Flare-ups that are fights elsewhere are, in fact, just life in Hudson; life, another word for Democratic Party politics.
Senator Brian P. Stack’s now apparent efforts to succeed Vinny Prieto as chairman of the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) unfolded within the larger context of Preito’s fight with the machine, where Stack – defined for so much of his career in opposition to the centers of party power – only halfway resided.
It would have to go down this way.
Everyone knew that.
If, like Stack, you grew up around Bill Musto, who served with General Patton, or if you understood the basics of Gerry McCann politics – “You hit me, I hit you,” or found a struck chord orf recognition within when U.S. Senator Bob Menendez said, “Those who dug my political grave…” there couldn’t be another way.
Acrimony was inevitable against the backdrop of everything else, as Hudson prepares for a full transfer of power come June when Prieto vacates his chairmanship for fulltime occupancy of a perch on the Sports and Exposition Authority, the soft landing afforded him by Governor-elect Phil Murphy after Prieto’s crackup as speaker.
By the reckoning of Murphy World, it seemed like the right thing to do. Prieto, after all, had counted himself one of the Northern New Jersey Quad County chairs who coalesced around Murphy and all but made him governor as an alternative to the George Norcross III-backed Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3). The northern chairs – Prieto, Bergen County Democratic Committee Chairman Lou Stellato, Passaic County Democratic Chairman John Currie, and Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman Leroy Jones – agreed that the next governor should be anyone but Sweeney. Norcross already had too much power in the legislature. Bullied and battered by past wars and irritated by Norcross’ power, they grabbed warm body Murphy over the entreaties of media people and others that the state of New Jersey had already seen the Goldman Sachs movie with Jon Corzine. It didn’t matter that Murphy hailed from a too-big-to-fail bank, they argued, he wasn’t Sweeney.
That appeared to finish it – at least as far as Jones was concerned. Even as the other three chairs held out for a deal to retain power in the Legislature, the Essex Chairman broke from the quad and found his way back to South Jersey and Norcross, who had repaid the transgressions of the north by finding a new ally in Middlesex County Democratic Committee Chairman Kevin McCabe.
Ok, the heartbroken Sweeney wouldn’t be governor, but as the Northern chairs tried to find a new battle plan to augment their next governor, Norcross reinstalled Sweeney as senate president in exchange for McCabe getting Assemblyman Craig Coughlin of Woodbridge the speakership.
No problem, the northern chairs argued.
But they would have Murphy’s cellphone.
They’d have the governor’s ear.
They made him.
Sweeney and Norcross could yammer about the pre-primary process for governor and thump their chests about legislative power, but they got governor.
Phil was a friend.
But Sweeney simmered. He could make the case that he had made Currie state chairman. And as for Jones? How many times had the senate president trekked up to Essex to pose at excruciating ribbon cutting ceremonies that would have broken the wills of lesser men? Jones should have been an easy affirmation, or at least so figured Sweeney.
And they had gone with Murphy, another Goldman Sachs dude?
But Sweeney might have been able to get over that humiliation, getting outdueled for the governorship by Murphy; and yet the war had only just begun, as the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), a strong ally of Prieto and the Northern chairs and a prime backer of Murphy’s, made getting rid of Sweeney its top priority in the 2017 general election.
That did it for Sweeney, who would run for reelection in the most expensive legislative race, probably of all time, in the country, not just in New Jersey – against an absolutely spendthrift NJEA, which frantically pumped millions at a Salem factory worker candidate only to get upended by Sweeney in the most hair-raising and gratifying win of the senate president’s career.
Sweeney refused to forget that Murphy and Prieto and Stellato and Currie had failed to pull the NJEA dogs off him, and dragged the encumbrance of that foul mood into the post-Chris Christie era.
They had wanted to get rid of me, Sweeney thought.
All the guys who had backed Murphy.
If he was going to retain respect as a tough guy senate president he would have to exact some payback, and he did, quickly.
The fights with Murphy were coming.
Sweeney would have plenty of time to punch away.
Jones – well, Jones had begun walking back what Sweeney saw as the mistake of endorsing Murphy by getting behind his reaffirmation as senate president and, at some risk to himself, force-feeding Coughlin as speaker to the Essex delegation, a necessary part of the deal to get Sweeney back on the throne.
So Jones was kind of redeeming himself.
Currie had wanted to be clerk of Passaic County.
Sweeney gleefully put an end to that, delaying sitting Clerk and Senator-elect Kristin Corrado’s (R-40) swearing-in until after the filing deadline and then refusing to show up at the Middlesex event when Murphy re-upped Currie for the chairmanship.
Notwithstanding his muscular countywide cred, Stellato’s statewide influence was (for the moment) wrapped up with Currie, who was flailing.
Two for one, the senate prez had to think.
This was rich, Sweeney mused.
Prieto was getting his comeuppance in the form of Coughlin taking him out. Sure, he got the Sports and Expo gig, but his name was mud now with those allies of his who had stood tall with him to the end. They put their committee chairmanships on the line – some of them in hopes of keeping the speakership up north, others intent on increasing their power in the caucus. They stayed bottled up; and for what? So that Vinny could get Sports and Expo ($225,000 a year) and, to quote Terry Malloy, they could all have one-way tickets to Palookaville.
But delight in Prieto’s fade out was not enough.
It was never enough.
In the words of one insider this past week, “If you’re not political in New Jersey, you’re just pushing paper.”
Sweeney had to think big.
That was a requirement of anyone who comes within a body of getting the governorship.
Prieto had been chairman of the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO), still was in fact; an organization that under his and state Senator Nick Sacco’s (D-32) leadership went with Murphy over Sweeney and stood by as the NJEA tried (in vain) to vaporize him.
Now that Prieto was leaving and Sacco – whom Sweeney denied the Senate Transportation Committee chairmanship as payback for his role in the Prieto mess – was in his political twilight, Stack appeared poised to take over the HCDO.
Stack was a real friend to Sweeney.
While others sat on their hands, Stack took a platoon of Union City volunteers down to Bridgeton to campaign for Sweeney.
Now, there was a chum.
Sweeney wouldn’t forget that; and now here was Stack all but cemented as Prieto’s successor as chairman of the HCDO.
Prieto had backed Murphy.
What if Murphy went off the rails as governor; of course, not because the Legislature played any part in such a fiasco, and Sweeney, motivated to stay with the dream, had a Stack-led Hudson in his corner in 2021?
Well, there’s South Jersey and Hudson, and… Sweeney would be vacating the senate presidency to run for governor, so the other county could get either the senate presidency (if Stack didn’t want it; Brian would, of course, get the offer first) or the speakership; and that could again be Middlesex if they simply backed the big guy for governor.
It was a lot to digest four years in front of the fact.
But there was early friction.
In the days leading up to Murphy’s infrastructure tour of Hudson County via light rail on this, the last Saturday of his tenure as Governor-elect, an appearance in the Brownstone with Fulop and the crumb bums central to Hudson party politics, Stack hoped to make good one last time on his excellent relationship with Christie, whom he had endorsed in 2013.
Stack needed a chunk of money for local infrastructure improvements.
He called up Christie, who said he would love to help, but up against it.
Still, the Governor, in the twilight, would do what he could.
A few days later, Stack got a phone call.
What the senator wanted would be in a big local funding bill.
Great, thought Stack.
Good old Chris Christie.
Other people hated him.
But Stack had always counted on him.
And yet – and yet – Prieto wouldn’t post the bill.
Then dug in.
Why should Prieto help Stack?
Stack had gone down to Bridgeton to help Prieto’s arch enemy Sweeney.
But – here was what Stack might have been able to argue, because it was true: his assembly people hadn’t wandered off the Hudson reservation and backed Coughlin.
They didn’t back Coughlin early.
Hudson with Hudson – just like Sacco always said.
Prieto evidently didn’t buy it.
Forged in those old Sacco versus Stack North Hudson furnaces, the departing speaker didn’t feel like eating Stack’s leather by rewarding him now with cash.
He let Stack dangle.
He didn’t post the bill.
It was his final elbow strike on his way out the door.
When he showed up late at county reorganization this past Thursday, a hush trailed him among those HCDO types loyal to Prieto.
Stack could be intimidating.
He looked angry, or mysteriously inside himself.
The South, meanwhile, was gleeful.
“Ahh, the next chairman of the Hudson County Democratic Organization,” Norcross told him under the dome last Tuesday, within earshot of other insiders.
Come June, Stack would be their guy up North, the first real sign that the quad county alliance was truly dead and buried. At the very least, if Murphy pursued reelection, he wouldn’t simply be able to phone up Prieto or another Sacco functionary and say, “Get it done.”
It would be muddy.
Four years too late but done.
A done deal?
But they had to think big.
North Jersey staggered on the heels of the reorganization ceremony.
“Where was Currie at Craig’s swearing-in?” one Coughlin devotee demanded, betraying the deep fractures in the party that Murphy, come Tuesday, must try to put on his back.
But Stack – a political organizer in the mold of Frank Hague, who had his best year ever in 2017, erupting with 30,000 votes on Election Day in a show of force designed to send a message to Murphy and everyone else – was never easy to pin down. Sweeney and the South had thought he would certainly be in their gubernatorial corner in 2017. And yet Stack had been in a complicated position, in part because he had close ties to Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, Sweeney’s chief rival, even before Murphy planted himself on anyone’s radar.
Now, if Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) – who hails from Stack’s home town of Union City and maintains symbolic ties to the Hudson stronghold – had indeed bought it at his corruption trial, Stack might very well be as close as possible politically to the south.
But he didn’t buy it.
And by all accounts, barring a retrial and conviction, still a possibility, but more slender now, the senator intends to be involved.
“If you’re not political in New Jersey, you’re just pushing paper.”
Would Menendez let South Jersey simply have its way with Hudson?
Menendez, active by nature, would keep Stack in a state of tension.
He’d keep him honest. In any event, Menendez and Norcross would deal directly with Stack, a boss in and of himself, who answered to no one, who still remembered Musto’s defiant cry from the stage on the day the former Union City Mayor won reelection in the face of a same-day Jersey Journal headline announcing his sentencing: “This is my jury.”
Whatever the South deemed inevitable on the hinge of its political relationship with Stack, and the pull it would have in the legislature, Menendez could counter by rebuilding those functioning pieces of the North.
Stellato nursed a grudge.
Or, at the very least, he had a sober sense of history.
Remember – he certainly remembered – he had triumphed with Jimmy Tedesco in 2014 when the South – tight with Christie – had given its tacit approval to incumbent Republican Kathe Donovan. In the maelstrom of Christie, when the likes of Stack and the South kissed the future president’s ring, Stellato stood on a stage with Barbara Buono and kept the faith.
His power depended on Currie?
No, his allies could argue.
He just needed other men similarly loyal to the party.
Anyway, even if Menendez intended to play a North Jersey political role again and tug Stack in a different direction, the point, sources argued, was moot.
Murphy was going to run for president in 2020.
He wouldn’t be here in 2021.
They could all scheme.
Murphy was moving too fast.
How else could anyone explain his cabinet picks? His rapid ascent? His never-say-die liberal stands on social issues? His attempts at toe-to-toe forays with Trump?
“When I told him he ought to run for president, he liked that,” a source told InsiderNJ, referring to an encounter with the Governor-elect.
If it was true, Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo seemed eager to deflate the Governor-elect when he announced last month at his kickoff that Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) would be the next president.
One looked for the sag in Murphy’s shoulders on the heels of the remark.
There was none.
He grinned in affirmation of the event.
But DiVincenzo was making it clear.
Cory’s our prez candidate, not you, Phil.
It was so authoritative and certain, one wondered if a Booker 2020 bid would not spring largely from the backrooms of New Jersey party bosses intent on stepping on Murphy by ensuring that Booker represent New Jersey nationally.
Get behind Booker, get him the presidency, then move U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-1) – GN3’s brother – into the senate seat. We don’t need your seat, Bob. Cory’s seat will do, and oh, yeah, he’ll be a great president. Brian will back Donald in Hudson. That should end it.
Murphy will be forced to run for reelection with the quad destroyed and Stack South Jersey’s ace in the hole, or so ran the logic.
Nah, others insisted.
Phil wants a cabinet post, not president.
Booker would bail him out.
As a favor to Sweeney 2021, a source cackled – delighting in the logic that led to the White House on several fronts only as an incidental outcome of New Jersey parochialisms that required, somewhere, a dumping ground for the politically expendable otherwise known as those who inspire – or aspire. Anyway, just as it did when boss of the bosses Hague made Roosevelt, to hear them tell it in Jersey City, it started in Jersey, it would have to, no less in that place where the late beloved Governor Brendan Byrne said he wanted to be buried in order to stay active in politics.