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It began almost a year ago when an alliance of Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Kevin McCabe, and Union County Democratic Committee Chairman Nick Scutari released statements of support for a new party chairman.
The establishment, with brain trust roots in South Jersey and strong ties within the leadership of the caucuses (Scutari was close to Sweeney, who was close to South Jersey Democratic Power Broker George Norcross III), signaled their preference of Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman Leroy Jones to supplant sitting Democratic State Committee Chairman John Currie.
Currie was close to Governor Phil Murphy, and Murphy routinely signaled that his interests did not align with the center of party power residing in South Jersey. The antagonism mounted with the governor’s continuing probe of tax incentives awarded by an Economic Development Authority (EDA) with members close to the political power structure largely affirmed by a an alliance between South Jersey and Essex County and Governor Chris Christie.
Sweeney had nursed an animus for Currie going back to when the party chair coalesced the so-called quad counties behind the 2017 gubernatorial candidacy of Murphy.
The last two political survivors of that quad, Currie and Jones now face each other, with the broken pieces of the Democratic Party establishment lined up behind each of them.
By way of a little history, the contest underscores deeper fractures, some of them rooted in labor, and the divide between public sector labor (championed by Murphy) and Building Trades (championed by Sweeney). It is no accident that Jones’ latest advantage in the developing contest hinges on the defection from the Murphy camp of a Building Trades chair, who evidently felt the screws of the brotherhood. By the same token, those underlings of Ocean County Democratic Chair Wyatt Earp (or others) who are perceived to be workable owing to public sector or SEIU leanings are seen to be potential late play Currie votes.
In addition to labor, the other key piece here goes to Sweeney’s oversight of the senate caucus, where members have either successfully made plays for the chairmanships of their counties (and thereby strengthened the potential for the Sweeney-Essex alliance) or tried and failed (and weakened that cause and reaffirmed two-thirds of the quad in Murphy and Currie’s favor (Passaic, Bergen and Hudson).
It shows the importance, for example, in the larger statewide context, of the Union County chair’s fight last year, and a clear advantage for Sweeney (and Jones) when Senator Nick Scutari (D-22) defeated Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr. By the same token, Hudson came down strongly on the other side when Amy DeGise – a public school educator by trade – took down Sweeney caucus-member state Senator Brian P. Stack to land the chairmanship of the Hudson County Democratic Organization.
The Trenton-centric Sweeney-Jones (who is a powerful Trenton lobbyist) power structure versus Currie’s base of northern counties and scattered, locally-based pockets of support constitutes another critical divide, reinforced by Murphy’s own post-election boast of the importance of key Democratic victories in local (and at least one countywide) contests.
As the fight for the chairmanship intensified, Somerset County Clerk Steve Peter this morning began oversight of the counting of outstanding ballots that by the end of the day would decide the outcome of the Somerset County Freeholder’s race, a win coveted by Currie, whose vice chair, Somerset County Democratic Party pooh-bah Peg Schaffer, stood to gain, and stood to notch a symbolic win for the team even as Jones burnished what looked like a plus-50 advantage toward the chairmanship.
It was still volatile, with the potential to go nuclear, and the reputations of the principals at stake.
In the meantime, if you had to pick:
- Amy DeGise
- Bergen County Democrats
- Brian Stack
- Colleen Mahr
- Democratic State Committee
- Essex County
- Essex County Democrats
- Hudson County Democrats
- Joe DiVincenzo
- John Currie
- Kevin McCabe
- Leroy Jones
- Middlesex County Democrats
- Nick Scutari
- NJ Building Trades
- NJ Democrats
- Ocean County Democrats
- Passaic County Democrats
- Peg Schaffer
- Phil Murphy
- Somerset County Democrats
- Steve Peter
- Steve Sweeney
- Union County Democrats
- Wyatt Earp
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