Fight of the Week: Sweeney and Camden Versus Currie and Murphy

Same-party brawls often carry the most intrigue.

Larger scale inter-party fights rely on a lot of posturing, flexing and attempts at media-manipulating muscle-bound stare downs.

They’re fought straight-armed, at a distance.

Family fights have that face under-the-armpit feel, the consequence of too many people trying to occupy the same square of mangy, stapled-down carpet.

So it was this week that Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) and Democratic State Party Chairman John Currie tumbled around the Dems’ tenement room again, with Governor Phil Murphy in there too swinging a pillow for good measure, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) trying to stay out of the fray, and just general loose elbowed mayhem abiding in the lead-up to this week’s Democratic State Committee conference. In the aftermath of a date certain for the DSC conference, Camden County Democrats scheduled a competing fundraising event with former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg. Sweeney’s schedule later revealed a North Jersey fundraiser for one of his newest members, state Senator Joe Lagana (D-38).

Now there’s some history here, going back to Sweeney and South Jersey backing Currie for chair in 2013. Then-Democratic nominee for Governor Barbara Buono wanted former Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell. The South didn’t want Buono to pick the party chair. So the establishment threw former state Senator Ray Lesniak (D-2) into the colosseum with O’Donnell.

Currie stepped forward as the compromise choice.

His ascent to the position represented a win for South Jersey. They wanted anyone but O’Donnell, Lesniak got Buono to blink, and Currie materialized as the anybody-but-Jason party resolution.

Sweeney thought his organization helped put Currie there.

So when Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop dropped out of the governor’s race and Currie circled the other northern party chairmen around Murphy – and not Sweeney, who was still a statewide candidate at that moment- it stung.

Sweeney saw Currie as disloyal.

Then the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) ratcheted up the disrespect by throwing more general election money at Sweeney than at any other prior districtwide candidate.

Sweeney, to some degree, blamed Murphy and Currie.

The party nominee for governor and state party chairman could have talked down the NJEA, but didn’t, that’s how Sweeney felt, so after he defied the money odds and beat the NJEA to win reelection, he nursed the hurt.

Currie wanted a clerkship in his home county of Passaic.

Sweeney and his allies made sure he didn’t get it.

Why should he?

Every time an NJEA-friendly role player showed up in the proximity of Murphy or his new administration, Sweeney’s allies voiced their opposition. They seized on ways to make Murphy uncomfortable.

He made them uncomfortable, along with Currie.

So they’d discomfit him.

That’s what happened when Murphy put forward the name of Tim Sullivan for the state Economic Development Authority Building Trades Chief Bill Mullen stepped forward and cried foul. Sullivan didn’t have a friendly record with labor, he said. Other labor leaders backed Billy. Then powerful Carpenters leader John Ballantyne – a key figure within the Building Trades universe – said he trusted the governor. Made the comment on a conference call with other labor leader brothers on the line.

Mullen didn’t like that.

Neither did Sweeney.

Ballantyne didn’t last as head of the carpenters.

One day he got a call to D.C and the brass told him they had decided to merge him and his Northeast regional out of existence.

It was a shocking up-thrust of out-of-nowhere power.

Ballantyne’s political director happened to be the vice chair of Currie’s Democratic State Committee.

Lizette Delgado Polanco.

Soon, she was gone too.

The Murphy Administration picked her up.

Only right or so ran the political CW.

She was a casualty of a political war that was bigger than her, or Ballantine, for that matter.

The fight went on.

Little twists and tweaks on both sides.

Little shin kicks.

And some big sweeping swings, like Sweeney’s refusal to back the governor on the millionaire’s tax and digging in with support for a corporate tax hike, and getting the legislature to go along with him. That was the barren budget plain where all these other tiffs became the buildup to New Jersey politics’ version of Stalingrad. The Communications Workers of America (CWA) – still irritated by Sweeney’s teaming up with former Governor Chris Christie to overhaul public pensions and benefits – jumped in feet first alongside Murphy.

It was the old fight revived.

Building Trades versus public sector labor.

Of course, a resolved budget didn’t resolve the rivalry.

Sweeney would gripe that Currie used the state party to pick sides in the budget fight.

Murphy would go on to veto the minutes of the South Jersey Port Corporation, an operation with ties to Sweeney.

The divide persisted.

The parties Thursday night – one in the Collingwood Ballroom (Camden Dems’) and one in Harrah’s (Currie’s) – provided merely the latest staging areas for lingering ill will.

Currie’s allies burnished the presence in their corner of Booker, noting his party preeminence alongside an interloper like Bloomberg.

“No contest,” one Murphy-backer told InsiderNJ, hastening to make the case for the Governor, too, as one of the nation’s progressive leaders. But Booker depends on the party establishment to a certain degree, and whatever the larger scale projections suggest, the bulk of Essex Democrats won’t be in attendance at Harrah’s on Thursday.

County business.

They don’t have to go South to make a statement.

New Jersey’s sufficiently family-friendly to land a punch from afar.





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