-1 Democratic town in Perth Amboy, which is Murphy country, despite the fact that Wiz was born there.
71. Eric Houghtaling and Joann Downey
They’re up for reelection in the 11th District, the state’s truest 2017 battleground.
72. Valerie Vainieri Huttle
The veteran assemblywoman from the 37th District is said to be a candidate for LG if Murphy gets through the June 6th Democratic Primary.
73. Kevin O’Toole
The retiring 40th District senator is as active as ever, trying to get the win for Corrado as his successor.
74. Declan O’Scanlon
The 13th district senator-to-be will be one of the people to rebuild the state’s blown-up Republican Party.
75. Tom Kean, Jr.
He’s in the mix, particularly as it relates to Sweeney and the NJEA. Watch the GOP Primary powder dry Kean inchworm fast up the list in time for the general.
76. Jon Bramnick
77. Bill McCoy
The Paterson councilman will run for mayor next year of the dysfunctional, scandal-riddled city.
78. Herb Conaway
Rumored to be conversations for a health-related cabinet post, the chair of the Assembly Health Committee – like Vitale – will ultimately have to untangle any ACA repeal impacts at the state level.
79. Bridget Rivers
The 4th District Councilwoman from Plainfield is taking an all or nothing crack at mayor.
80. John DiMaio
The 23rd district GOP Assemblyman (a former mayor of Hackettstown) is a Ciattarelli backer in the western movement conservative wing of the state, said to be irritated by Democratic challengers who have raised $70K for this year’s general.