InsiderNJ’s Fight of the Week: Johnson v. McKeon and New Jersey’s Next Attorney General

Cold sweat phone calls dominated much of the pre-primary period in the Democratic Party, with several key players expressing fear and worry about the possibility of unwittingly empowering a gubernatorial candidate who could then turn around and employ an attorney general in his winning administration who repays political support for the governor by not getting the joke – and jailing the party line-controlling boss.

The attorney general question – perhaps more than any other single issue – drove the diner room conversations in the lead up to both Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop crapping out of the contest – and the immediate aftermath.

No one’s measuring the drapes yet, but if Democratic front-runner Phil Murphy prevails in the Democratic Primary and in the general election, his attorney general pick would make a profound statement about the kind of governor Murphy would be and – very conceivably – about the delicate balancing act of his politics.

Here are two prospects (and a list of possible concession choices):

Jim Johnson

Gubernatorial candidate and former Treasury undersecretary in the Clinton Administration

He’s not really running for governor, he’s running for AG. That narrative circulates as the most plausible explanation for the presence of the Montclair resident in the governor’s contest. Maybe if he sufficiently pumps himself up as a progressive brand name and Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-19) flames out as a Bernie Sanders original, the Murphy camp can make a big show of bringing in “a real progressive from Montclair” to demonstrate good faith with heartbroken primary voters who backed Jim. He’s also African-American, a fact that might become significant if indeed “three different counties in Ireland” becomes the only diversity argument Murphy can make in the event that Sweeney stays as Senate President and Assemblyman Craig Coughlin (D-19) elevates to speaker. But far more than that, the Johnson play makes sense based on what he offers professionally.

Check out this biographical nugget from the gubernatorial candidate’s website:

“For seven years, Jim led the Brennan Center for Justice as chair and, at times, co-counsel, working to protect the right to vote, to reduce both crime and incarceration and to advocate for fairness for families facing foreclosure.  For two years, Jim led the State of New Jersey’s Advisory Committee on Police Standards, formed to develop a set of proposals to ensure that the State Trooper’s progress in eliminating racial profiling became permanent.”

Then there’s this:

“He served as Under Secretary of the Treasury for Enforcement, overseeing the operations of one third of federal law enforcement, including  the United States Secret Service; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the United States Customs Service.  In the wake of the mass shooting at Columbine, Jim saw first hand the deadly results when guns are in the wrong hands and fought to close the gun-show loophole that contributed to the massacre.”

The choice of Johnson also makes sense as a bone throw to Essex County. If Sweeney sticks as senate prez, Coughlin gets speaker and Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter of Passaic runs for AG, Essex will need something.

AG is that piece.

And the essential piece.

Johnson could be that face-saving figure for Essex County Democratic Chairman Leroy Jones.

Now there are political downsides, of course. Johnson’s essentially an unknown, and precisely that kind of personality who could keep some people in this game up at nights as they try to figure out what he will do as AG. Then there’s the potential headache for Murphy to have to constantly worry – if Johnson’s gubernatorial bid is sincere – about appointing someone to the gig who apparently has ambition for higher office, and nurse-maiding a Chris Christie-sized ego waiting to explode into Drumthwacket.

John McKeon

Assemblyman from the 27th District

His name is floating around out there right now as a potential 2018 challenger to U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11). They’re taking a good, hard look at it in McKeon world. If Trump absolutely friggin’ tanks and drags a helplessly flailing Frelinghuysen down with him, McKeon – who has great fundraising ties, runs a hugely successful law firm and is universally liked and respected (a rare commodity in  politics) – may have no choice but to take a shot. But if he doesn’t, the Trenton insider has another possible option: attorney general. LD27 slate mate Senator (and former Governor) Dick Codey has close ties to Murphy. Loves him. Codey has also stymied McKeon’s upward glide path by hunkering down in the senate for decades. He’s the longest serving member of the state legislature in New Jersey history. Maybe Codey could help finesse the deal for the assemblyman and – failing standing down from the top seat in the 27th – land him the top cop’s job in a Murphy Administration.

Essex will need something (see above) and McKeon fits that bill, too.

But there are potential problems, starting with – and it hurts to say it – ethnicity.

“Ladies and gentlemen, here is your Murphy Team, which looks exactly like the diversity of the great state of New Jersey: Sweeney at senate president, Coughlin at speaker, and McKeon as AG.”

Also, McKeon at AG – given his close ties to codey – may set off non-starter alarm bells in South Jersey. The birds in Camden don’t want anyone who talks to their dreaded enemy Dick Codey anywhere near the AG’s chair, let alone a slate mate.

If McKeon and Johnson produce a no-contest, there are these possible concession picks:

Esther Suarez

The Hudson County prosecutor accomplishes several things right away: she soothes the fears of Hudson types who wouldn’t sleep nights with an unknown quantity in that job; she’s a woman and a Latina, who breaks up the perception of a Tipperary Cabal; she’s a veteran law and order player and former judge. She also gives something to Hudson, which right now looks almost as anemic as Essex.

Tracy Zur

Bergen. Freeholder. Former judge. Woman.

Phil Sellinger

Power lawyer. Big Democratic fundraiser.

Linda Greenstein

If the deal for Coughlin falls through, look for Middlesex to make a play with the senator who heads the law and public safety committee, a former prosecutor with both north and south ties.

Nick Scutari

The no-nonsense and cerebral Senate Judiciary Committee chair commands respect.

Michael Dressler

The highly respected Bergenite wants to leave the county surrogate’s office – but only for a higher office.

Julien X. Neals

Close to U.S. Senator Cory Booker going back to Booker’s mayoral days in Newark – a former chief judge of Newark Municipal Court and former nominee for a U.S. District Court judgeship.

 

 

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