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ATLANTIC CITY – The echo of some drunken boardwalk threat from years ago, “I’ll show you what Atlantic City’s all about,” drifted vaguely back whenever the party’s crumbums saw Leroy Jones standing calmly in the vicinity of an equally unruffled-looking John Currie, as if they kept waiting for someone to throw a punch.
No one did.
Not even close.
A possible challenge by Jones, the chairman of the Essex County Democratic Committee, to Currie’s state committee chairman maybe made the ridiculous expectation inevitable down here.
But in fact, the preferred fighting tactic was absence, not an intensification of presence, as South Jersey sat out Currie’s convention and most lawmakers (from anywhere) didn’t bother making an appearance, presumably either a statement of aloofness from Currie’s ally Governor Phil Murphy or, as was the case in battleground district 1, outright rejection of Murphy’s, Currie’s and Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s three-headed party vision in favor of district-wide warpaint.
If he were to run against Currie for the chairmanship, Jones would have the support of the insiders who made a point of either not showing up in Atlantic City, or showing up only in the most strategic – and usually brief – way.
If you chanced to see a party chairman, it was like watching a perching seagull.
If you looked away and then looked back, you might catch a trace of flapping wings.
Chances of seeing that person again were slim.
It was like that at the breakfast on Friday morning. Suddenly, after a Thursday night of suburban debauchery among a handful of leaders whose counties will be the last places in New Jersey to turn blue, insiders alighted in the room.
That was all either to support Speaker Craig Coughlin (the Middlesex contingent, including Middlesex County Democratic Committee Chairman Kevin McCabe), or Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver (Essex).
“Here for the speaker,” or “Here for Sheila.”
No one among that smart set of presumptive Jones backers was there either to kiss Currie’s ring or nibble at the governor’s ear.
They attended to fulfill a specific two-fold theatrical function: appear in support of a countywide name, and as quickly disappear to convey disassociation from every other aspect of the event, including Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s weaponized beat down of those Democrats who did not attend.
Jones stuck around for a good part of the program, probably as long as most insiders did, prior to the late buses landing and disgorging Friday’s crowd for the Pelosi speech. Throughout the day, attendees worried that she wouldn’t show up, a consequence of the encumbrance of her impeachment announcement earlier in the week.
But she did show, and the people present appeared fulfilled.
Even Jones said as much.
“I thought the event accomplished its mission,” the Essex chairman told InsiderNJ. “It was a two-day party unity fest and I was there because I believe in party unity.
“It was a chance to have dinner with the chairmen,” Jones added, referring to the Bobby Flay’s Dinner on Thursday night.
Not all chairs were present at that dinner, of course, as a player from one county could take a pass so long as someone else recognizable from the same county showed.
“It served its purpose,” Jones said of the overall conference. “Folks seemed to have a good time.”
There was a moment that displayed the political ease of both men, who, Jones insists, are not “rivals.”
It happened in the non-voting committee meeting, which South Jersey boycotted but, apparently, for a member from Cumberland, who wanted to know how he could go back to his home county and explain why people should vote Democrat after the mess with former Vice Chair Lizette Delgado Polanco.
Maybe it was a slap at Currie, who had stood with Delgado Polanco with 100% support, or the same level of commitment as McGovern had shown Eagleton. In any event, the state party chair standing at the front of the room watched another arm go up.
It was Jones.
Currie recognized him, and even summoned him to the front of the room.
There Jones pointed out that it was time to move on, Delgado Polanco was “a friend,” and there was no point in the committee taking any action.
“There are no voters at the door asking about Lizette Delgado Polanco,” Jones later told InsiderNJ.
For his part, Currie kept it simple.
There were no grandiloquent speeches or acknowledgements of the House of Atreus.
The divide is the divide.
He had Pelosi in the room, one; and two, amid fracture, he could still fill the main ballroom, even if none of them could pick a single party chair out of a police line up.
“It had a very bused in feel,” one source said, as another, tired of being anonymous in the rooms and hallways, decided to leave.
Currie said he was happy.
“I couldn’t have been more pleased with the conference, “including the reports I’ve been getting about the breakout sessions. No one complained to me about anything. Everyone was very happy with the food. It went off as we intended.”
Someone in attendance, a woman, confronted by an insider’s observation that the entire event lacked the sustained presence of insiders, pushed back. “Thank God,” she said. “They can sit at home and send text messages back and forth.
“They don’t know that the party is changing around them, and without them,” she added.
Currie digested the remark.
“I agree,” he said. “If you look at what I did in Passaic County, I built the party by opening it up and giving everybody a chance, to women, to the suburbs. That’s what I believe in, hearing from the people.”
In a way, it worked out for everyone.
Those who weren’t there could say good.
Those who were there could appear and disappear and keep a foot in both in worlds.
“Here for the speaker.” (but not Murphy and Currie).
They could also relay stories of disaster from Harrah’s.
But those too who went as new members, or as base voters trying to get into the party, could experience the proximity of Pelosi at a key moment in history.
Murphy could both stand at the head of that progressive parade, and very nearly simultaneously tweet a picture of himself having dinner with most of the county chairs. That said, the Avalon probably wasn’t the Camelot the Murphy’s envisioned when they landed the governorship.
For their part, Jones and Currie could reexamine their own strengths and weaknesses within the mesmerized ballroom, and also out there in the cynically chattering swamp lands.
- Atlantic City
- Craig Coughlin
- Essex County Democrats
- John Currie
- Kevin McCabe
- Leroy Jones
- Lizette Delgado Polanco
- Middlesex County Democrats
- Nancy Pelosi
- NJ Democrats
- NJ Schools Development Authority
- Passaic County Democrats
- Phil Murphy
- Ras Baraka
- Sheila Oliver
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