The Buzz in the Room: Murphy’s MetLife Big Tent, Trump Era Party

RUTHERFORD – Tented in darkness, the Murphy Party looked like a space station on the moon, the newly crowned Governor’s most diehard bow-tied and backless dressed supporters having trekked from Trenton to this vast stretch of frozen swampland on the Northern side of the state where the letters MWW radiate in the distance like a reinforcing satellite.

The usuals showed up.

There was Newark Mayor Ras Baraka arriving fashionably late and striding in solo, about five minutes behind state Senator Nia Gill (D-34).  Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36) roamed the environs. Former Speaker Vinny Prieto (D-32) made a Charles Boyer face when InsiderNJ greeted him. State Senator Joe Cryan (D-20) found the outstretched hand of SEIU 32BJ State Director Kevin Brown.

A lot of business types navigated a room too loud to have any conversation without sinking one’s teeth into someone else’s ear.

“Can you believe Rodney not going to the inauguration?” a source groused, referring to U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11). “I can understand LoBo not going, he’s not running again, but Rodney…”

The voice trailed off, a scream swallowed by the rhythm and blues group onstage.

There was prez buzz, what with everyone in the makeshift Democratic Party stronghold fed up with Donald Trump and seeking the intimacy of movement that makes a president from among their own ranks.

“Booker will take a hard look at it,” one source insisted, amid the roil of bosses and power brokers, starting with Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo at his countywide kickoff last month, who publicly made the point that Booker will have dibs on prez, if he wants it, a none-too-veiled check on Murphy, who trailed prez rumors ever since he began feeling out a gubernatorial bid on the heels of his service as U.S. Ambassador to Germany. The Booker buzz was interesting, in part because it generated out of an appearance this very afternoon by the junior Senator from New Jersey in which he filled the dead space between Murphy’s inauguration and inaugural ball by slapping soundly at Trump’s homeland security chief.

Local race gamesmanship complemented national speculation.

“Gayle, you see,” a source intoned, referring to Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins in Newark, “Won’t run. Not for mayor.” A big, exaggerated shake of the heads accompanied the remark. “She’s going to have to act like she’s running citywide to get enough money – quarter million dollars, see. Quarter million, to be serious, and then she’ll go and try to run for her Central Ward seat. You heard it here first, see?

“Ras too strong,” the source insisted.

He made the point against the backdrop of former Police Director Anthony Campos supposedly getting in the East Ward contest on Thursday.

“He’s close to Seabra,” the source said, referring to the local Ironbound power broker. “He won’t run with Ras, of course, because [East Ward Councilman] Augie [Amador] is already representing the Baraka ticket in the East Ward.”

Then there was some Crystal Fonseca buzz.

The daughter of Booker’s former chief of staff Pablo Fonseca when Booker served as mayor of Newark, she will run for school board again or for an East Ward Council seat. Which course she opts for ultimately hinges on Chaneyfield Jenkins’ decision: Central Ward or citywide, the source said.

“Bayonne,” veteran Democratic Party operative Phil Swibinski told InsiderNJ when asked what he plans to focus on in the coming days.

Swibinski backs incumbent Mayor Jimmy Davis, who’s up against a challenge by former Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell (D-31).

“I don’t know if that town can survive [this election cycle],” a concerned citizen said, a tiny figure standing between two bass-booming speakers.

If South Jersey trucked up here they hardly showed a big footprint, if any at all. Neither did their allies. “Just finishing up in the senate [confirming Gurbir Grewal for Attorney General], I won’t be going to MetLife tonight,” one of the elite 40 told InsiderNJ, fighting a yawn. One thing was to be Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) in search of gubernatorial support circa 2015. Another would be to take a night in the middle of the week to hobnob with rivals on the other side of what proved a very acrimonious and still-fresh pre-primary fight. In the eyes of his worst North Jersey critics, whom the South had to believe resided (in part) in Murphy world, the Senate President for years had dragged around Essex and Bergen like a brontosaurus vainly trying to convince a post-Ice Age generation of his fitness on the evolutionary food chain. No matter what he did, he would always be just another pterodactyl hatchling from South Jersey, closer to Tennessee than Tenafly, a cultural backwater by the reckoning of the snobbiest Northerners, who made their harshest bipedal assessments of that other half of the state even as individualized arrogance prevented them from grasping South Jersey’s superior political gamesmanship.

Let them have their fun. The biting, unspoken South Jersey reaction to the scene seemed to hover about the revelers even in their absence.

Rutherford today.

Trenton tomorrow.

One pictured Sweeney relishing revenge, to talk to sources here who expressed a sense of inevitability regarding a front office fight with the extant legislative power structure.

“They’ll give Phil a honeymoon,” said a source through a mouthful of horderves.

“A week, I’d guess,” he added. “Two. Tops.”

The conversations spilled from one group to the next in the big room, which filled from 7 to 9.

“I’d be inclined to back Booker if he ran for president,” Sierra Club guru Jeff Tittel said over a cocktail. “It’s hard to resist having that personal relationship with a president.”

Someone mentioned a Biden-Booker ticket.

Biden, as it turns out, likes Booker. Didn’t always, but did ever since Booker voted in favor of the Iran Nuclear Deal.

“Joe thought Cory stuck his neck out on that one,” a source told InsiderNJ.

More immediately, a cluster of insiders stuck to the tablet that contained the presence of Mikie Sherrill, the former Navy helicopter pilot and former prosecutor who wants to run against Frelinghuysen in the 2018 general.

“Let me introduce you to the next Congresswoman from the 11th District,” Woodland Park Mayor Keith Kazmark told someone in the crowd.

On his night, Murphy would be appearing soon, coming out of the long tunnel that led back to the VIP area.


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