Entering the Essex Era of Democratic State Party Chairman LeRoy Jones

Jones

If John Currie became known as Phil Murphy’s chairman, LeRoy Jones will assume the leadership of the Democratic State Committee as someone ultimately tasked with looking ahead to the post-Murphy era. Yes, of course, he needs to get Murphy reelected first, but he has his own horizon lines, too, uncluttered by the specific fractures of past party battles defined by the aftermath of former Republican Governor Chris Christie.

Unlike Currie, master of the less muscular Passaic, Jones straddles the massive Essex County, a culture onto itself.

If you doubt it, consider the fact that a politically unsure and unknown Murphy tapped Sheila Oliver over the Currie-preferred Shavonda Sumter as his lieutenant governor.

Oliver hails from Essex.

Just like Jones.

What does it mean?

The potential to make things interesting, even if only incrementally.

“He can change the formula,” teased Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-28).

Of course, people around the incoming chairman will lean on Jones to consider Nov. 3rd as “the next chapter,” that new opportunity to revert to the pre-COVID days of making Murphy feel like a Goldman Sachs island and having fun at his expense after everyone gets reelected on the party line.

But the South, in particular, should exercise caution with Jones.

On two specific occasions, the sitting Essex County Democratic Chairman showed a reluctance to give an edge to the vaunted South Jersey Democratic machine: his backing of Murphy over Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) for the governorship, and his decision to settle the terms and conditions of party power sharing with predecessor John Currie, without the armchair input of the South. Indeed, Jones in those instances demonstrated an awareness of Essex power that might offer some insight into how he will run the party, which could put him in a separate category from Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, installed in power with the help of the South almost 20 years ago.

Now, that said, Jones – Murphy acolytes should know – didn’t hesitate to challenge Currie, and by extension the governor.

If Jones has demonstrated the capacity to go against the South, he also, in effect, bucked Murphy.

Even just last month, Jones and the front office gently quarreled over congressional redistricting. The incoming chairman wanted a pick or picks. Murphy allies said they wanted to help, but couldn’t since he hadn’t yet assumed power as chairman.

It was a conflict, one that wouldn’t have occurred with Currie.

So in a climate almost totally fractured between Murphy forces on the one side and South Jersey forces on the other, Jones offers the possibility of the unknown.

One hesitates to use the word “independent.”

It is, after all, Democratic Party politics in New Jersey.

But it is the kind of independence that is the built-in prerogative of very grounded power.

His allies say he wants to restore excitement to state party functions in the aftermath of the COVID era (one source paid particular attention to the reanimation of the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, for example; and a revitalized chamber train presence), but Jones – who in addition to commanding the chairmanship of the Essex Democrats, serves as party chairman in his hometown of East Orange) – has a chance to uniquely leverage the natural power projection platform of Essex.

If Murphy acolytes have run the party apparatus these last four years, insiders should expect a slow uncoupling.

No one will be humiliated.

That’s not Jones’ style.

But neither will the organization enter its next stage as the Phil Murphy circus, replete with the governor’s cast of fun-loving and fundraising characters, gradually – that is to say not overly fast – replaced by finance diehards like Ray Ferraioli.

A few other points to consider for the coming Jones era.

First, Jones made a point early in getting close to Middlesex, and in the event a power shift occurs in Trenton, look for Middlesex and Essex to stick together.

Middlesex went with the quad counties in the pre-2017 rumble to land Murphy the governorship.

But in spite of Essex getting the LG, Essex received precious little really in the bigger scheme of statewide power sharing, with South Jersey still augmented by the senate presidency, a resurgent Middlesex claiming the speakership, and Currie of Passaic first in line to have the governor’s ear.

Jones won’t allow the LG and state party chairmanship to fulfill Essex’s portion of the statewide pie, not long-term. On the other side of the 2021 election, expect the same power sharing arrangement.

But Jones will play the critical role in determining Murphy’s successor, and given the trajectory of his carefully made decisions over the past four years, look for the empowerment of Middlesex and Essex in that arrangement.

What does it mean?

Maybe a Middlesex senate president and an Essex governor; or a Middlesex governor and an Essex senate presidency; in other words a gradual restoration of Essex supremacy in the ordering of the party.

At least that’s Jones’s unstated goal.

Look for Jones to finally make a judgment call among his own county’s possible contenders for the crown, among them LG Sheila Oliver, U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill, and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka – or laddering-up Middlesex with Coughlin.

One last thing.

Unlike Currie, fully a product of Passaic County, Jones – for all his party building prowess even down to the local level in Essex – helms his own Trenton-based public affairs firm, 1868, which should – arguably – inhibit his ability to suddenly make a gambling move that might upset the sturdily constructed earthworks of power that runs through everything from fast-tracked legislation (the Horizon restructuring bill) to the state budget.

But given the move he made when he denied Sweeney the Essex line for governor, then openly rejected the South’s entreaties to oversee state chair negotiations, Jones seems to offer his day job as simply  another wildcard in his deck of power – or merely the welding of Middlesex and other-friendly projects that dovetail with his political interests, and fortify key relationships; relationships that in a few hours will belong in some degree to the priority of the state party in the form finally of a very Essex-grounded leader.

 

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