At a fundraiser last Wednesday in Joe Lagana’s Bergen district, Senate President Steve Sweeney teased a 2025 gubernatorial run.
Grins and twinkling eyes greeted the remark.
A warm mood pervaded.
Perhaps, following Bergen’s defection from Sweeney to Phil Murphy after the meltdown of Steve Fulop, the senate president at last had penetrated North Jersey.
It still had a fine sound – even in Lagana country.
It felt good and pure.
Down South, though, in Sweeney’s home district, a red tsunami wave gathered.
When it slammed into land on Election Day, Sweeney – ever the cagey backroom operator with lifelong power broker pal George Norcross behind him – lost an election.
“Collect your regiment,” one can imagine Norcross telling him.
“General, I have no regiment.”
It wouldn’t happen quite like that, of course.
War as a metaphor for politics improperly assigns a savage dimension to that art – even at its most corrupt – which supplants fighting as a way to resolve disagreement, if not a civilizing force.
Sweeney upended nonetheless shocked.
Like that, it was over (an 11 year career as senate president, 20 years as a senator); and as the vote totals mounted and statewide Senate President Sweeney shrank to the size of LD3 Sweeney fighting for his political life, deflated to a man again by Wednesday afternoon, and politically dead on the arrival of a truck delivery with someone named Republican challenger Ed Durr behind the wheel, a lesson crystallized with ancient Roman wisdom.
“We are collateral damage to a moment in time,” Sweeney slate mate Assemblyman John Burzichelli told InsiderNJ, identifying Murphy’s pandemic policies, Washington stagnation and the death of the news media as the reasons why Election Night 2021 deposed the LD3 Democratic Party incumbents.
The voters turned Sweeney out of office, while Norcross, that indefatigable, and ever politically agitated and aggressive occupant of the backroom habitat, who as a non-elected influencer never needed to answer to them, undertook a run at supplanting Sweeney with Nick Scutari.
They had four votes in the South, state Senator Nick Sacco in Hudson, and Scutari himself, as the foundation for an alliance the Union County senator hoped to build to a majority of caucus members and the win.
The Republicans were too fragmented to get involved, someone close to the deal-making process told InsiderNJ. Senate Minority Leader Steve Oroho has close ties to Sweeney and the Building Trades. But he didn’t have control over his caucus. Senator-elect Vince Polistina hates the Camden-based Democratic machine in South Jersey. Sweeney didn’t seat him when Chris Brown retired. Norcross’ PAC tried to ruin him. He’d be damned to lend his vote to enable Norcross’ choice for senate president. Others felt the same. The GOP caucus lacked the ramrod discipline they had in the era of Republican Governor Chris Christie.
But what at the outset of discussions looked strong in the north for Scutari now began to unravel.
“He’s turning people off with phone calls prior to the funeral,” a source griped to InsiderNJ.
But the solemn funeral director was in his corner.
He couldn’t have turned them off too much.
Still, Passaic County Democratic Committee Chairman John Currie didn’t want state Senator Nellie Pou to back Scutari.
Too close to Norcross.
Currie told Bergen Democratic Committee Chairman Paul Juliano to tread carefully around Scutari.
He could turn out to be Sweeney from Union County.
Senator Joe Lagana surfaced as an alternative.
Lagana had close ties to Sacco.
Could he peel him?
His candidacy hung out there briefly as the un-Scutari candidate.
But the north, too fractured, never projected sufficient power to harvest the necessary votes. Lagana, moreover, didn’t appear hungry enough for the job.
Senator Paul Sarlo stepped forward.
He couldn’t summon the votes, either.
He had the hunger, not the votes.
Senator Brian P. Stack, it is said, was with Middlesex, and Middlesex started negotiations in a stronger position than any other county, with five (and maybe as many as seven, if one threw in the senators from Union and Monmouth) senators.
Scutari – having hit a wall in Bergen – went to Middlesex.
Middlesex threw it to Scutari, even as Norcross, having had the original conversation and intention with Scutari, lacked the votes up north to pull him in, and had to rely on McCabe and his forces. Still, the South Jersey power broker newly deprived of Sweeney, unleashed the requisite chest-thumping text message chain.
Middlesex allies howled with laughter.
They won, they insisted.
The prodigious unseen connective tissue wrapping people together across regions and across party lines, cocooning people into pods of programmed response and paycheck detente, could not immediately convey with absolute certainty who had won.
Murphy and his inner circle wanted to make sure Scutari wouldn’t merely carry out the same dark arts tactics that Sweeney and his Senate Majority Office ninjas had used against him to try to make the governor miserable for four years. His favorite county, Middlesex, habitation to Speaker Craig Coughlin, who had moved to Murphy on the millionaire’s tax and other key legislation, consistently demonstrating a propensity not to impair – but to work with him, insisted it wouldn’t happen.
“Nicky needs Middlesex,” a source insisted, in reference to Scutari. Again, Oroho’s Republicans contained too much fracture for Norcross to whip into shape – and outright antagonism for him.
While the establishment raged at him from all levels, Murphy allies described his squeak back into office while shedding the senate president from South Jersey in favor of someone who will require McCabe to govern as wholly worthy of a Murphy endzone dance. His detractors glowered at Murphy for appearing on stage Wednesday night with a national-sized grin in front of the CNN cameras. But Sweeney’s demise might have also played into his bubbly demeanor.
No one denied the obvious.
The voters spoke.
Sweeney had lost.