The moves and countermoves that are made in 2022 will provide us with some clues about what will happen in 2023. Yes, if Donald Norcross takes on Jeff Van Drew in 2022, win or lose, he will be well-positioned to take on Bob Menendez in 2024 or Sheila Oliver in 2025. Or he could do both. Or his run against Menendez in 2024 could provide a foundation for someone else, like Senate President Steve Sweeney, to run against Oliver. Or George Norcross could decide that his power can be best applied with Sweeney remaining in his Senate President position and someone else, possibly his brother, as Governor.
This decision will also be influenced by whether Oliver is running for her first term as the Lt. Governor or for her first full term as Governor. The identity politics optics of running a white man against New Jersey’s first African-American and first African-American female gubernatorial candidate will be tough enough. If she is New Jersey’s first African-American Governor and first African-American female Governor, it will be even harder. The latter scenario could force George Norcross to turn to either United States Senator Cory Booker, who may want to add some executive experience to his resume prior to his next (2028 or 2032, Dwayne Johnson’s “Young Rock” Presidential fantasies, co-starring Booker’s partner, Rosario Dawson, notwithstanding) Presidential run, or State Senator Troy Singleton.
However, well before these decisions are made, a new legislative district map will have to be drawn and how it is drawn will tell us far more about how well-positioned the chess pieces belonging to George Norcross will be going into 2024 and 2025. As mentioned previously, this is what the NJDSC Chairman fight between John Currie and Leroy Jones was all about. One could argue that Norcross lost that fight, because he was not able to personally replace Currie with Jones, but because the deal that allowed Currie to remain in the position until later this year and be replaced by Jones distributed the legislative redistricting commission appointments among numerous people, including Norcross ally, Sweeney, I would call it a draw, especially when we see the final outcome of the legislative redistricting process.
We should also remember that Norcross et al are not playing this game by themselves. They have an opponent in Oliver and the North Jersey political machine bosses who will be supporting her. Her primary goal, in addition to the most obvious, election or re-election in 2025, is having a Democratic majority in the state legislature that is aligned with her and her agenda.
Since Sweeney’s coup in 2009, it could be argued that the former Republican Governor, Chris Christie, had a better ally in Sweeney and the rest of the Democratic legislative leadership than the current Democratic Governor. Having already spent a significant amount of time under the thumb of Norcross and Sweeney when she was Assembly Speaker, Oliver is most certainly not going to want to repeat that power dynamic if she is fortunate enough to become Governor, which used to be known as the most powerful state chief executives in the country before Murphy allowed it to become as debilitated as he has.
Assuming for a moment that the status quo remains intact going into 2023 and Johnson defeats Vainieri-Huttle in LD37 this year, Sweeney would most likely have the support of 15 Democratic State Senators in LD3, LD4, LD5, LD6, LD7, LD8, LD11, LD14, LD17, LD18, LD19, LD22, LD31, LD36, and LD38. 10 Democratic State Senators in LD15, LD20, LD27, LD28, LD29, LD32, LD33, LD34, LD35, and LD37 could probably be convinced to vote for a challenger if Murphy used the full weight of his office on behalf of that person. This number could be bumped up to 11 if Andrew Zwicker wins in LD16 this year.
Linda Greenstein, as always, is a wildcard. As long as current alliances hold and Coughlin remains Assembly Speaker, I think that she would continue to vote for Sweeney, but it is not a lock by any stretch of the imagination.
That calculus could change significantly based on the outcome of the 2003 state legislative elections, especially if it appears likely that Murphy will not serve his entire second term and will pass the torch to Oliver in early 2025 if President Joe Biden or Vice President Kamala Harris are elected or re-elected in 2024. LD36 State Senator Paul Sarlo has been a staunch Sweeney ally since the 2009 coup and is unlikely to flip on him, but LD38 State Senator Joseph Lagana would be far less firm in his support.
This is why the goal of the Democratic members of the legislative redistricting commission is going to be to aggressively increase the number of Democratic State Senators sworn into office in January 2024, because that will most likely determine the balance of power between Murphy/Oliver and the North and Norcross/Sweeney and the South. In the past, incumbency protection has been the top priority. However, going forward, the risk/reward ratio has very clearly changed, which should produce significantly more competitive districts than in the past. Considering how significant the current Democratic majority is in a state where Democrats are capable of winning statewide by double digits, the Republican members of the legislative redistricting commission are probably going to have to be just as aggressive, if not more so, if they are going to want to have any chance of regaining the legislative majorities that they enjoyed in the 90s under Governor Christie Todd Whitman.
The first major move that Norcross and Sweeney are going to make is to get one of their pawns, fellow Building and Construction Tradesman, Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo, across the chessboard and turn him into a State Senator. This could happen very easily if State Senator Linda Greenstein defeats Congressman Chris Smith in CD4 and Assemblyman Dan Benson ascends to the Congress as well in CD12. DeAngelo would then become the obvious successor. Or it could happen with more difficulty if DeAngelo’s Hamilton and Greenstein’s Plainsboro remain in the same district and he has to challenge her to be able to move up from the Assembly to the Senate.
Identity politics would make it tough to put DeAngelo in the same district as State Senator Shirley Turner. However, Turner lives in Lawrence, not Trenton, so it would not be difficult to build a district for DeAngelo that includes Hamilton and Trenton, but not Lawrence. A new LD12 could consist of Hamilton and Trenton in Mercer County, Bordentown, Chesterfield, New Hanover, and North Hanover in Burlington County, and Plumstead in Ocean County.
The new LD14, which would most likely be defended in 2003 by both Greenstein and Republican State Senator Samuel Thompson, would consist of East Windsor in Mercer County, Plainsboro, Cranbury, Monroe, Jamesburg, and Old Bridge in Middlesex County, and Manalapan in Monmouth County and become one of the most competitive districts in the state. Since Greenstein has a long history of success in competitive districts and has never appeared to be inextricably linked with either the Murphy or Norcross/Sweeney axes of power aside from her allegiance to the Middlesex County Democratic Organization and its current alliance with Norcross and Sweeney through Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, she is undoubtedly the most expendable Democrat in the State Senate, while at the same time, the Democrat who is best positioned to help expand that majority.
If Greenstein beats Smith in CD4, it is anybody’s guess who will run in the primary election to try and take on Thompson. Even though East Windsor is the only Mercer County town in a mostly Middlesex County district, Middlesex County Democratic Organization Chair, Kevin McCabe, could try to avoid a divisive primary election by offering the line to the town’s Mayor and Mercer County Democratic Organization Chair, Janice Mironov.
There would still be two Assembly seats in this district that could go to candidates from Middlesex County, with Old Bridge, the district’s most populated and purple town almost certainly getting one of them. The district’s significant Asian population could produce an Assembly candidate from that community, most likely from Plainsboro. While it is likely that insurgents in other parts of Middlesex County will try to spread their war to the towns in this new LD14, it remains to be seen if they will be successful in recruiting a critical mass of candidates for these offices as well as local elected and political offices.
The new LD15, which would continue to be defended by Turner, would consist of East Amwell, West Amwell, and Lambertville in Hunterdon County, Hopewell, Ewing, Lawrence, West Windsor, and Robbinsville in Mercer County, Allentown, Upper Freehold, and Millstone in Monmouth County, and Jackson in Ocean County. No, this district is not nearly as safe as the district that Turner has become accustomed to representing, but it is still more than Democratic-leaning enough for her to continue to be able to represent it and win re-election for as long as she wants.
However, if Turner does not want to run for re-election in a competitive district, there will be a long list of people with loyalties to either Norcross or Murphy who would jump at the opportunity to run in a primary election for this State Senate seat. This could make this district a key battleground for control of the legislature.
For the last few cycles, LD21 has been one of Union County Democratic Organization Chairman and State Senator Nick Scutari’s prime takeover targets, but while Democrats have come close to winning, time and time again they have failed. Will that change this year now that Jon Bramnick and not Tom Kean Jr. will be defending the State Senate seat?
It is unclear, because when Bramnick and Nancy Munoz survived their Democratic challenge in 2019, it was a much lower turnout cycle without the benefit of a statewide race, driving turnout. Kean Jr. was on the ballot in 2017. 2021 will be the true test of Bramnick’s ability to keep this district in Republican hands.
Regardless of the outcome this year, there is much that can be done to make this district more Democratic without having a significant impact on neighboring Democratic districts. By swapping Cranford and Mountainside in Union County and Watchung in Somerset County for Dunellen and Middlesex in Middlesex County and North Plainfield in Somerset County between LD21 and LD22, Scutari’s district, LD21 becomes marginally more Democratic and LD22 becomes marginally less Democratic, but not to a degree that will impact the outcome of Scutari’s re-election. However, it could mark the end of Bramnick’s time in the legislature.
If that isn’t dramatic enough, even more drama could come from a contested primary election in a new LD21. Even if Andrew Zwicker is able to defeat the aforementioned former Congressman Mike Pappas in the LD16 State Senate race this year, that would not give Somerset County Democratic Organization Chairwoman and NJDSC Vice-Chairwoman Peg Schaffer the State Senate seat that she covets for her county. She ceded this seat to Middlesex County, because she knew that Zwicker had seniority over Assemblyman Roy Freiman.
Would she be willing to cede LD21 to Union County? She might not have a choice. Her NJDSC Vice-Chairwoman’s seat could be on the line. If there is going to be a civil war in the Democratic Party between North Jersey and South Jersey, she is going to have to pick a side and as long as Leroy Jones is the Chairman, my guess is that she will have no choice, but to side with him, which means that she will probably have to fight Scutari over these seats.
If North Plainfield is part of a new LD21, that is where Schaffer will find her State Senate candidate. She might be able to pair that person with Assembly candidates from the Joe Cryan faction of the Union County Democrats, assuming for a moment that he and Scutari are still in the midst of their own civil war. I can only assume that they will be since Union County will be the ultimate battleground county when this Game of Thrones reaches its climax in 2025.
Historically, North Jersey has always had the edge over South Jersey, because it also had critical Central Jersey counties, Middlesex and Union, on its side. Unless something happens between Coughlin and Sweeney between now and 2025, forcing Norcross to discard Coughlin the way that he discarded Sheila Oliver, Vincent Prieto, and his alliances with Essex and Hudson respectively in the past, Middlesex appears to be firmly in his pocket. The same also appears to be true for Union as long as Scutari is able to retail his control over the county party organization.
This adds an extra layer of drama to what is likely to be an already highly dramatic election cycle. Earlier this year, the Union County Democratic Organization decided to postpone its County Committee elections two years, holding them in 2023 instead of 2021. Middlesex County made the same decision. What is baffling about these decisions is that normally savvy operatives like Kevin McCabe and Nick Scutari put their county committee seats up for grabs in a much less predictable and much lower turnout election cycle without the benefit of a statewide candidate to drive turnout and anchor the party line.
If North Jersey wants to retain its historic advantage over South Jersey in 2025, they will have to recruit candidates for state, county, and local elected and political office throughout Middlesex County and Union County and win these battles in 2023. It was most certainly an unforced error on the parts of McCabe and Scutari to postpone the County Committee elections when they would have been able to win them easily this year.
It also remains to be seen if Scutari is still in a position of power come 2023. It has recently been reported that he is under investigation for allegedly collecting pension credits for a no-show job as Linden’s municipal prosecutor; the same kind of criminal activity that sent former State Senator Wayne Bryant to prison. If this brewing scandal takes down Scutari, it could take away the foothold that Norcross and Sweeney currently have in this critical Central Jersey county. If they lose control over Union County, it could give insurgents in Middlesex County the leverage and momentum that they need to take control there as well, which would all but eliminate any chance of an Oliver challenger to win in 2025.
An all-out civil war in Union County most likely means that both Cryan and Scutari will face primary election challenges in LD20 and LD22. Cryan’s challenger would most likely come from Elizabeth’s Hispanic community while Scutari’s challenger would most likely come from Plainfield’s African-American community.
As Democrats in Central Jersey and South Jersey maneuver to try to increase their share of the majority in the Assembly and Senate, Democrats in North Jersey will have maneuvers of their own that they can make. Just as Central Jersey Democrats will be able to redistribute their better-performing towns to create new opportunities to increase their majority, North Jersey Democrats will have similar opportunities.
The first legislative districts where adjustments can be made to benefit North Jersey Democrats will be in LD26 and LD27. In the former, Democrats have tried to become more competitive, but continue to fail, while winning by huge margins in the latter. By moving West Orange from LD27 to LD26 and replacing it with Republican towns in Morris County, not only will LD26 finally become competitive, it will enable Assemblyman John McKeon to finally be able to run for State Senate after more than two decades of waiting for State Senator Richard Codey to run for Governor or retire, neither of which are likely to happen anytime soon.
The next stop in our game of musical municipal chairs is LD34 and LD40. LD40 has been a safe Republican district for the more than two decades that I have been following New Jersey politics. However, moving Montclair into this newly competitive district and creating a new LD34 out of Belleville, Bloomfield, Glen Ridge, and Nutley in Essex County and Clifton, Totowa, and Woodland Park in Passaic County, would force State Senators Kristin Corrado and Nia Gill to have to defend their seats in new districts that are far less safe than their current districts.
The big question is whether Corrado’s challenger in the new LD34 is going to come from Essex County or Passaic County. If Gill is able to win in the new LD40 and McKeon wins in the new LD26, Essex County would have a total of five State Senators; six if Corrado is defeated by someone from Essex County. Currently, Passaic County only has one Democratic State Senator, Nellie Pou.
Even though Democratic turnout numbers in the Essex County portion of this district would be far greater than in the Passaic County portion of the district, Jones might be inclined to throw Currie a bone, although incumbent Assemblyman Ralph Caputo might not make that decision easy for him. I can only guess that he would want the opportunity to ascend to the State Senate.
The demographics of the district would demand that at least one of the three legislative candidates be Hispanic, although two, a man and a woman, would probably be smarter. If Currie gets to choose the State Senate candidate, would he give it to his close ally, Woodland Park Mayor Keith Kazmark, or his girlfriend, Clifton Councilwoman Lauren Murphy?
Either pick could make Caputo the odd white man out if Jones wants two Hispanic candidates out of Essex County to run for State Assembly, creating an opportunity for South Jersey to back Caputo for a State Senate run, matching him with two Hispanic insurgents, at least one of which would probably come from Clifton. The other would probably come from Bloomfield.
Who would they be? If Bill Pascrell, Jr. and his son, Billy the Third, still have the same relationships with South Jersey that they had back in 2000 when they were supporting Florio against Corzine, there is no doubt in my mind that they will be able to recruit someone. Are the Pascrells still nursing a grudge against Currie for dumping Billy the Third from his Passaic County Counsel position? One can only assume.
An astute reader is probably asking themselves, what about East Orange? If it is not in the new LD34, where is it? It is now in the new LD28 along with the North and West Wards of Newark, creating an opportunity for Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake to ascend to the State Senate and forcing a decision on incumbent State Senator Ronald Rice to either retire or align himself with South Jersey in a contested primary election; neither of which would be enjoyable choices for the pugnacious Rice.
Enjoyable or not, they are inevitable as Jones will most certainly be single-minded in his efforts to have both of his close allies, Oliver and Timberlake, ascend from their current offices to the offices of Governor and State Senator respectively. Historic adversaries, Norcross and Rice, might be the only obstacle to those efforts. Politics makes strange bedfellows indeed.
The next stop is Hudson County. Like moving the deck chairs on the Titanic, there may not be any material benefit to changing district lines significantly in this county. However, for far too long, people who have watched Hudson County politics from inside and out have predicted that the cold war between two of the last dual officeholders in the state, North Bergen Mayor and LD32 State Senator Nick Sacco and Union City Mayor and LD33 State Senator Brian Stack would one day result in a hot war and I predict that 2023 will be that year.
Even though Stack’s allegiances between Murphy and Norcross/Sweeney have never been completely clear, Sacco has done enough in recent years to annoy and embarrass Murphy and his allies between allowing himself to be recorded, leaving threatening voice mails for Lydia Coleman, to complicating legislation that would have ended mandatory minimum sentences in an effort to protect corrupt politicians, that they may be ready to give Stack the fight that Stack has been dreaming about for decades. Sacco probably has enough allies in Hudson County Democratic organization to get the party line against Stack, but in a low turnout cycle with State Senator at the top of the ballot, it is unlikely to matter.
Both candidates will fill their lines with strong candidates and have strong organizations behind them. The only question will be turnout and that is likely to give Stack the edge against Sacco. Sacco may be feared by many, if not most people in North Bergen, but Stack is loved by nearly everyone in Union City. There are not many situations where love trumps fear, but this could be one of them. How well Sacco and Stack perform in Guttenberg, Weehawken, and West New York in Hudson County and Fairview in Bergen County will probably decide the outcome of this race.
Obviously, putting Sacco and Stack in the new LD33, creates an open seat in the new LD32, consisting of Hoboken and Wards C, D, E, and F of Jersey City. Will that give Jersey City a second State Senator in addition to LD31 State Senator Sandra Bolden Cunningham, who has historically been aligned with the Norcross/Sweeney axis, or will Hoboken be able to elect one of its own? It is impossible to predict, but if someone offered me good enough odds, I would put my money on former Hoboken Councilwoman, Beth Mason, who is a Sweeney ally. She won’t get the HCDO line, but neither will Bolden-Cunningham nor Stack and it should not prevent either of them from winning.
Sowing division throughout North Jersey will be another element of the South Jersey strategy. Yes, their own allies in Middlesex County and Union County will have their own civil wars to fight, but there could be even more in Bergen, Essex, Hudson, and Passaic Counties in 2023, which will provide the foundation for the ultimate battle in 2025.
Bergen County could be another major front in this civil war. Unless Sarlo is willing to abandon Sweeney, it is possible if not likely that the Bergen County Democratic Organization will not give him their line when he runs for re-election in 2023. The same would be true for Lagana, who is far more likely to buckle under pressure than Sarlo.
Team North could also gain an additional Democratic State Senator by making LD39, the county’s only Republican district significantly more Democratic by adding Democratic towns like Bergenfield, Fort Lee, and Tenafly and subtracting several of its Republican towns. This would make LD37 less Democratic, but not by enough to make it competitive.
If the next legislative district map approximates what I have described and the Democrats win everywhere that it would be reasonable for them to win, they would have LD1 through L8 in South Jersey, LD11, LD12, LD14 through LD22 in Central Jersey, and LD25 through LD29 and LD31 through LD40. Obviously, going from 25 (or 26 if Zwicker wins in LD16) seats in the State Senate to 34 seats is a huge leap, especially in a low turnout cycle without a statewide race to drive turnout, but it is within the realm of possibility.
If the Democrats were to win this many seats and incumbents won all of their contested primary elections except the loser of the Sacco-Stack race, would Steve Sweeney still be Senate President? Assuming that current alliances still hold, Sweeney would start with eight South Jersey seats in LD1 through LD8, eight Central Jersey seats in LD11, LD12, LD14, LD17 through LD19, LD21, and LD22, and two North Jersey seats in LD31 and LD36, which should be enough even without LD32 and LD33.
His North Jersey opponent would have three Central Jersey seats in LD15, LD16, and LD20 and eleven North Jersey seats in LD25 through LD29, LD34, LD35, and LD37 through LD40. This assumes that the BCDO flips Lagana, but is unable to defeat or flip Sarlo.
However, if the latter assumption is incorrect and Sweeney is stuck on seventeen seats with Linda Greenstein a potential defection, the winner of the Sacco-Stack race would be in an incredibly powerful position. Unless my longshot bet comes through and Mason wins the open seat, the LD33 winner would most likely bring the LD32 winner with him wherever he goes, either clinching the Senate Presidency for Sweeney or deadlocking it. This raises the question as to who that unknown Sweeney opponent might be.
Assuming Stack beats Sacco, could he negotiate the top legislative leadership position for himself? Jones is not going to demand it for Essex County since he will most likely have the Governor when Oliver ascends to that position. Sarlo could negotiate it for himself. That is probably the only way that the BCDO could get him to flip on Sweeney. Currie is unlikely to be able to get it for Passaic County. Is there a way to satisfy both Sarlo’s and Stack’s ambitions? Or is there a path forward without either of them?
Senate President Joe Vitale would sound much better to many more Democrats, especially progressives, than Senate President Paul Sarlo or Senate President Brian Stack. Could Middlesex County be in play? Obviously, MCDO Chairman Kevin McCabe would have no qualms about trading Craig Coughlin’s Assembly Speakership to be able to make Vitale the Senate President. Either way, Middlesex County and Woodbridge retains their power.
If Zwicker wins in LD16 in 2021 and Greenstein, Mironov, or someone from Old Bridge takes LD14 in 2003, Middlesex County would have five State Senators. If McKeon wins in a new LD26, Gill wins in a new LD40, and Essex County keeps LD34, Essex County would have six State Senators. Finding seven more would not be very difficult. LD15, LD20, LD25, LD35, and LD37 would be low-hanging fruit. LD38 could be muscled away from Sweeney’s column by the BCDO. If there is a battle between Somerset County and Union County in LD21 and Schaffer wins that battle, that would clinch the Senate Presidency for North Jersey. If not, LD11 would be the next target and Vin Gopal would be far less costly than either Sarlo or Stack.
Obviously, these calculations depend on winning many tough races in a low turnout election cycle, which would normally not produce such massive gains. However, because it is possible to draw a map where so many districts could be competitive enough for this to happen, these possibilities are worth considering.
What makes this even more interesting is that in a low turnout cycle like 2023, Republicans could conceivably win as many as twenty seats, which would bring the legislature back to where it was twenty years earlier when John Bennett and Richard Codey shared power. This is why it is entirely possible for Democrats and Republicans to agree on a map without requiring a tiebreaking vote to be cast.
Normally, Democrats would not be willing to be nearly this aggressive and would be much more focused on establishing and then guaranteeing their majority as they have during the last two redistricting processes. However, because Norcross and Sweeney have been able to dominate the legislature for as long as they have by dividing the North Jersey and Central Jersey political machine bosses and turning them against one another, and have been able to turn what used to be known as the most powerful Governors in the country into one of the weakest, it is possible, if not likely, that the Democratic political machine bosses throughout the state will shift their focus on creating many more takeover opportunities, even if it provides more opportunities to the Republicans as well.
Because there are so many variables, it is impossible to predict who will win. However, if the last twenty-plus years of watching New Jersey politics has taught me one thing, it is to not bet against George Norcross unless you are getting very good odds. When his adversaries appear to have all of the answers, he changes the questions. Curtain.
For Act 1 of this Three Act series, please go here; and stay tuned for Act Three.