Currie v Jones: Funfight at the NJ Corral, with Wyatt Earp

Jones, right and Currie

In the original gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Wyatt Earp picked a side and dug in hard and unequivocally against the cowboys. In the developing Tombstone-like showdown between sitting Democratic State Party Chairman John Currie and challenger Leroy Jones, Governor Phil Murphy’s (perhaps) fatal error was to believe Earp was actually the real Wyatt Earp, and committed to taking that dangerous and dusty walk up Fremont Street firmly at the side of a Doc Holliday-morphed governor.

Now, as the political establishment awaited the grand entrance into the Democratic state chair’s race of Essex Chairman Jones, expected as soon as Tuesday, Murphy felt the stinging sensation of a defection from within his own supposed solemn ranks, right at the edge of the confrontation. For Jones picked up a late surge Monday on the strength of Ocean County Democratic Chairman Earp’s endorsement, which appeared to place the challenger in position to ice sitting Democratic State Party Chairman John Currie.

It amounted to a tomahawk in the governor’s back.

Currie has the support of Governor Phil Murphy, who infuriated the party establishment when he appointed a task force to examine the Economic Development Authority’s (EDA) awarding of tax incentives to businesses close to South Jersey Power Broker George Norcross III. Allies close to Jones sit on the EDA Board.

Backroom door-hopping the state, Murphy’s allies believed they had cemented Earp’s support for Currie, but evidently underestimated the power of the Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3)-Norcross-affiliated Building Trades to control their own. Subsequent to Earp’s endorsement, Murphy forces hung their hopes on those committee members who might zigzag in their direction from underneath the influence of Earp, but a Jones ally said the Essex Chairman’s operatives had corralled those votes, too. What was the payoff? A vice chairmanship of the party for Ocean, most likely to a woman with public sector labor ties. The names circulating: Marta Harrison, Sarah Collins, and Eileen Della Volle.

While Jones’ closest advisers felt confident of victory, Murphy sources said it wasn’t over, and noted the span of time between now and a December convention. They wanted to avoid a dirty war, or a sustained and bloody shootout, but hinted at things going there in the name of protecting the governor’s right to choose his own party chair. It could get (at least) muddy for lobbyist Jones, was the implication. Indeed, Sue Altman, executive director of New Jersey Working Families and a Murphy ally, tweeted her own reaction to news of Jones’ edge in the chairman’s contest:  “A corporate lobbyist! Who punched a blind man! With direct connections to George Norcross!” A routine critic of Norcross, Altman and her allies saw South Jersey Democrats weakened by last Tuesday’s election results, and refused to accept Sweeney’s public assessment of a bad night overall for Democrats, who did, in fact, apparently flip Somerset County to Democratic control under the leadership of Currie’s vice chair, Peg Schaffer.

There’s still an election to be had, with two candidates in it, Murphy allies contend.

Minds can change.

But there was also the suggestion of mild tugging back and forth within Murphy world.

How crazy did they really want to get, given the dominant position of Essex within the statewide constellation come 2021? If they go all out to destroy Jones to save Currie, could Essex repay Murphy by denying him the line, or directing key organizations, such as the North Ward (which is affiliated with Norcross), to sit out a general election?

Moreover, Jones would not be the only candidate absorbing punishment, an ally of the Essex Party chairman deviously suggested.

Against that developing backdrop, someone in Murphy’s camp suggested either continuing negotiations or, reluctantly, surrender; but it wouldn’t happen, with time still on the clock and the humiliation of the governor too grave a consequence, in the eyes of at least one critical Murphy ally.  Murphy had also prevailed on Bergen County Democratic Chairman Paul Juliano to endorse Currie prior to the election, an announcement at least one key Juliano ally believed was a bad political play for the new chairman. Now that Juliano was publicly on the hook for Currie, they had to protect Currie and Juliano.

There was time (although typically affirmed at a Deccember meeeting, the chair would technically have until the end of January to get sworn-in) for arm-twisting (But where?)

Or worse.

Still, if the original gunfight at the O.K. Corral added up to 30 epic seconds echoing in time, the blundering battle for the chairmanship stretched on tediously Tuesday, unaccompanied by a heroic western sountrack or real historic resonance beyond the parochial politics of Jersey.  “They had a year, and they [Murphy] couldn’t get it done,” jeered an establishment source. “What makes them think they can reverse the tide now?

“Their mistake,” the source added, “was to rely on Wyatt.”

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