The developing Menendez trial stunned wounded Hudson guys who for years stared in awe at the artful internationalism of their godfather, the kid from Union City who grew up with many of them – and then kept growing, into one of the wonders of the Hudson world and – improbably given his humble background – chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a probable future Secretary of State.
Now he’s in trouble, the senior senator from New Jersey, up on federal corruption charges; and conversations about that seat he occupies play out as part of that political juggling act that goes on when the interested parties look to land something…
The Menendez Trial unfolds even as Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) looks to withstand the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA)-fueled onslaught of unheralded Salem County GOP Chairman/every man Fran Grenier. Most insiders believe Sweeney – while breaking a mild workout sweat – will handle Greiner. But the lingering question against the backdrop of the Menendez mess is to what extent powerful South Jersey Democratic pooh-bah George Norcross III will push to maintain Sweeney atop the Trenton ant pile, when the enticement of having his brother, U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-1), in the U.S. Senate presents a legacy-defining statewide opportunity.
Most sources say Norcross can’t have both the senate presidency in South Jersey and the U.S. Senate. So will he prioritize running state government over being able to turn on C-Span and see his little brother prowl the carpeted chamber as one of 100 elite political minds in the country? Speaking to InsiderNJ on condition of anonymity told InsiderNJ that the temptation of federal power at that level, which includes senatorial courtesy in the appointment of the U.S. Attorney in New Jersey, may be too much for the South Jersey boss to resist. But is he willing to cut a deal that gives up Sweeney as senate prez for the assurance of having northern chairs back his brother in the event that Menendez does not politically survive his trial.
“Oh, no, you don’t understand George,” the source told InsiderNJ. “He will make a play for both. He’ll want U.S. Senate and the Senate Presidency.”
But can he have both?
Jim Florio (2000)
Rob Andrews (2008)
Steve Sweeney (2017)
All those dedicated South Jersey brand names tried to run statewide campaigns out of South Jersey that failed ultimately to electrify northern voters. Perhaps as a consequence of bearing witness to Andrews’ ill-starred 2008 run with no northern lines, Sweeney last year backed out of running for governor rather than endure the agony of a statewide effort without overt northern organizational support. But whatever Sweeney’s and Norcross’ deficits from a numbers’ stand-point in the streets of a Democratic Primary, they more than make up for with caucus savvy. If Sweeney gets past Greiner – and again, most believe he will – he will go back to Trenton in a strong position to once again gain the senate throne. Notwithstanding the NJEA’s warpaint-wearing effort to muddy or bloody him, the bottom line is that the majority of his peers like him, find him fair and even-handed, and a fair arbiter.
His re-installment, however, simply empowers the arguments of those northern Democrats who will want to see a U.S. senate vacancy stay in the north, and weakens a Norcross play to leverage his brother. Again, then, what means more to Norcross: continued control of the state senate behind the imposing presence of Sweeney, or a sunset defining storyline that features one of the Norcross brothers climbing Mount Olympus in Washington, D.C.?
If he prioritizes the latter at this point, might he have to have that fishing boat talk with Sweeney, and tell him, “Steve, it’s Teresa Ruiz’s time now, or Paul Sarlo’s time now. This is about South Jersey, and the empowerment of South Jersey. We need to throw the north a bone to chew on so we can get Donald, that union brother, into the U.S. Senate.”
He might then make the of the vacated congressional seat, but most sources have said Sweeney would have no interest. He’s been to the statewide mountaintop and likely wouldn’t have a hankering to squeeze his frame into the 1st District.
But here’s the rub.
Democratic sources argue that bad blood between South Jersey and certain northern chairs put greater distance on the notion of Senator Norcross.
Witness the war between Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-32) and Norcross/Sweeney.
Prieto is the chairman of the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO), who awards the coveted county line.
Bergen County Democratic Chairman Lou Stellato?
There’s no love lost.
Stellato was said to have been very irritated in 2014 when Norcross’ allies appeared less than enthusiastic about his candidate for county executive, Jim Tedesco of Paramus.
Democratic State Party Chairman John Currie likewise looks less than enthusiastic about wearing a Team South Jersey jersey.
Indeed, all four of the northern county chairs blocked out Sweeney when they opted for U.S. Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy during the pre-primary war, effectively ending the 2017 Democratic Primary but for isolated insurrectionary drams (Wiz and JJ).
Speaking of Murphy, barring an upset by Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, the former ambassador/Goldman Sachs dude will be on the bridge of that most powerful statewide enterprise in U.S. politics: the governorship of New Jersey. Will he be comfortable having Sweeney – now a seasoned pro in the halls of Trenton – re-upped as senate prez, or will he make the push for a new era change and attempt, as part of that deal, to prevail on those South Jersey-disaffected northern chairs to back Norcross for U.S. Senate in the name of keeping the beast fed and a peaceable kingdom?
The four symbiotically-disposed chairs – Prieto, Stellato, Currie and Essex County’s Leroy Jones – would all listen to Murphy, and maybe only Murphy at this point. They made him and he makes them.
Names circulate as U.S. Senate northern resisters to Norcross if it gets to that point, if indeed Murphy doesn’t try to trade senate prez for U.S. Senate.
The names generally include:
U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell
Former U.S. Senator Bob Torricelli
U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone
Now, among these, Torricelli would likely be able to generate the last establishment support, as sources continually note the trouble of replacing Menendez with someone – although never indicted – who left office under an ethical cloud.
But Torricelli – who appears willing to spend millions on an effort to get back to the dance he loves – aslo appears least likely to go away in the event of a vacancy.
Here’s where it gets very interesting.
Less than a year removed now from the 2018 re-election of powerful Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo – Essex insiders continue to float speculation about a possible off-the-line county executive candidacy by unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate Jim Johnson of Montclair.
Former Newark Mayor Sharpe James and DiVincenzo don’t speak, a condition exacerbated, one source told InsiderNJ, when DiVincenzo COS Phil Alagia recently shook hands with James confidant Calvin West, then walked past the former mayor.
“Sharpe’s got a huge ego,” a source reminded InsiderNJ. “That kind of stuff bothers him.”
At an event for LG candidate Sheila Oliver on the terrace of the Robert Treat Hotel a few days ago, the former mayor could not be unglued from the microphone he was holding, his behavior fueling speculation about his increased efforts to influence.
If the establishment unifies behind a U.S. Senate candidate, say, Norcross, who would run with Joe D. on the Democratic line, might Torricelli run with Johnson?
The Newark mayor’s contest is a nonpartisan contest, but the close connective tissue between incumbent Mayor Ras Baraka and DiVinceno merely infuriates James and those allies of Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins who want to see her run for mayor. To this point, Baraka has appeared Teflon as he heads toward May 2018, but recent developments around city hall – including the perception that Chief of Staff Amiri “Middy” Baraka has at the very least exercised too heavy hand in protecting his more likeable – and no less tough – brother, sparks buzz about a less than all-powerful Mayor Baraka as previously ascertained.
The Menendez trial unfolds.
The elections unfold. Sweeney runs with the herd.
But this is all speculation at this point.
Teary eyed, a Hudson diehard on Wednesday night insisted that Menendez will be okay, that he’ll survive, that the world this rank and file political tunnel rat has known his whole life, which endures with Menendez intact at the top, will persevere.
“Bob ain’t going nowhere,” the source insisted.