When they write the story of the downfall of this particular version of the NJ Democratic Party, they will say it started in Bergen, which is fitting, perhaps, for when it comes to New Jersey, even attitude-parochial Newark itself must finally endure that rather inauspicious second banana inscription of “New York suburb,” a condition arguably best embodied by wall-to-wall mall culture Bergen.
Like a backyard water sprinkler out of control, the massive northern county began the 2021 election cycle as the most obvious point of division for the party that nationally just felled the supposedly spastic presidency of Donald Trump. It is, in fact, the quaint town of Englewood where the two slate mates of retiring Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37) find themselves in a claymation death match with even more strained implications.
“It’s a s-t show,” a Democrat fretted aloud to InsiderNJ, referring to the showdown between Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-37) and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37), blaming Bergen County Democratic Committee Chairman Paul Juliano for failing to avert party primary disaster.
The media got a glimpse of the developing mess when Weinberg said she intended to remain neutral in a contest for her seat.
Word trickled in that Gordon would get the establishment nod, the consequence of the assemblyman having played some solid cards (backing Governor Phil Murphy when it was unfashionable in Bergen, in fact bucking then Chairman Lou Stellato, who was still hoping Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop jumped into the race; and throwing in early with Craig Coughlin for speaker while much of North Jersey was still bottled up with a soon-to-be-ejected Speaker Vincent Prieto). The assemblyman was also generally seen as agreeable to those forces that congealed late in 2020 to un-transparently ram the Horizon restructuring bill, otherwise known as the three white Irish guys running Trenton (Coughlin, Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney).
At his best, or worst, Gordon comes across as “a good guy,” a title awarded to supposedly pliable elected officials by the New Jersey establishment the way English royalty dispenses knighthoods.
Vainieri Huttle did not have the same history.
She was more outspoken.
She had a strong independent streak, and very specifically progressive credentials exemplified by her strong ties to the LGBTQ community and the early backing she secured of the Communications Workers of America (CWA).
Moreover, unlike Johnson she stuck with Prieto back in 2017, as long as she could, and didn’t jump out early for Murphy ahead of the 2017 election.
If anyone doubted the developing deep connective tissue between Murphy and Middlesex, all they had to do was look at the Horizon restructuring deal. Part of that deal got done in the company of Juliano, who sits on the Horizon Board. If Johnson had gotten on board with Coughlin and company early, Juliano had his own ineradicable ties to Murphy and Middlesex. As Weinberg announced her retirement, Vainieri Huttle professed not to know that the party organization would opt for Johnson instead of her. Then, when it became apparent that Juliano’s organization was tilting in another direction, she abandoned hopes of securing the party’s convention support.
“I will not allow a predetermined outcome to shape the future of District 37,” she wrote Juliano in a letter last week, as she opted to run in the primary off the line. “I will fight for a true democratic process that ensures the voices of the thousands of people in District 37 are truly heard.
“As a proud Democrat, I believe in safeguarding and strengthening our democracy,” she added. “As an active participant in Bergen County’s political process, I believe that we must ensure an open and fair process for candidates and voters. That is how we grow stronger and that is how we earn the support of rank and file Democrats. I first announced my intention to run for State Senate in January. Immediately, it became clear that the decks had been stacked in favor of my opponent. Despite your promises that you would remain a neutral party, I have heard again and again that you are behind Gordon Johnson.”
Juliano shot back with a missive of his own.
“When we spoke earlier this month, it was acknowledged, based on publicly announced pledges, that Gordon Johnson had likely secured the support of a majority of the district’s delegates,” the Bergen County Democratic Committee chairman wrote to the assemblywoman. “Despite reinforcing my position that I would not be issuing an endorsement before delegates had an opportunity to cast their votes, you still pressed me to interject on your behalf and stated that I could change the outcome of the convention in your favor.
“The hypocrisy of suggesting that I anoint you as the preferred candidate, the exact thing you claim to be fighting against, is staggering,” he added. “The truth is, I was unwilling to endorse either of you as the preferred candidate prior to the convention.”
Vainieri Huttle on Wednesday executed a smooth roll out of her running mates:
Councilwoman Lauren Dayton of Tenafly
Councilwoman Gervonn Rice of Teaneck (who originally endorsed Gordon)
In the meantime, Johnson had to juggle the embarrassment of an audio circulating of his running mate, Assembly candidate Alexandra Soriano-Taveras, caught publicly clamoring for a boycott of stores on Cedar Lane, which, to a large extent, are owned by members of the Jewish community.* It confirms the worst about Johnson himself, who once made a $1,850 campaign contribution to the political action committee (PAC) of anti-Semite presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche, claiming he didn’t know LaRouche harbored anti-Semitic views. If the dedicatedly liberal Vainieri Huttle had no strong endearments from the Orthodox Jewish community, the double impact of Soriano-Tavares and Johnson’s own past blundering with LaRouche threatened to drive the community completely into her arms as an expression of anti-Gordon intention.
She also began the cycle with more money:
$50,265 to Johnson’s 17,455
“If Valerie can raise $350,000, she is a legitimate candidate,” said a source, who noted Johnson’s strength in Fort Lee and Palisades Park, but criticized a ticket built for the general – not the primary – election.
The source described consultant Message and Media’s work on behalf of Murphy – who will presumably run on the line with the backing of the organization – and for off-the-line insurgent Vainieri Huttle – as a gentle senate presidency parlor room play. If Johnson is establishment-friendly and more inclined to back sitting Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), the assemblywoman would likely zigzag in another direction, which is what Murphy wants.
As for Juliano standing in Vainieri Huttle’s way, the source said the chairman wanted Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for the seat. “If he didn’t put his thumb on the scale for Mark, how would he put it on the scale for Valerie or Gordon?” the source wanted to know.
But fair or not, now, as the party confronts the internal humiliation of a war at the center of itself and what the implications might be for others running this year (will Huttle, off the line, form a slate that opposes incumbents and turns all of Bergen into a battlefield?), sources pointed fingers of blame at Juliano. There were even mutterings of getting rid of him and replacing him with Bergen County Executive Jim Tedesco, to shore up Paramus and give the 2021-beleaguered party a new direction.
More immediately, the motivation and organization demonstrated by Vainieri Huttle early gave the establishment fits. If she were to win – and sources say she has a good shot, with fire in the belly for a fight at the very least a good indicator of that foundational ingredient needed to beat an entrenched machine and the righteous indignation of a woman denied the line by male power – the sitting chairman, handed a party in superbly good shape by Stellato, would hear cries for him to walk the plank.
If it wasn’t the downfall of a party too fat too fail in this state, it had the makings of Juliano’s political demise.
Editor’s Note: Assembly candidate Alexandra Soriano-Taveras today issued a statement regarding her call for a business boycott that read in part:
“The edited video clip has been taken out of context and weaponized against me in the darkest, most destructive of ways. I have nothing but respect and appreciation for the Jewish community in Teaneck, District 37 and all of New Jersey. There was a call to action in Teaneck this past summer and I attended to speak up and speak out against our town leadership who once again was not listening to the voices of our community. In a moment of passion I urged those in attendance not to shop in the businesses owned by town leadership, but after more thought and careful consideration of the impact on our small businesses I took no such action and led no such effort.”