Lashed like Ahab and his attendants to a Democratic Party that not only sized them up for mutiny a long time ago but probably patricide, too, and worse, ethnic male relics of the Roosevelt and JFK era earlier today compared 2025 notes amid general 2021 fatigue and a growing impatience with a cycle that can only yield one result: the reelection of Phil Murphy.
Party members are already looking at the next gubernatorial cycle, gaming the prospects of a few candidates and, in the knowledge that Murphy might not finish a second term, trying to figure out how to make some impact on the road leading to the next governor.
Speaker Craig Coughlin emerges as a natural early choice of this version of the New Jersey Democratic Party based on the rise of Middlesex, a muscled-up lobbying wing of party leadership that wants to augment – not diminish – long-amassed machine patronage, and 20 years of calculated statewide moves by Essex County that have offloaded power to weaker but harder working counties mostly in the name of serving private interests.
Coughlin is seen as the perfect trains-on-time guy and game clock manager who doesn’t threaten the establishment. His best argument for the governorship, at least in the minds of the player who run Trenton?
Middlesex’s ramrodding of the Horizon restructuring bill.
It made everyone in the inner circle money, afforded potential landing stops to people looking to move from public servitude to private comfort zones, and projected the viability of an enabling legislative structure no one wants to tamper with now in advance of more corporate legislation.
A more voluble speaker or egoist might have put his foot in his mouth at the wrong moment.
It makes him a potential early frontrunner to succeed Murphy, that is to say if – after two veterans of Goldman Sachs – the Democratic Party doesn’t simply opt for a third Wall Street veteran in the name of “financial chops” and maintaining – after an exhausting four years of fracture amid progressives and moderates tearing each other to pieces in D.C. – “party unity.”
Speaking earlier today on condition of anonymity, a source acknowledged that some of the higher ups in the party have grown weary of watching the Corznes and Murphys fight with their own party, and admitted someone from within – like Coughlin – presents a seamless storyline to the public, from Woodbridge no less, the town that yielded the last true party person from within the gears of government some 20 years ago.
That said, the source added, Coughlin doesn’t exactly radiate an electric church pulpit vibe, something that Murphy projected from the outset, if even only in campaign spurts (that’s all that’s really needed), and which Corzine didn’t, which, in the view of this party person at least, might make the difference between one and two terms for the sitting governor.
If the party bosses like Coughlin and see him as a legitimate page turn on off-the-reservation financial types who routinely make the mistake of thinking they can do it alone, then inevitably tack back to desperately grab hold of some piece of party machinery to keep themselves alive politically, they also recognize the advantage in having someone more exciting than themselves to project publicly as a way of keeping mostly out of the spotlight.
That’s why someone like George Norcross III always said “he’d clear the field” if he runs for governor, in reference to the always publicly animated U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ).
If past is prologue, Coughlin would govern the way the establishment wants, but he might pose the problem of being a less than world-beating Democratic Primary candidate, the kind of calm, cool, collected utility player who might invite a pesky challenger “who doesn’t get the joke” and becomes an off-the-line star in the process.
It’s too risky, the source argued.
If indeed it is, redemption-seeking Essex (remember, this is the county that backed Corzine over Dick Codey of West Orange for governor, then tomahawked Codey as senate president in favor of South Jersey’s Steve Sweeney) still has the option of aligning the 2017 quad, which essentially made Murphy governor: a northern county alliance of itself, Hudson, Passaic and Bergen. Murphy presumably made Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop tap out of the race just before collecting the counties in question and massively suffocating Sweeney with northern support.
The template exists to do it again, to Sweeney – if he runs, Coughlin, or anyone else, for that matter.
Some names continue to circulate out of Essex, among them U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11), Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, and Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver, but each one of these individuals has demonstrated a capacity for some independence while simultaneously – on the strength of having been around for a few years now, at the very least – having a nose for where the bodies are buried.
The party has routinely distrusted that kind of candidate.
Murphy and Corzine had financial independence.
But they didn’t know what was going on governmentally, not really.
Oliver and Baraka come from government, and so does Sherrill, albeit of the military variety for the most part.
It boils down to one thing: she really doesn’t tolerate nonsense, to put it mildly.
An insider shared a story about her that says as much. The former Navy helicopter pilot was transporting a load of jarheads in and out of a warzone and when one of them made a comment about how she was little more than a glorified Uber driver, she gave them a return trip with enough chop to leave them puking their guts out.
Do the crumb bums that keep the party establishment upright really want the kind of discomfort that Sherill’s sure to supply?
Does she want the discomfort that goes along with the agonies she could put them through as a consequence of her own integrity?
Few act like she’s even an amenable statewide candidate, a possibility that could occur only if power mudslides catastrophically away from Democrats at the federal level over the next cycle or two, leaving Sherrill casting around in a toothless D.C. minority, restless enough to take a crack at the Statehouse.
For her part, when she was speaker, Oliver gave Chris Christie and South Jersey fits, and Baraka – son of the late hell raiser Amiri Baraka – was born with a bullhorn in his hands.
As that county with the biggest Democratic Party plurality, Essex is eternally in that position of exercising power – or giving it up, as it has for the most part over the last two decades – and yet, Essex County Democratic Party Chairman LeRoy Jones did opt for fortifying the foxhole of his own and his fellow northern counties sooner than continue to empower other regions of the state, starting with his support for Murphy, and evident in his own decision to cut a deal with his predecessor to become state party chairman sooner than rely on the south.
The structure exists, and so too does a glimpse of political will.
But to Norcross’ point, no candidate yet rises to the level of one who “clears the field,” and those who might merely as a consequence of being from Essex, with the capacity – as is the case with all three – to electrify the same congregations that perhaps Coughlin can’t – come with real challenges for the New Jersey Democratic Party at-large, starting with that most unruly of all candidate qualities for this current establishment: not just demonstrated commitment to public service, but true knowledge of what that entails in New Jersey, and who it hurts.