The piney woods and bogs hold the howls of buried ages, mythologies entangled with the bark and
vines of time, as suspended television sets fill bars with the boyish shriek of Tucker Carlson, and district politics navigates virtually unseen somewhere between lurid national atmospherics and mysterious nature.
Even with all that, the collision of Republican state Senator Ed Durr and former Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-3) now appears all but inevitable, a spark in the South Jersey woods where Durr two years ago felled the mighty rooted tree otherwise known as Steve Sweeney, adjacent to the district where state Senator Fred Madden (D-4) finally tapped out on an organization-reinforcing legislative career.
Insider bar buzz from now until then considered the odds of labor diehard Sweeney returning to take on Durr, to smother the humiliation of getting run over by a non-union over-the-road trucker. Durr had no money, and merely drummed Trump themes, knowing Sweeney – a conservative Democrat – couldn’t help his own mummification in top-of-the-ticket Murphy messaging.
Now, Sweeney – the inner lamplight of gubernatorial politics apparently undimmed – wants another crack at Drumthwacket. Phil Murphy, a liberal Dem with deep Wall Street pockets, beat him in the pre-primary season of 2017, leaving Sweeney, wounded and embittered by his own 2021 district loss – to nurse continuing statewide designs.
That leaves his old running mate, Burzichelli, to take on Durr.
Burr versus Durr.
Like his pal Sweeney, Burzichelli sees the dangers of New Jersey moving too far into the realm of liberal causes, essentially defined by the Murphy era.
In that, he probably has more in common with Durr than Murphy.
But Burzichelli – again like Sweeney – is a pragmatist who trained himself to work across the aisle in the name of resisting the kind of angry, anarchic tendencies on display in the Trump movement and perhaps embodied most consequentially, at least for South Jersey’s 3rd Legislative District, in Durr. A self-described Kennedy Democrat, Burzichelli feels the falling away from the Democratic Party of non-college educated whites, the penetration of the Trump message, Murphy’s response to COVID-19 and the impact of the pandemic on jobs and unemployment, and the fact that mostly white males make up the ranks (and definitely its leadership) of the Building Trades.
Standing at a podium in the Hard Rock Hotel at the 116th annual New Jersey Building Trades Conference ahead of the 2021 election, the former mayor of Paulsboro and 22-year veteran of the legislature made his case for Democrats in state government, on the strength of their having secured higher wages for workers in New Jersey. Two weeks later, the state budget expert – caught in the political crossfire – succumbed to an environment dominated by Murphy and swampy D.C. politics. “There was a lack of enthusiasm in South Jersey to support the Governor, and so Democrats stayed home,” Burzichelli told InsiderNJ at the time. “Legislative races don’t excite anyone and there was no political activity in this cycle working from the ground up to help drive people to the polls. It is so clear to me that people’s thinking in this election was dominated by the soap opera going on in Washington, D.C.”
Burzichelli lamented the death of newspapers in LD3.
“There’s no robust local news, and so people’s emotions by and large are dominated by being mad at Washington,” said the assemblyman. “You put that together with some of the pandemic politics and it was the combination of a match and kerosene energized by anger. Voters sent a message. The region I live in is not excited by an overly progressive agenda. People are center of the road, and people were anti-Murphy based on pandemic mask mandates and masks for kids in schools.”
On the other side of the misty South Jersey woods stands Senator Durr, who says he doesn’t need an inside game. He beat the ultimate Trenton insider without it, and plans to dutifully dedicate himself to listening, not dictating; meeting with people, not backroom bosses; and focusing on LD-3 instead of statewide politics, he told InsiderNJ in the nascent stages of his career.
In the New Jersey upset of 2021, Durr leveled Sweeney by 2,199 votes as part of what the stunned Democrat described as a “red wave.” Durr mildly takes issue with that interpretation of his victory. He didn’t just let a red wave carry him, he said. The former self-employed carpenter who roofed, repainted, and remodeled before focusing on a full-time truck driving job – which he’s held for 25 years – said he worked for it. “If you talk to my wife, I was never home [during the campaign season],” Durr told InsiderNJ. “I was either working or campaigning and I was rarely home. It became a little bit of an issue with me working a 12-hour-day and then campaigning for two hours after that. Every Saturday and every Sunday I found time to get out there.”
The senator said he was never politically active or even aware before 2016-2017. “I always felt it was my duty to vote,” he said. “Ronald Reagan was the first president I voted for. Coming from Gloucester City, my parents were Kennedy Democrats.”
There’s that Term again.
Just as Burzichelli said, Durr took particular issue with Murphy over mandates and masks, and admitted the governor did not help the senate president’s reelection prospects in South Jersey. But finally, Durr had specific issues with the incumbent senator, who himself never got along with Murphy and routinely fought him on policy and through the channels of party politics. “I think it was a culmination of everything,” he said of his win. “Governor Murphy, the lockdowns and mandates, and the fact that Senator Sweeney did nothing for the last two years. In 2017 and 2018 Murphy and Sweeney had some run-ins and differences of opinion. They actually butted heads. But after the pandemic hit it seemed like he shut down. He was just totally missing in action. It was not just Governor Murphy. Yes, there was voter anger toward Murphy. But I heard from many voters I reached out to in this area about Sweeney’s lack of availability to the district.
“That is something that I will greatly make a change in,” Durr added. “The voters reached out and contacted me. It wasn’t just an anger they harbored. There were multiple issues going on. We [Sweeney and I] do have differences of opinion. He’s been seen as a working-class man in his tenure, but he lost that long ago. He’s always in Trenton and as a result, he forgot his district. I am a conservative. I believe in the free market. Sweeney wants more bureaucracy, and I want less government. He had no knowledge of what was going on in the district. His arrogance because of the senate presidency put him in a position where he never took me seriously. He lost touch with the base. He definitely did not know what his own district was thinking or feeling.”
As for Murphy, “The Governor decided to basically rule as a king,” said Durr. “He’s chosen to decree things without a broader picture. He lacks answers as to what took place in the nursing homes, for example. I’m not making an accusation. I’m trying to find an answer.
In the ensuing time between his getting sworn into office at the start of 2022 and now, Durr has harped mostly on Murphy, riding the liberal governor for using pandemic relief funds to give checks to undocumented immigrants and convicts leaving jail, for example.
“It’s insane that undocumented immigrants and convicts who broke the law got $4,000 cash payments from the Murphy administration while law-abiding New Jerseyans who needed help got nothing,” complained the Republican senator. “What Governor Murphy did with $120 million of your tax dollars should be illegal.”
He has also kept the gun issue firmly in his sights, especially after a federal judge blocked the enforcement of additional sections of a new law signed by Murphy, which establishes unconstitutional restrictions on the concealed carry of firearms in New Jersey.
“Governor Murphy and Trenton Democrats have not hidden the fact that they dislike the 2nd Amendment and are trying to circumvent a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that reaffirmed the constitutional rights of New Jerseyans to protect themselves,” Durr said in a statement. “Thankfully, several groups have challenged the Democrats’ unconstitutional new law and a judge has blocked enforcement of most of the law in a pair of rulings. It’s clear the law will ultimately be struck down. Had Democrats listened to any of the concerns we raised when they rushed the bill through the Legislature, they could have saved themselves the embarrassment, and taxpayers the cost, of defending a clearly unconstitutional law in federal court.”
The Building Trades-affiliated Sweeney allies – people like Burzichelli (and Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo, for that matter) have challenges to face within their own party. Long a strong ally of Sweeney and Burzichelli, DeAngelo lost a party convention in Mercer, perhaps in part because of his associations with South Jersey. Before he actually takes on Durr in a general election, Burzichelli will have to convince those in his own party – particularly those Democrats up north – that they will gain – not loss – by seeing the virtue of supporting his campaign.
The Trump years revealed the extent of red politics engulfing South Jersey, which more progressive Democrats could blame for extracting Sweeney and his South Jersey power broker George Norcross III-affiliated friends, instead of having to readjust constantly to suit the aggressive – and politically imperiled, as it turned out, when Durr beat Sweeney – South.
Burzichelli attempting a comeback will cause a big, statewide Democratic Party gutcheck.
Aren’t South Jersey Democrats dead, another rearview mirror mythology like the Jersey Devil?
Sure, Durr is annoying, they reasoned, but entertaining, and a human barricade in front of a reanimating South Jersey Democratic army, which can again pose more palace intrigue threats internally than mobilizing barbarians, or so runs the reasoning.
Such is Burzichelli’s challenge.
He worked the phones through the weekend, perhaps Dur’s words – today South Jersey, Speaker Craig Coughlin and Middlesex – part of the formulation of his argument to Dems north of I-195.
We’ve had our differences, perhaps, he might have said, or say, but the armies of the deep South may appear, echoing Durr’s warning, anywhere.
Better to have a pragmatist handy than an anarchist.
So took shape Durr versus Burzichelli, Burzichelli versus Durr.
“People say New Jersey is a blue state,” Durr told InsiderNJ in 2021. “I don’t think it ever was. I think stronger pockets of blue came out, and now we’re seeing stronger pockets of red coming out. We just took out the senate president. Maybe we can take out the speaker next time.”
Did Coughlin hear, and if he did, did those words rattle more than the re-empowerment of his own party in the South, which could challenge Middlesex in the North? Did they rankle him sufficiently to lend a monetary and organizational hand to Burzichelli (in part to prevent the old organization from sliding into the clutches of the GOP); and/or had “Burzy”, as they call him, built his own abiding party brand bigger than GN3, a piney echo of JFK?