Governor 2025: Underway in the Underground

Pascrell and Sherrill

Too much drama will unfold between now and then – or too much static electricity designed to project as drama – but New Jersey Democrats alert to cracks and at least one semi-chasm in their party, and the inquisitive groundhog-like heads appearing on the golf course of the Garden State, have accelerated their consideration of the post Phil Murphy era.

In short, the 2025 Democratic Primary for governor is underway in the underground.

Now, part of the intrigue among Democrats involves their effort to try to get the GOP to cut into itself to

Ciattarelli
Ciattarelli

weaken the man many now consider to be the frontrunner for the office: former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, the Republican who nearly dethroned incumbent Democrat Phil Murphy last year.

Of course, just as Democrats enjoy the tumult of their own internal fractures, Republicans continue to entertain the Chris Christie transactional wing of the party, the MAGA grassroots guys, the Tom Keans of the world trying to gingerly straddle both worlds, and that croquet-playing Somerset County core that coalesced around Ciattarelli last year and almost found itself on the short list of the next cast of debauched Drumthwacket hangers-on.

But back to the Democrats for the moment and the specific political dynamics around their hunt for New Jersey’s next governor.

Leroy Jones

In large part because of his chairmanship of the Essex County Democratic Party, in part because of the steady dissolution of the South Jersey Democrats as that region of New Jersey grew redder over the course of the last five years in particular, and in part because of his demonstrated willingness to exercise power in the chairmanship (more on that in a minute), Democratic State Committee Chairman LeRoy Jones remains in a highly influential position within this statewide conversation.

At this moment – and recognizing that this could change and change quickly, and change many times between now and 2025 – Jones is said to find intriguing the possibility of a U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11) candidacy. The former Navy Sea King helicopter pilot broadened the power projection platform of Democrats when she beat Assemblyman Jay Webber in the 2018 election and flipped a longtime red congressional seat to blue. She has a record of general election production. She also hails from Montclair, which is in Jones’ home county, so she gives the chair a potentially strong leveraging card within the scrum of other party chairs, who will look to trade on the governor’s seat to create the next era of legislative leadership. If Jones believes in Sherill, whom insiders see as a strong, heavy contrast counterpunch to Ciattarelli, he can plant Essex on the gubernatorial chair in exchange for a Bergen or Middlesex senate president (or some other county or counties amenable to Sherril in exchange for a deal that gets them in the leadership stratosphere).

LG Sheila Oliver
LG Sheila Oliver

 

But Jones also knows he has others within his own county who may want to run for governor, among

Mayor Baraka

them sitting Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. Oliver ran off the line (in the 2013 special election for U.S. Senate) and if Jones doesn’t back her to succeed Murphy, she could take another crack at an anti-establishment candidacy; or partner with Baraka in the ultimate progressive send-up out of Essex, if Baraka too fails to secure Jones’ backing.

Circling Essex, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop also has an interest in running for governor. First elected in 2013, the mayor burnishes a record of success at the helm of New Jersey’s second most populous city and appears eager to tell his story and, conceivably, trade with

Mayor Steve Fulop: Jersey City’s change of heart on Airbnb.
Fulop

Republicans on the big issues of the day. Certainly, Fulop

Spiller
Spiller

would prefer the party line, but could also run off the line or find himself in high-powered negotiating discussions (with Oliver and Baraka) to represent a progressive voice in the event that Jones ultimately strikes a deal for Sherrill; or he could end up getting entangled and mangled along with other progressives if they can’t settle on a single Sherrill alternative.

There are other names: U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-5), on the strength of his fundraising; and Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller (president of the NJEA).

For the moment, that’s the North – but only for the moment.

Remember, former Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), bruised and humiliated last year when he lost

Sweeney
Former Senate President Sweeney (D-3)

his seat to a nonunion truck driver, sitting state Senator Ed Durr, still possesses a formidable shark fin in labor and backroom politics. Come 2023, Sweeney will probably try to rehabilitate himself by running against Durr and beating him (if he can!) in District 3 to set up another chance at a 2025 guv run with the Building Trades behind him. He – and presumably South Jersey Democratic Party Power Broker George Norcross – will occupy the other side of a statewide political taffy pull with North Jersey’s Jones. For if it is difficult to imagine Jones – who deposed Sweeney from the 2020-21 redistricting commission – rekindling any love with South Jersey, a misstep by the powerful chairman could swing Middlesex and/or Bergen and Hudson in the habituated direction of Norcross (and Sweeney).

Coughlin
Coughlin

The divide between Jones and the South remains a critical divide, which prompts a consideration of Middlesex, empowered by redistricting, Machiavellian, transactional, unified, and already powerful. They have Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-19) already on the throne of legislative power, a seat elevated by Sweeney’s lost last year, as Coughlin gets

Atlantic City, half in and half out: Weinberg and Gopal.
Gopal

to play the role of veteran Trenton pooh-bah.  If Coughlin doesn’t jump seriously into the race for governor himself – and he could – it will be because Middlesex strikes a deal for senate president to empower another of its favorite stable dwellers (state Senator Vin Gopal comes to mind, or state Senator Joe Vitale, or Senator Joe Cryan); or amasses enough support to make Gopal a gubernatorial candidate (just as 2022 and 2024 will prove key testing grounds for Sherrill [will she win??], 2023 will be a test for Gopal, as it will be for a presumably come-backing Sweeney). So Coughlin occupies a strong swivel position by Middlesex and Chairman Kevin McCabe. It should not be forgotten that McCabe has worked prodigiously to maintain key ties to Bergen and – in particular – North Hudson.

Paterson Mayor Sayegh
Paterson Mayor Sayegh

 

Then there’s another wildcard to consider.

Sources in the party continue to actively and aggressively examine a potential gubernatorial candidacy by Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh, who just won reelection to a second term last week in a moribund election.

A former school board member, ward councilman and now reelected mayor of one of New Jersey’s most complex cities, Sayegh is educated, ambitious, a people-person, and arguably the most election-battle-tested of all the aforementioned candidates. He also has a record of beating up corrupt political enemies. Even past opponents grumble that “he’s earned it.” What, exactly, might be a question best considered in a context alongside other possible Passaic contenders for a promotion. Long talked about as one among several possible successors to U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9), Sayegh remains a favorite for that job, along with Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-35), state Senator Nellie Pou (D-35) and Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-35). Sayegh would have to be careful that he doesn’t stick his neck out too far on governor without something of a safety net, for risk of losing his spot as conceivably the next congressman. But there might, too, be a deal to work out with the legislators and the chairman (John Currie) that turns on the Passaic relationship to governor and the CD-9 seat.

Remember, it was Currie – acting in his position as state party chairman at the time – who sealed the deal for Murphy in the pre-primary season of 2017; and Currie who negotiated the relay handoff with his successor Jones, while simultaneously deep-freezing South Jersey. If Sherrill doesn’t emerge as Jones’ candidate, he can’t resolve Oliver/Baraka, and he can’t finally see Fulop, he may have an option with Currie and Sayegh. If Sayegh starts with Essex, Passaic, and maybe Morris and maybe parts of a mangled Bergen, Jones might still have a play with Middlesex over and above a dwindled South Jersey, especially if Gopal and/or Sweeney don’t return to Trenton in 2023.

But, again, there are a lot of dynamics between now and then, not to mention the Democratic Party’s habit of encountering this kind of fractured terrain by going to its favorite jack-in-the-box: Wall Street, to again unleash THAT FIELD-CLEARING GUY – they did it with Jon Corzine and they did it with Murphy – who will finally fix the nightmare financial headache otherwise known as New Jersey.

It is volatile.

Next time, we’ll look at the Republican side of the divide.

Who Should Democrats Nominate to Succeed Phil Murphy?

Corzine and Christie
Corzine and Christie with South Jersey Democratic Party Power Broker George Norcross III.
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