EAST RUTHERFORD – The absence of fellow assemblyman Gary Schaer from Clinton Calabrese’s legislative swearing-in ceremony last week occurred without mention in the mainstream media – and with the accompaniment of more than a few knowing Statehouse winks.
Calabrese represented a threat to Schaer, said sources; a state Senator Paul Sarlo (D-36) option undertaken in full recognition of the districtwide rivalry that for years has split Sarlo and Schaer into cohabitating toxic halves. The roots of the division have some 2017 Gubernatorial overlay, but mostly evolve out of the mutually destructive ambitions of the two principals.
To some extent, each stands in the way of the other, in an approximation of the kind of relationship State Senator Ray Lesniak had with then-Assemblyman Joe Cryan in the 20th District, or like the relationship Senator Cryan now has with Lesniak’s protégé, Assemblyman Jamel Holley.
They routinely choose opposing sides.
A member of Senate President Steve Sweeney’s (D-3) caucus, Sarlo was always going to be with Sweeney for Governor, with the expectation in return of support from Sweeney and South Jersey for the senate presidency once Sweeney occupied Drumthwacket. For his part, Schaer was with Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, and expectant of a deal that would have relieved Vincent Prieto and made Schaer speaker of the General Assembly. It was a natural progression. Prieto had been budget chair prior to speaker and Schaer aimed to follow suit.
If Fulop and Sweeney stayed in the contest for Governor, Schaer would have bracketed himself with Fulop, and Sarlo with Sweeney.
When Sweeney and Fulop both dropped out of the race, Phil Murphy’s ability to cohere all 21 party lines had everything to do with incumbents like Sarlo and Schaer preferring momentary peace for the sake of extending their political lives; but the fact that they could once again enjoy the Bergen County Democratic line last year as slate mates would only prolong the agony, as it turned out – and delay what now looks like an inevitable collision.
Team Murphy (likely unwittingly) made sure of that when all signs looked like they would tap Schaer for Treasury Commissioner and then instead went with the politically perplexing choice of Assemblywoman Liz Muoio from Mercer County. Ok. No matter, sources said. Schaer, with his financial background card, of course, and budget chairmanship cred – would resurface as commissioner of the Department of Insurance and Banking.
Schaer would be a natural fit for that job, right; plus, unlike Sarlo, he was close to Bergen County Democratic Committee Chairman Lou Stellato, who was one of the four North Jersey county chairs who made Murphy Governor.
But it didn’t happen.
Worse for Schaer, the job went to Sarlo-Schaer LD36 late mate Assemblywoman Marlene Caride. The consolation prize for her name getting dangled as lieutenant governor material? Maybe.
In any event, now, somewhat, Schaer dangled.
It was irritating.
On paper, he was one of the smarter people in the Legislature, and while it was true he had been with Fulop early – not Murphy – surely the Stellato (and Passaic County Democratic Committee Chairman John Currie) relationship counted for something.
Again, it very well might have had Hudson County Democratic Organization Chairman Prieto and Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman Leroy Jones stuck with Currie and Stellato on legislative leadership. But they didn’t; Prieto snagging his own into-the-sunset gig at the Sports and Exposition Authority, and Jones taking the deal with South Jersey and Middlesex to keep Sweeney in power and make Craig Coughlin (not Schaer) speaker.
Jones’ move empowered Sarlo, whose political fortunes – to a large degree – hinged on Sweeney staying in power. Sarlo remained cocooned in the South Jersey-centric establishment. Schaer was off the statewide reservation.
So when Caride left the assembly, Sarlo – playing the role of district overlord – tapped Clinton Calabrese , scion of the Brothers Calabrese political clan in Cliffside Park, a big, well-performing Democratic town in the 36th District. Supplanting a white male for a Latina in a minority majority district instantaneously put Schaer fans on notice, because it meant the next pick undoubtedly would have to be a Latina (that is if anyone still paid attention to the 2011 redistricting map priorities undergirding the 36th District to begin with, which was to empower minorities; and, of course, maybe no one did).
But whatever the calculation, Schaer was confident politically.
He practically ran Passaic, or at least played a major role in the recruitment of every mayor in the city’s recent chaotic history.
If Sarlo decided to run Calabrese and (presumably) a Latina someone against him in 2019, he would undoubtedly be able to convince someone along the lines of popular Mayor Hector Lora to run with him (it likely won’t be Lora, who likes local, not state), mobilize Passaic (the district’s most overwhelmingly Democratic town; home to 9K registered Dems) and, in a reenactment of Pascrell-Rothman 2012, Rothmanize Calabrese (5K registered Dems in Cliffside) and whatever other collateral damage person occupied the opposing Sarlo ticket.
That was their side of the story anyway, Schaer’s side.
He was too strong in his home town, and the hometown, like a mini-Paterson in the neighboring 35th, had too much muscle.
Sarlo played the statewide leadership game well, the Schaerites had to admit. After all, the senator was still budget chair; while Schaer’s budget chairmanship went to Essex County (in part) in exchange for Jones’ support for Coughlin’s speakership.
But Sarlo did not have the stronger position districtwide.
The grandfathered dual-office holder Schaer still sat on the Passaic City Council. He was a political animal locally, with strong ties to Currie, who detested Sweeney and every northern infestation of him. If any irritation lingered over how Stellato and the County Dems handled leadership, surely Schaer could easily repair that with an enemy of thine enemy is my friend fail safe.
Sarlo had great relations with Sweeney and South Jersey Kingpin George Norcross III, but lacked Schaer’s close proximity to big urban numbers.
If they won, Schaer would run against Sarlo in 2021.
Their long-delayed duel would take place four years after the originally designated time.
But it would take place.
No, not if Sarlo could help it.
Schaer and his allies had their storyline, but in Sarlo’s version of the showdown, Schaer would not survive 2019. The Calabrese ticket would get an infusion of South Jersey money on par with LD11.
LD36 would be the new LD11, only the cash would be for the primary, not the general.
“Steve, do me a solid,” one can imagine the conversation between the budget chairman and the senate president.
The relationship’s real.
If Sweeney could hamstring Currie’s clerkship, he could champion a Sarlo score.
Schaer has strong fundraising ties, though, too; and would have to believe, if he could corral Lora and the Passaic line, at the very least, that he would be in good fighting shape, with an eye to using 2019 as a warm-up act to Sarlo. Maybe something else would come along to defuse the situation. There were jobs out there. Opportunities. Murphy had a scheduled Monday morning roundtable on taxes in Passaic City Hall. Maybe the assemblyman and governor would talk then. On the campaign trail, Murphy had put forward that idea of a public bank. Maybe he had Schaer in mind. Of course, maybe the Governor needed to buttonhole Sarlo for his support on a $15 minimum wage.
There was always family. Maybe one of them would tire of the game.
For the time being, they continued to endure each other.
They ran into each other at last night’s Bergen County Democratic Committee gala and someone mentioned that they appeared to be chatting – almost amiably.
They’ve had years of practice.
In the end, whatever happened here in the 36th, it was politics.