WEST DEPTFORD – This was not the John Cougar Mellencamp moment that Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) envisioned – but he’ll take it, scrappy blue collar fight included.
He wanted the governor’s office in 2017 but could not muster the northern county support required to out-duel former Goldman Sachs executive Phil Murphy, now the undisputed Democratic Party front-runner.
Having accepting the reality of Murphy, Sweeney now seeks reelection to the senate against a presumed two-pronged enemy: an infuriated New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), said to be bucking for a fight and nudging members to coalesce and take out petitions to oppose Sweeney in a Democratic Primary; and Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean (R-21), unshackled now by a Chris Christie 2013 reelection strategy that included making nice with Sweeney.
“If they want a primary, I’ll have a primary,” Sweeney ($861,000 in the bank in January, according to ELEC) told InsiderNJ in the middle of a baseball field mobbed with Building Trades backers of the suspenders-wearing ironworker turned entrenched second deck denizen of the upper statehouse chamber.
Former Governor Jim Florio, U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, Senator Nilsa Cruz-Perez, Assemblyman Adam Taliaferro, Senator Fred Madden, Assemblywoman John Burzichelli and other South Jersey Democratic leaders formed a semi-circle of power around the pitcher’s mound. Union guys hung on the chain link fence behind home plate, and a prop plane dragging a “Steve Sweeney: Senate President” sign circled above. Assemblyman (and senate candidate) Troy Singleton (D-7) stood in the crowd, as did Carol Murphy, his LD7 running mate to take his seat when and if he moves up to replace State Senator Diane Allen (R-7).
There was worry down here in the crowd about the state senate candidacy chances of Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-2), and the expectation that a Mazzeo loss to Assemblyman Chris Brown (R-2) could be sustained only Singleton
winning in LD7.
For the moment, it was all Sweeney, who secured the funding to build the sports complex where he kicked off his campaign today.
“I’m not looking for a fight, but I am prepared to win one with my record,” he added.
That goes for the general election, too, if Kean decides to repay Sweeney for aligning behind those ultimately unsuccessful Republican forces who tried to force the son of the former governor out of leadership in 2013.
“Trump lies all the time, but who pays attention to that lunatic anyway?” the senate president said, defying Republican claims to protecting working men and women under the auspices of Trump world.
“Who’s protected the working man better than me?” Sweeney asked.
“They tried to run Nikki Trump against Steve last time and that didn’t work out very well,” a South Jersey source said, snarkily mangling the name of Nikki Trunk, the 2013 challenger who failed to gain general election traction four years ago.
Sweeney beat her, 55-45%. But Trunk had zero help from Christie, who all but actively shunned Republicans in those South Jersey burghs bearing the Sweeney/Norcross tag team brand.
Similarly underfunded Republican attorney Mike Mulligan came within 5,000 votes of beating the South Jersey icon in 2011, in a district that Chris Christie won in 2009, which Republicans ran before Sweeney turned it into a Democratic stronghold built on union muscle.
This kickoff event today was not just chest thumping cold weather theatrics.
The Sweeney dugout spill-out power projection reflected real-world scrutiny of the political landscape here, its history and present day potential volatility. Sweeney’s bad blood with the NJEA has the operatives around him especially alert to that petition circulation by the teachers’ allies. The spat goes back to when he senate president allied with Christie to overhaul public pensions and benefits. The senate president tried to make good in years subsequent, pushing measures to protect public sector workers, but it was never enough. Trying to run for governor in the 2017 pre-primary and faced with the prospect of a target on his back, Sweeney met threats by public worker unions to withhold campaign contributions unless the Senate passed pension legislation by firing off a letter to state and federal law enforcement authorities demanding an investigation.
That collision has everyone on high alert down here.
The entire surrounding area was shut down with cars parked, double parked, and pulled up on the grass.
The crowd packed the baseball field in a big show of Sweeney solidarity.
“About the only bad thing I can say about him is he’s a Steelers fan,” Taliaferro said of the senator.
At Sweeney’s side stood Tammy Murphy, the wife of Democratic front-runner Phil Murphy, the stand-in from Murphy world while a “scheduling conflict” prevented the candidate from attending, Burzichelli told the crowd.
She spoke briefly.
“I’m with Phil,” Sweeney explained later. “I’m going to run with Phil. I was thrilled that Phil asked his wife to come down. Look, I think we have great Democratic candidates for governor, but Phil lines up with me on the issues I care about. My county endorsed him. I look forward to working with him. It’s been seven years under a Republican administration and it has not been easy. It will be a lot easier with him.”
When Murphy’s governor, they will raise the state’s minimum wage to $15, the senator promised to cheers.
But has Murphy – a close political ally of Dick Codey, the man Sweeney deposed from the senate throne – publicly declared his support for Sweeney to again lead the senate?
“He’s not getting involved in leadership,” Sweeney told InsiderNJ. “I asked him not to get involved in senate leadership. There’s four, maybe five members that haven’t said they’re supporting me. I’m very confident after I get elected to the senate that my colleagues will reelect me to the senate presidency.”
Building Trades President Bill Mullen, Burzichelli and Norcross visibly suffered the cold under layers of cold weather gear in frigid conditions at Sweeney’s kickoff, while the senate president wore a terry cloth long coat over a union T-shirt. As Norcross tottered in misery, Sweeney threw open his coat to show his resistance to the cold, and noted the preparation irowworkers have to stare down all weather, unlike trained electricians like Norcross, he cracked.
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- Adam Taliaferro
- Bill Mullen
- Carol Murphy
- Chris Brown
- Chris Christie
- Diane Allen
- Dick Codey
- Donald Norcross
- Fred Madden
- Goldman Sachs
- Jim Florio
- John Burzichelli
- New Jersey Education Association
- Nilsa Cruz-Perez
- Phil Murphy
- Steve Sweeney
- Tammy Murphy
- Tom Kean Jr.
- Troy Singleton
- Vince Mazzeo
- West Deptford
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