EAST RUTHERFORD – The Hilton here towers over a swamp, where the cars tonight sat in a Jersey downpour, backed bumper to bumper nearly to the Tick Tock, as Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) found the revolving front door and went through, on his way in to the Bergen County Democratic Gala.
“Not much,” he told InsiderNJ, when asked about the fledgling candidacy of Celgene exec Bob Hugin, who last night spoke at the Somerset County GOP’s Lincoln Day Dinner. “He’s going to have to win a Republican Primary first,” Menendez said, as he climbed the escalator to the sprawling ballroom and 81-table dinner set-piece, where Governor Phil Murphy and First Lady Tammy Murphy waded through flash bulb pops and back claps at this event thrown by Bergen County Democratic Committee Chairman Lou Stellato.
Having all-but suffocated the Republican Party’s organization in Bergen (it was still a bellwether county when he took over) Stellato wagered on Murphy’s candidacy in the 2017 pre-primary season and ended up with an ally in Drumthwacket. Tonight was at least Murphy’s second Stellato production inside a week, his contretemps with Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) hardly evident as he hobnobbed with his chief political lieutenants, starting with Stellato and Passaic County Democratic Committee Chairman John Currie, who doubles as the state party chair.
Pigs-in-blanket chomping Bergenities brought up Union County only as fun political theater, laying conversational banter odds from afar on either Senator Nick Scutari (D-22) or Acting Chair (and Fanwood Mayor) Colleen Mahr, even as Murphy allies closer to the conflict worry about Sweeney gaining a stronger toehold in Union with a win by caucus member Scutari. InsiderNJ asked Currie if he intends to insert himself into the action in Union, and he said, “No.” They’ll fight it out down there.
In one snatch of conversation, InsiderNJ overheard a powerful attorney asking an elected official if he sensed any legislative support for two of Murphy’s key agenda pieces: marijuana legalization and the millionaire’s tax.
“No,” was the response on both counts.
That interaction occurred not far from where revelers in a room crammed with hundreds of people positively mobbed Bergen County Executive Jim Tedesco. Having formally kicked off last Monday, Tedesco appears well positioned to win reelection by the reckoning of most, sandwiched between Menendez and incumbent Freeholder Tracy Zur; as President Donald J. Trump’s stewardship of the country exacerbates organizational GOP woes countywide. And yet the contrast, between Murphy’s wobbly legislative agenda and the health and fitness of Stellato’s Bergen Democratic Organization, underscored the divide between Murphy and his northern political allies thriving countywide here on one side and, on the other, Sweeney and the Democratic Caucus. Partygoers who happily lent their presence to Stellato’s event, nonetheless still have close ties to Sweeney.
“It was never part of the Murphy for Governor’s campaign calculation to change the leadership of the Legislature,” a cocktail imbibing source told InsiderNJ.
Stellato had hoped for a play to restore a leadership position to North Jersey, but Essex County Democratic Chairman Leroy Jones peeled off to join the South Jersey alliance with Middlesex to plant Assemblyman Craig Coughlin (D-19) in the speakership, leaving what most sources said was the Plan B option to Speaker Vincent Prieto of Hudson – Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36) – with a weakened hand to play. This past week, Schaer’s political fortunes darkened with the swearing-in of Clinton Calabrese of Cliffside Park as the LD36 replacement for Murphy’s Acting DOBI Commissioner Marlene Caride. “Gary knows there will be a target on his back, because the district went with a white guy this time, meaning it won’t be long before the party has to recruit a Latina from [Schaer’s home town of] Passaic,” the source said.
“For district balance,” he added.
In another conversation, someone extended that point to include consideration of Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-15), who appeared in a tough position politically earlier today with a win by ether Tony Verrelli or Verlina Reynolds Jackson. “Tony wins and the district has one too many white guys, he loses and now you got two people from Trenton in the 15th,” the source said. Reynolds Jackson, a Trenton councilwoman, scored that win at today’s special convention. putting the pressure on veteran Gusciora, who’s running for mayor of the Capital City.
Someone else – close to labor – complained about Hunterdon County’s performance in the LD15 convention, where the Carpenters had hoped to power through Verrelli. A source told InsiderNJ that of 22 possible voting members from Hunterdon, 10 showed in Ewing, and six left the scene between the first and second ballot voting.
“Something like that would never happen in North Jersey,” the source said.
Certainly no one could deny brick by brick countywide strength for Stellato’s Democrats, built on multiple victories going back to the earliest days of Stellato’s engagement. But legislative strength is another matter, would-be northern allies deteriorated by South Jersey relationships, or ongoing political fracture. Still, Menendez’s survival last month reinvigorated a longstanding northern political player, restoring some muscle to a somewhat more flabby inter-county machine with him at less than full strength.
It looked big tonight; big and functional and radiate with countywide power, enhanced by a Governor who will, in the words of one eyebrows knitted source, “find his sea legs, give him time,” and the northern quad still the nucleus of Menendez World, but in search of willing allies to attain full northern legislative domination. An SUVI pulled up in front of the Hilton and state Senator Paul Sarlo (D-36) of South Bergen – another close Sweeney confidant – stepped out and went inside to join the bash.