The Overture – 2021
It is amazing what a simple thing like a global pandemic can do to bring people together. This time two years ago, Governor Phil Murphy was being threatened with a 2021 gubernatorial primary election challenge and the North Jersey and South Jersey factions were poised for a major proxy war over the Chairmanship of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, a political organization that has very little real power in the realm of New Jersey politics, especially compared to the various county party organizations, particularly those with the largest populations and greatest concentrations of Democratic voters; Bergen, Camden, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Union, and Passaic.
It is unclear if Murphy knew in December 2019 when the deal cohered between NJDSC Chairman, John Currie, who is also the Chairman of the Passaic County Democratic Organization and the soon-to-become NJDSC Chairman, Leroy Jones, who is also the Chairman of the Essex County Democratic Organization, how much COVID-19 would impact the political landscape of the state or if it was just good fortune and timing on his part. Either way, it most certainly benefited him to be able to get one battle out of the way before facing the one that would almost certainly define his first term as Governor.
One can only guess that the pandemic enabled Governor Murphy to avoid a civil war within the Democratic Party this year. The NJDSC Chairmanship setback notwithstanding, George Norcross, the boss of the South Jersey political machine, which has most certainly extended its influence into Central Jersey with strong relationships with all, if not most, of the major players in Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth, and Union Counties, was well-positioned to run someone this year against Murphy, who failed to get 50% of the 2017 primary election vote in a cycle where he had the support of all 21 county party organizations.
Instead, we now have nearly everybody covering New Jersey politics writing about how peace in our time between Murphy and Norcross has been achieved or that there never really was a war between them. After years of posturing and wrangling, Murphy got the marijuana legalization that he wanted and Norcross got the Economic Development Authority that he wanted.
I don’t blame the people who are writing these articles for writing this nonsense. They are reporters and can only report what they are told and even if their best instincts tell them that they are being lied to or at the very least spun, willing suspension of disbelief is the path of least resistance in New Jersey politics and it is hard enough to remain employed as the entire field of journalism is unraveling around them.
The closest thing that we have to a proxy war between Murphy and Norcross is the battle in LD37 to replace the retiring State Senator Loretta Weinberg between her Assemblymates, Gordon Johnson and Valerie Vainieri-Huttle. Johnson, an early supporter of the Governor, received the backing of the Bergen County Democratic Organization, which has been divided by the battles between the Governor and Senate President Steve Sweeney, the de facto leader of the Norcross political machine with most of the county party organization’s rank-and-file supporting the Governor and the county’s three Democratic State Senators; Joseph Lagana, Paul Sarlo, and Weinberg and their allies supporting the Senate President.
Because of senatorial courtesy, which allows State Senators the ability to block gubernatorial appointments of residents of their county, the Senate President and his allies in Bergen County have enjoyed an outsized degree of power there. The BCDO hopes that Johnson’s ascendance to that seat will reduce that power somewhat.
Neither Norcross nor Sweeney has provided any overt support for Vainieri-Huttle, much in the same way that they remained behind the scenes when supporting her and Loretta Weinberg in their past battles against the BCDO when it was run by Joseph Ferriero, but there can be no doubt that she would be more closely aligned with Sweeney if she was able to ascend to the State Senate seat than Johnson would be.
What about the money that the Norcross SuperPAC, American Democratic Majority, is spending on behalf of Gordon Johnson? The most likely answer is that if Murphy and Norcross have truly made peace, it would make perfect sense that they would be united in their support of Johnson against Vainieri-Huttle.
However, another way to look at this situation is if George Norcross wanted Vainieri-Huttle to beat Johnson, spending money on her behalf would not necessarily be the best way to do that. If anything, it would work against her efforts to be perceived as anti-establishment and progressive, particularly considering all of the years that she has been part of the Democratic establishment in Bergen County and New Jersey since she and Senator Weinberg defeated Ferriero years ago. However, if he spent money on her opponent, it would give those anti-establishment/progressive framing efforts far more credibility.
Does this mean that the cold war between North Jersey (Murphy) and South Jersey (Norcross/Sweeney) is over and the cold peace that has emerged through the COVID-19 crisis is likely to remain through Governor Murphy’s second term if he is able to defeat the likely Republican gubernatorial nominee, Jack Ciatarelli in November? I would not bet on it. People like Murphy and Norcross do not forgive, they most certainly do not forget, and they know that revenge is a dish that is best served cold.
That said, even though every toxic male political operative working throughout this state has seen the Godfather movies, do not expect anything as dramatic as the endings of these movies where all debts are finally paid with bloodshed, literally and figuratively. That was already done when Norcross and Sweeney were able to pull off their legislative coup in 2009. I would not expect anything that dramatic again.
New Jersey politics is a game of four-dimensional chess with the fourth dimension being time. If I ever watched a single episode of Game of Thrones, I might be able to draw some interesting parallels, but in lieu of that, I will take anyone who has read this far through the moves and countermoves that we may see over the next few years as the cold peace between Murphy and his allies in North Jersey and Norcross and his allies in Central Jersey and South Jersey become a hot war.
Act One – 2022
The first challenge that the cold peace will face is the redistricting process. This was what the battle between John Currie and Leroy Jones was all about, because until the peace agreement that divided the appointments to the legislative redistricting commission, all of the appointment power was in the hands of the NJDSC Chairman. It is the only real power that the state party chair and the state party organization have.
However, before the state legislature is redistricted, the congressional redistricting commission will go through its process. Normally, the legislature is redistricted first, but because the pandemic delayed the counting of the census, legislation was passed which allowed this year’s legislative elections to occur under the previous map.
Congressional redistricting is usually far less eventful a process than legislative redistricting, because congressional seats are not valued by the political machines that rule New Jersey politics nearly as much as legislative seats, especially State Senate seats, because of the aforementioned senatorial courtesy. Legislative elections are bread, while congressional elections are circuses, focused on far more by the progressive grassroots than the political machines.
Nevertheless, there should be some degree of drama in the upcoming congressional redistricting process. Even though the census results did not cost New Jersey a congressional seat like it did New York (and by a narrow margin of 89 people), it is not outside the realm of possibility that we could see two incumbent Congresspersons find themselves in the same congressional district, running against one another for re-election in 2022.
The primary goals of both the Democratic and Republican members of the congressional redistricting commission will be to maintain the status quo, while at the same time trying to create some opportunities for gains, especially during the 2022 cycle, which will give some advantages to Republicans due to significantly lower turnout statewide because of the lack of a statewide race driving attention and turnout. The Democrats will be highly invested in protecting its most vulnerable congressional incumbents like Andy Kim (CD3), Josh Gottheimer (CD5), Tom Malinowski (CD7), and Mikie Sherrill (CD11), while the Republicans appear to be putting all of their eggs in Tom Kean Jr.’s basket, possibly at the expensive of creating more takeover opportunities elsewhere.
The most likely route to protecting Kim would be to create a congressional district map that makes both CD2, currently represented by the formerly conservative Democrat, Jeff Van Drew, who switched parties prior to former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment, and became one of the most conservative Republicans in the House, making even the arch conservative ex-Congressman Scott Garrett seem moderate by comparison, and Kim’s CD3 much safer districts. This could be done by swapping the Ocean County portion of CD3 for most of Cumberland and Salem Counties and a narrow strip of Atlantic County towns that would connect them to Burlington County.
However, if the Democrats wanted to be aggressive and make a move on Van Drew, while protecting Kim at the same time, they could draw a congressional district map that put Donald Norcross in the same district as Van Drew. This would be a much more competitive district than any Democrat representing CD1 has ever known, but with the city of Camden in it, it would still be a Democratic-leaning district.
Why would Norcross take on such a tough fight when his political career until now has followed the path of least resistance? One word: ambition. Norcross wants to be a United States Senator. He probably could have challenged Senator Robert Menendez in 2018 when New Jersey’s senior Senator was embroiled in scandal, had been censured by the United States Senate, and was facing corruption charges, but he was not ready to take that leap.
By 2024, Norcross will probably be ready. In recent years, he has tried to appeal to the Democratic Party’s progressive base, distancing himself from his political machine boss brother’s insurance business by appearing to support Medicare for All and joining the Congressional Progressive Caucus and becoming its Vice Chair. Taking on and defeating Jeff Van Drew would most certainly burnish his progressive bona fides.
Some have argued that the Congressman’s recent leftward drift has been to protect his left flank against a primary challenge from Sue Altman of NJ Working Families, who has positioned herself as the South Jersey political machine’s most visible and vocal adversary.
That said, if CD1 was redrawn to set up a Norcross versus Van Drew general election, a purple district like that would make Norcross more vulnerable to a primary election challenge from Altman, simply because suburban Democrats do not vote the party line as consistently and loyally as urban Democrats, who are far more committed to the political machines and the community organizers with no-show jobs that they employ. I don’t believe that the difference is enough for Altman to be able to defeat Norcross, but she would most certainly have a better chance to do that in a district with the demographic makeup of a CD2 than a district with the demographic makeup of a CD1.
Norcross will be able to position himself as a progressive challenger to Bob Menendez in 2024 and he can do that whether he defeats Van Drew or not, although winning would obviously be preferable to losing. The one benefit that would come from losing is that he could spent the next two years being completely focused on building a campaign infrastructure for a statewide run in 2024 and maybe 2025 as well.
In the same way that George Norcross used the senatorial primary election in 2000 between former Governor Jim Florio and Jon Corzine to build the infrastructure for a possible gubernatorial primary election campaign against then Mayor Jim McGreevey, who was expected to be the standard-bearer for North Jersey and Central Jersey, he could use a 2024 primary election run against Menendez to lay the foundation for a run against Sheila Oliver, who could be running for Governor in 2025 as either the Lt. Governor and heir to the Murphy legacy or for re-election as the incumbent Governor if Murphy decides to leave office during his second term to take a Presidential appointment after President Joe Biden wins a second term or Vice President Kamala Harris wins a first term. It is entirely possible that a 2025 showdown between Oliver and whomever George Norcross picks to run against her (The Brother, The Best Friend, or someone else entirely) could be where this entire Game of Thrones is heading.
Putting Norcross and Van Drew in the same district would also create a highly competitive open seat that would most likely be represented by someone from Atlantic City or Atlantic County at the very least. This would produce both hotly contested primary elections on both the Democratic and Republican sides as well as the second most hotly contested general election race in South Jersey.
It is hard to imagine any map being drawn that would put Republican Congressman Chris Smith (CD4) in any serious jeopardy, especially since Jim Keady, who has never been able to win a Democratic Party primary election, now intends to run against Smith in the general election as the candidate of the People’s Party, yet another example of the far left’s inability and unwillingness to be a part of the solution and instead continue to be part of the problem. The latest contender for the Don Quixote Tilting at Political Windmills award will most certainly divide progressive voters, enabling Smith to win by even larger margins than in the past.
The only hope that any Democrat who wanted to retire Smith has ever had was the fantasy that either Congresspersons Frank Pallone (CD6) or Bonnie Watson Coleman (CD12) would be willing to allow their districts to become more competitive so that CD4 could also become more competitive or that either would be willing to run for re-election in the same district as Smith. However, the latter is nearly impossible since Smith has proven that he can and will live anywhere to avoid a seriously contested election, and the former is highly unlikely, especially with the knowledge that Keady and his fellow windmill tilters would make any investment in a competitive CD4 completely worthless. The Democratic Party’s only hope would be to draw a new CD4 that includes Plainsboro so that Smith could be challenged by State Senator Linda Greenstein, one of the hardest-working campaigners in the Democratic Party who has historically excelled in tough districts like LD14.
Protecting Malinowski and Sherrill will be much more complicated as it is unlikely that any of the incumbent Congresspersons in Central Jersey and North Jersey are going to want their districts to become less Democratic just so CD7 and CD11 can become more competitive. However, one of them, the aforementioned Watson Coleman, will not have nearly as much influence with the Democratic delegation to the congressional redistricting commission as Josh Gottheimer (CD5), Albio Sires (CD8), Bill Pascrell Jr. (CD9), and Donald Payne Jr. (CD10). Even though three of these four Congresspersons are nearing the ends of their political careers, they are far more invested in keeping these districts safe for their heirs than they are in maintaining the status quo in CD12.
In fact, CD12 used to be one of the most competitive congressional districts in the state. In 1998, Rush Holt defeated then incumbent Congressman Mike Pappas in one of the closest congressional elections that our state had ever seen. Two years later, he was barely able to retain the seat against former CD12 Congressman Dick Zimmer who had chosen to not run for re-election to the seat in 1996 when he ran in the senatorial primary election that year, which he won, only to lose to then-Congressman Robert Torricelli in the general election.
I predict that CD12 will, once again, become one of the most competitive congressional districts in the state as it will cede its Middlesex County towns to CD4 and CD6, its Somerset County towns to CD7, and its Union County towns to CD11, replacing them with Hunterdon, Sussex, and Warren Counties. Because of the huge Democratic advantages in Mercer County, the new CD12 will still have a narrow Democratic tilt. Progressives may howl at first upon hearing the news that the congressional seat of their beloved Bonnie Watson Coleman (who somehow has never been taken to task for walking out of the 2016 Democratic National Convention prior to Senator Bernie Sanders coming out to speak – chalk it up to the short attention spans of most New Jersey progressives) might be in jeopardy, but most, if not all, will embrace the change, especially those who are currently represented by Gottheimer and Malinowski.
However, their excitement will quickly dissipate when Watson Coleman announces that she will not be running for re-election in 2022. Bonnie Watson Coleman has never had to win a competitive general election and she is not going to start at this point in her career. She has served in Congress long enough for her pension to vest. She has survived cancer. Her political career is all but over. If she is annoyed enough by the powers that be for redistricting her into retirement and Donald Norcross does decide to take on Bob Menendez in 2024, it is not outside the realm of possibility that she could decide to end her retirement and turn that contested senatorial primary election primary election between the North and the South into a three-way-race, proving once and for all that Central Jersey does indeed exist.
Either way, she will not run for re-election in this new CD12. Instead, the torch will most likely be passed to Assemblyman Dan Benson, whose commitment and dedication to public service and ability to engage conservatives, liberals, and moderates alike with his earnestness and values will make this highly competitive district a place where he can truly excel.
Malinowski’s new CD7 will be even more competitive than the new CD12. The only protection he will get is that the district will not include any Union County towns, including Westfield, where Tom Kean Jr. currently resides. If Kean Jr. wants a rematch against Malinowski, he will have to pack his carpetbag and move to Morris County or Somerset County. Otherwise, he will have no choice but to stay where he is and challenge Sherrill in her new very safe CD11.
Obviously, the Kean Jr. loyalists that have been appointed to the congressional redistricting commission will object, but their arguments will not stand up when the thirteenth and tiebreaking member of the congressional redistricting commission looks at the Democratic map with four highly competitive districts in CD1, CD2, CD7, and CD12. The only argument that might save a competing Republican map is the tired continuity canard as their map would protect Congresspersons Kim and Van Drew by swapping their respective Democratic and Republican towns to make CD2 and CD3 much safer and cede CD5 and CD11 to Gottheimer and Sherrill by making CD12 more competitive.
I could be wrong, but I think that the tiebreaking member of the next congressional redistricting commission will recognize the value of having more competitive congressional districts rather than less, especially considering the highly polarized mood of the country. Continuity has not served New Jersey well over the last twenty years as we continue to send the federal government significantly more money than we get back every year. Democratic willingness to put more of its incumbents’ seats at risk in order to have the opportunity to increase its majority will be perceived by this tiebreaking member of the commission as being in the best interest of all New Jerseyans, Democratic, Republican, and independent.
It is also entirely possible that the two Republican appointees to the congressional redistricting commission that were appointed by their state party chair, Doug Steinhardt, might prefer a congressional district map that provides Republicans with more takeover opportunities in 2022 than one that is focused primarily on helping Kean Jr. defeat Malinowski. Considering the degree to which the conservative base of the Republican Party mistrusts Kean Jr., my guess is that they would prefer to see him stuck in the new CD11, which would be very tough for him to win, or forced to carpetbag his way into the new CD7, where he would have a very hard time winning a primary election even if the county party organizations in the district gave him their endorsement.
If I am correct and the Democratic congressional district map that I have proposed is adopted, Democrats could sweep the entire state in 2022. If they do, it could make 2024 the most interesting primary election cycle that our state has experienced in the lifetimes of most of this sites. However, before we can get to 2024, we will have to get through 2023, which could be as interesting if not more so. Curtain.