Atlantic City Altman Express: Currie v. Jones and the Currents of Party Power

The scene of the Jone v. Currie fight in Atlantic City.

ATLANTIC CITY – The candidates for Democratic State Party chair kept criss-crossing as they made the rounds of parties on the boardwalk in the casinos and in the bars and backrooms, the implications of Monday’s senate hearing providing the latest backdrop to the unfolding statewide drama. When they appeared on the same stage at the Young Professionals Brunch, Democratic State Party Chairman John Currie and the man who wants his job, Leroy Jones, gave the appearance of old friends not even bothering to cover up mutual man crushes.

Hugging each other, they listened solemnly as Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake (D-34) – a protege of Jones, made a statement.  “It’s not about north vs south or Norcross vs Murphy,” she said. “It’s two strong black men who’ve earned the right for this seat. At the end of the day, this is family.”

Applause ensued.

It was certainly one way of looking at it, a kind of gentleman’s homerun derby between two heavy hitters destined to finally meet in the same ballpark – to the admiration of all. But it felt a little forced, frankly, under the circumstances, with Governor Phil Murphy trying to take apart the Democratic establishment otherwise known as Chris Christie’s third term, to hear the sitting governor’ allies tell it; and South Jersey Power Broker George Norcross III, fighting to make the governor of his own party increasingly political irrelevant. That dynamic reasserted itself on Monday as Norcross prepared to testify in front of a select legislative committee in Trenton. Prior to Norcross making a long statement about how the EDA tax credits that benefited his business network actually mostly benefited the beleaguered City of Camden, state troopers forcibly removed Sue Altman, a progressive activist, avid Norcross critic, and Murphy ally.

Given the chance to quiz Norcross, Democratic lawmakers offered the impression that they were content to have heard from the wise and powerful man. Later that night, in another stark indicator of the divide in the party, wider-reaching than New Jersey – progressive candidate for President Elizabeth Warren – deemed a threat to establishment Democratic Party power – tweeted her support for Altman.

InsiderNJ asked both Currie and Jones to comment on the episode and what it said about the use of police power and about the apparently cowed role senate Democrats felt obligated to play in the presence of the South Jersey Democratic boss. They were both cautious in the appraisal of the scene, their support by different counties hinging on recognizable figures who sit on that committee. Jones needs the support of Committee Chairman State Senator Bob Smith (D-17) (and Speaker Craig Coughlin, who praised Smith for his handling of the hearing). Currie requires the backing of state Senator Joe Lagana (D-38), who lobbed a pair of softballs at Norcross, which, in the words of a text message from a party insider, he “hit into the upper deck.”

“Let people voice ther concerns and give them the opportunity to exhaust themselves,” said Jones the challenger. “We’ve got to respect the right to protest.”

Smith’s decision to eject people was “quick on the draw, perhaps,” in Jones’ words.

“The bottom line is the optics of this don’t bode well for New Jersey,” he added. “We’re better than that. We’re getting to the point where we do not want to look like the poster child of government dysfunction. I can only say what I would done. I would remind them there has to be order in the house. If it were me I would have let them air out their piece a little more.”

What about the appearance of senate Democrats immbolized by Norcross?

“I’m only drawing on my background as a legislator, where I never kowtowed to anybody,” Jones said. “Be honest to yourself and to your convictions and to pursuing something against the grain. If they possess that ilk, they should exercise it. Nobody should walk away. Joe Lagana was on point. He did his homework.”

The challenger, sitting Democratic State Party chairman, said InsiderNJ would do better to direct questions about the senators’ inquisitory powers to the senators themselves.

As for Jones, “I don’t fear any man,” he said.

Then there was Currie.

He hit a Mercer Democratic Committee event on Tuesday evening.

“I did not see the hearing,” said the Democratic State Committee chairman, when asked about the senators’ Monday behavior.

“The removal of Sue Altman looked a little harsh,” he added. “This is America. They have the opportunity to speak out.”

Smith’s decision to mobilize troopers to eject people after scattered boos and cheers was, Currie said, “heavy-handed.”

Neither spoke to that aspect of the episode – now the subject of a state Attorney General investigation – that most worried Perth Amboy Mayor Wilda Diaz. “I think the fact that the state police went specifically to her – that’s troubling,” said Diaz. “Why did they go directly to her? It is troubling how she was escorted out.”

Could Middlesex – key to advancing Jones to the chairmanship of the party – cave in come 2021 on the strength of perceived intolerance by its political establishment?

Ron Rivers, who lives in Smith’s district and was an unsuccessful candidate for the Assembly last year, said,  “The treatment of Sue Altman by the police under the direction of [my] State Senator Bob Smith is reprehensible and cowardly. Sue and the other activists were there to give voice to New Jersey’s working class, who were victimized by George Norcross through his corrupt backroom EDA incentive dealings. It wouldn’t surprise me if Senator Smith had a strong challenger in 2021, he’s made it clear that he prefers to support corrupt millionaires over New Jersey’s working families.”

Urging him to move on drivers’ licenses for undocumented workers, activists staged a rally at a Coughlin event.

As frustrated as some members of the party outside the immediate reach of South Jersey were with Norcross and his influence, others bewailed the continuing incompetencies of the Murphy Administration. Others punched both sides in helpless rage. “There are at least three Democratic Parties in New Jersey, a source said, “But there is no Democratic Party.”

To some sources on the boardwalk, Currie versus Jones was as simple Norcross versus Murphy. Or Norcross v. Altman. Or Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) versus Murphy.

Coughlin, Murphy and Sweeney sat in a bar in the Hard Rock on Wednesday night “very public message,” a source deadpanned – with the party falling apart and the shared joke among them perhaps that everything was fine.

InsiderNJ sat with a source in a tavern who insisted that in the Jones v. Currie contest to grab 98 committee votes, Jones is up by three votes, with a convention as yet unscheduled and time ticking down to a deadline at the end of January.  Governor Phil Murphy, due in tomorrow, was set to meet the Atlantic City delegation with Currie, where they expect strong support.

Politics occured in close encounters.

As in a family, someone in the party might say.

Under a big tent, he or she might add.

Or a small one.

A day before Jones released the name of his running mate, Senate President Sweeney convened an intimate gathering of party types, nearly all of them allies of Jones in the ongoing war – with Currie’s Vice Chair, Peg Schaffer, notably present as a member of the opposition. In short public remarks, Sweeney praised Schaffer for perservering as the chair of Somerset County for a decade plus, an effort that finally paid off for her this year when she won 3-2 control of the freeholder board.

But for Timberlake, at least, and the public selves of the striving Jones and Currie this morning, their rivalry amounted to a playful pillow fight well-earned.


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