MONTGOMERY – The following comprises an unvarnished stream of consciousness on those Democratic candidates presenting themselves for the governorship of New Jersey at tonight’s Somerset County Federation of Democratic Women hosted by Margaret Weinberger in the auditorium of the local middle school.
The 20th District senator is so familiar with the issues that he easily lulls himself into fireside senatorial soliloquies, blasely discussing in-depth issues the way ordinary people talk about sports scores. Painting on Diego Rivera-sized intellectual canvases, the veteran senator from Elizabeth crams the environment, social justice, animal rights, infrastructure, security and transportation into compound sentences on every answer – that also come encumbered by his own mild irritation -sometimes twinged with good humor – that in an era transfixed by illiteracy, no one really appreciates. Tonight he lapsed once into Jeb Bush mode when he introduced himself as Ray Lesniak, Democratic candidate for governor, and then filled the resulting auditorium silence with his own entreaty: “Applause, please.” He wants to bring back the millionaire’s tax, an absence that cost the state a billion dollars. The worst thing Governor Chris Christie – whose invocation without fail prompted boos – did during his years in office was to kill the ARC (access to the Region’s Core) tunnel, the senator said. Applause and boos. Lesniak also said he would turn New Jersey into a kind of modern Athens (not his words) when he squeezes off millions in patronage by installing regular citizens – not cronies – to serve on boards and authorities.
Tall – as tall and thin as Abraham Lincoln – with a wiry wood-chopping frame that conjures chuck wagon American aristocracy – Wisniewski wrestled for sole occupancy of the leftward reaches of the stage – with everyone else on the stage with the exception of Peg Schaffer, the surrogate for Phil Murphy. Poverty issues. Single-payer healthcare. Wiz mentioned it early and probably mentioned it often, that reliable crowd pleaser for the progressive Somerset group that filled the seats in front of him. The former Democratic Committee Chairman trashed the process – another inning argument in a Republican county where Democrats aren’t part of the process. “We’ve seen 21 county chairs decide for you. The governorship should be decided by you, not in the backrooms of New Jersey’s political establishment.”
Introduced as the lawyer who sued Christie over Bridgegate, the North Jerseyan won a bigger Bridgegate applause line than the man who chaired the Joint Legislative Committee investigating Bridgegate, which had to sear Wiz. There was something else that Brennan uncorked in the room tonight, which also probably unsteadied those unfamiliar with him: a ready and creative saber tooth tiger-like willingness to dive headlong into issues. Pretzeling a question about drug legalization into a Contras versus Sandinistas detour he promptly wrapped into a fascinating 20-21st Century hallucination, Brennan had a growling, gravelly regular guy on a bar stool delivery that went over agreeably with the crowd. It was so regular, so devoid of pretense and canned lines – and yet more than touched with a Mailer for mayor kind of creative intelligence – that he might as well have been playing the most interesting man for governor – a role that had to make Lesniak and Wisniewski both mildly squirm. That was supposed to be their comfort zone.
On every answer, the Tenafly councilman had a stentorian delivery that made him sound like he was auditioning for the lead role in a Franklin Schaffner picture. “I don’t want any politician from Washington telling them what to do with their bodies,” he boomed at one point, naturally triggering a wave of hand claps. “I fully support Planned Parenthood and I would fund it by any means necessary.” He was up on the issues, declaring his desire for a $15 minimum wage phase-in by 2020. “It’s not an economic issue. It’s a social justice issue.” He slammed front-runner Phil Murphy as unqualified to be governor. But they share an interesting affinity for the Kennedys. Murphy idolizes Bobby. Tonight, Zinna confessed his unabated after all these years affection for Ted Kennedy’s “Dream Shall Never Die” speech at the 1980 Democratic National Convention.
Peg Schaffer (Phil Murphy)
Murphy couldn’t or didn’t or didn’t and couldn’t participate in tonight’s debate forum. “I’m not running for governor,” declared the Somerset County Democratic chair in his stead. “Every once in a while, being a father’s more important than running for governor.” There was a psychic resistance to the remark in the room, which crumbled under Schaffer’s persistently charming stand-in performance. Murphy in favor of medical and recreational marijuana. Legalization would x out 25,000 arrests per year and remove an unjust burden in particular on African Americans, Schaffer noted. She saved her best for the finale when she turned to a complaining Zinna and – suddenly transforming out of the role of surrogate and back into her full-fledged self as county chair – told him, “Councilman Zinna, Phil Murphy didn’t buy my vote, he earned it.”
The attorney and former assistant secretary of the treasury in the Clinton administration spoke from the stage in a mild, gently reproving tone that made him sound at times like that father who kindly but firmly tells his kids that it’s time to turn off the television and go to bed. He doesn’t sound like a politician – or try to affect the manner of one larger than the room. Johnson took a stab early at giving voice to the solidarity of those who chose to participate in the debate forum: progressives who believe in the people having a voice. In-depth and prepared.