Caucus Hijinks and the Political Implications of Stanfield and Polistina

Sweeney

For all the chest thumping by Jack Ciattarelli about mask mandates and taxes, the preceding week quietly contained more drama related to the dimensions of legislative caucus leadership than the unfolding statewide contest between Ciattarelli and incumbent Governor Phil Murphy.

Two events this week said as much: first, Ciattarelli’s selection of Diane Allen to serve as his running mate; second, the Atlantic County Republican Committee’s affirmation to install former Assemblyman Vince Polistina in the seat occupied by former Senator Chris Brown.

Ciattarelli’s choice of Allen signaled the GOP’s strategy to up the ante in Burlington, where South Jersey Democrats want to defend incumbent state Senator Dawn Addiego (D-8), in part to defend Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3).

In a clear sign of political intention, Addiego’s Republican opponent, Assemblywoman Jean Stanfield (R-

Jean Stanfield
Assemblywoman Jean Stanfield

8), introduced the statewide ticket of Ciattarelli and BurlCo diehard Allen to the crowd.

A longshot statewide in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a million voters, Ciattarelli, by choosing Allen, furnished the GOP with a chance to galvanize the BurlCo County-centric 8th district and upset Addiego with Stanfield.

Also this week, Republicans under the leadership of Atlantic County GOP Committee Chairman Keith Davis affirmed Polistina to go to the senate in the 2nd District, where he will run for the seat previously held by Senator Brown as an incumbent.

LD2 is another battleground district, which the GOP hopes to hold in its column with Polistina against the challenge by Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-2), who, like Addieo, has the considerable financial and political backing of the South Jersey Democratic Machine.

The Murphy Administration’s decision to give a job to Brown and leverage to the GOP ahead of the general election produced more than a few moans of irritation among Sweeney’s allies. Why would Murphy’s political minders give Polistina an advantage?

Just dumb and disorganized – or savagely savvy?

Polistina

If Murphy inner circle allies still nurse an endgame – despite the New Jersey Education Association’s (NJEA) strengthened relations since the 2017 election (an understatement, to say the least) – to get rid of Sweeney, they would certainly see an angle by offloading Brown into the administration and giving a battleground bounce to the cause of Polistina. Of course, Sweeney still wields some power in the matter; he could drag his heels on seating the Republican’s choice for senate, and is, in fact.

At the very least, look for LD2 and LD8 to be competitive.

The GOP wants to defend the former and – with Allen’s help – find an extra senator in Stanfield to augment its woefully undermanned caucus, which lags 15-25 behind the Democrats.

Now, if South Jersey loses Addiego and fails to bump off Polistina, will Sweeney suddenly find himself imperiled, presumably by a challenger with the full backing of Middlesex County.

The short answer is it has to be close.

Sweeney bearhugged his ally Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg’s successor, Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, with a vengeance in this year’s LD37 Democratic Primary, attempting to out-love Middlesex in a full court press taffy pull for Johnson’s political affections.

Could the entirety of the senate presidency come down to Johnson?

Possibly.

If Sweeney loses Addiego and fails to empower himself in LD2.

The favorite to snag Senator Kip Bateman’s senate seat in LD16, Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker went on record earlier this year in support of reupping Sweeney for senate president. But circumstances could change, of course – and Zwicker knows that Middlesex – not Somerset and South Jersey – will have contributed more than any other county – to making him senator. If Sweeney emerges from the general election trailing a blood spoor through Atlantic County and BurlCo, Zwicker might himself reassessing the political terrain.

Then again, Sweeney has built relationships and friendship all over the map.

That explains the skid marks he put down this summer in Hudson and Bergen Counties as he searches for bodies to sandbag the sagging foundation.

Don’t underestimate the tentacles of labor and public contracts, not to mention boards and commission appointments and lobbying.

Ah, lobbying.

It begs a critical point here, which is the power the intention of that county that ultimately bonds with Middlesex to deoxygenate Sweeney and South Jersey.

Most insiders assume Essex takes the shot at recouping the power it lost over a decade ago when it partnered with the South to take down its own senate President, Dick Codey, in exchange for the speakership, which it ultimately fumbled away.

Chairman Jones
Chairman Jones

 

Now the Democratic state Party Chairman, Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman LeRoy Jones stands in a critical position here. It’s possible Jones, by intensifying his relationship with Middlesex, can finally squeeze a legitimate statewide player out of a deal for New Jersey’s county with the biggest Democratic Party plurality.

It’s conceivably as simple as making someone from Essex the senate president (Teresa Ruiz? Nia Gill), in exchange for backing Speaker Craig Coughlin for governor in 2025; or throwing weight behind state Senator Joe Vitale (or Senator Joe Cryan [close to Middlesex] for the senate presidency in exchange for Governor Sheila Oliver, for example, or even Governor Ras Baraka. Insiders kick the name of U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11) around too, but sources say she’s more inclined to double down on the Potomac, not the Delaware.

But there are more details here, of course.

Again, South Jersey has wielded power for a long time, enough to construct many unseen controlling mechanisms for unlikely allies (merely witness the NJEA’s backing of a GOP incumbent in LD1, possibly part of Sweeney’s power-sharing arrangement with state Senator Mike Testa; coincidence?) , apparent independent entities who can, with the turn of a lever, suddenly become Manchurian satellite South Jerseyans. And critically, in that vein, the players that might challenge the South Jersey pyramid have also mounted the stairs of power in this regime, and so, short of some extraordinary financial payoff on the order of the $11.5 billion tax scandal for Camden, for example, they probably have to tread lightly, lest toppling the south contributes, unwittingly, to their own loss of power in this sitting and very static structure, which suggests at least two more years for Sweeney on the senate throne.

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