Steven Fulop was probably doomed from the start as a statewide 2017 prospect.
No one’s saying he’s Cory Booker.
But he has an inspiring story.
It’s probably the reason a lot of Booker’s allies behind the scenes warmed more to Phil Murphy, who retired as an executive from Goldman Sachs. Murphy would never really compete on a statewide stage. Whatever his virtues – and they may prove significant – Murphy victorious would surely simply remind people what they liked in the first place about Booker. The senator’s young and energetic and a great public speaker. Murphy’s allies kept saying he’s no Jon Corzine, but for Booker allies, he could only be another Jon Corzine: older, from the corporate world, and never as good an orator as Booker – and perhaps with the added benefit onstage of being more likeable.
As long as Booker was around, and U.S. Senator Bob Menendez still hanging on, at least for now, New Jersey was due for another person from the financial sector. It was simply a matter of balance, for the state can apparently sustain three different and distinct statewide political archetypes: the machine politician, the self-funder, and the inspirational figure. Each reflects a different facet of the state’s personality, for as much as part of the state insists on Ray Liotta-like tough guy, organization-molded authenticity, another segment asserts the austerity of the financial industry as a key part of New Jersey’s story, while a third attempts to break the chains of both by defying those stereotypes in transcendent and inspiring fashion.
Each is a necessary expression of a dynamic and essentially schizophrenic and dysfunctional yet nonetheless fascinating state.
Notwithstanding those inspirational elements of his personal history, Menendez right now fulfills the role of machine politician. He rose to prominence as leader of the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO), and even at his zenith as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stood among the mayors of Hudson as the undisputed wharf-front boss. Certainly his ethnic background as a Latino contributed to then-Governor Corzine’s political calculation to pick him as his replacement to serve in the U.S. Senate. But ultimately those trench-coated ward captains and county organization people see Menendez as the man from their ranks made good.
Then there’s Yale-educated Rhodes scholar Booker, who was never a machine politician. When the Central Ward Councilman ran against then-Mayor Sharpe James in 2002, Governor Jim McGreevey and the Democratic Party backed the incumbent. Backed by North Ward Democratic Leader Steve Adubato, Sr. in his successful 2006 foray, Booker took to fighting Adubato soon after his election. Then there was his 2008 decision to back upstart Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton, anointed by Corzine and most of the rest of the establishment Democratic Party as the county’s next president.
If the machine went one way, chances are Booker would go the other.
When he did line up with the party, he was never overly comfortable in the role.
Whatever his pragmatic fealty to his fellow Democrats, Booker ultimately created his own cult of personality, which rose far beyond the dimensions of the Essex County Democratic Party machine. Now Menendez had also built infrastructure for himself that gave him national reach, most significantly his fundraising ties to Miami and powerful Hispanics around the country, which always bolstered his parochial power. But it was nothing like the reach Booker – as mayor of Newark – conceived. The cross-section of social media, corporate money, Hollywood and academia catapulted Booker into a transcendent political stratosphere. When the senate seat opened up on 2013, no one else in his party could compete with him.
Only Governor Chris Christie burned as brightly.
Indeed, up until Booker delivered his stinging rebuke last year in defense of Hillary Clinton following Christie’s onstage “Guilty or not guilty” performance at the Republican National Convention, Christie and Booker enjoyed an almost Romulus and Remus symbiosis.
Like Booker, Christie had a story. In 2009, the former U.S. Attorney packaged himself as a no-nonsense, white hat-wearing good guy with real Jersey roots – unlike the bland mid-western corporate Corzine. When he defeated the former Goldman Sachs guy, Christie could attempt to make the case that he embodied the dream of every scrappy Jersey kid who believes that with grit and determination he can displace an imposter who bought his way into office.
Christie statewide was a little problematic for Booker.
Unlike Corzine, Christie was a star.
He could speak.
He could occasionally say something that almost sounded inspirational.
Back in the Corzine days, Mayor Booker’s handlers delighted in the contrast their boss presented onstage alongside the governor. Corzine would speak and the crowd would go to sleep. Booker would speak and the crowd would wake up and become electrified.
After painfully but dutifully assuming the role of Christie facilitator, backing the Republican Governor on the two percent cap, charter school reform and an agenda for the Newark Schools System – for his rise in local politics owed something to Christie chopped down Sharpe James on the corruption-busting front – Booker finally went statewide in 2013, and had the tremendous good timing of Christie self-combusting with Bridgegate.
As Christie sputtered, his Hurricane Sandy-aided inspirational story line deflated and apparently for good, Booker could assume statewide dominance as New Jersey’s lone statewide inspirational figure in elected office: the first black man in the state’s history to become a U.S. Senator, who simultaneously seemed consistently to scorn the limits of race.
The long gone Corzine left behind a ghostly entreaty, or so it would seem on observation of the careful delineations of the Murphy story: if you’re going to be from Goldman Sachs, by God, at least have a personality, lest you end up one term and done. Coming out of nowhere as a rich guy from the private sector who elbowed aside known public quantity Millicent Fenwick (51-48%) for the senate seat in 1982, the late Senator Frank Lautenberg served nearly 30 years in the United States Senate as a successful emblem of the self-funder ethos. Certainly, he offered the inspirational story of coming from a family that worked in the mills of Paterson, but transcendent inspirational figure and possible future president was never Lautenberg’s angle. He was the kid made good in business, who transferred that self-empowerment into politics.
Corzine gone, and Lautenberg gone and Menendez and Booker already fulfilling the other functions of New Jersey’s personality create an ample opening for Murphy to reassert the lost third of itself.
The Republican backers of both Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno and Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-16) insist on an opening. In a conversation with InsiderNJ two days ago, a Guadagno backer made the case that as a woman she matches up well against Murphy. But many party insiders see Ciattarelli as the party’s best chance to run a Bob Franks-like campaign against a candidate they will attempt to brand as elitist and corporate.
But Ciattarelli – or Guadagno, if she beats him in the primary – may be up against the additional barrier of ultimately trying to fulfill the role of inspirational figure (for in Ciattarelli’s case in particular, for all of his details-oriented pragmatism, his campaign story irresistibly posits a kid from Raritan made good in business and politics and now the underdog up against another Goldman Sachs veteran) on a statewide political landscape made up of definable archetypes, where New Jerseyans already find that particular role adequately performed by Booker.
- Bob Menendez
- Chris Christie
- Cory Booker
- Essex County Democrats
- Frank Lautenberg
- Goldman Sachs
- Hudson County Democratic Organization
- Hudson County Democrats
- Jack Ciattarelli
- Jon Corzine
- Kim Guadagno
- Phil Murphy
- Sharpe James
- Steve Fulop
- Steven Fulop
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