Invoking Friedland: The Man the South Wants to Stay Submerged in the Waters of Jersey Political Lore

The indignity of having to hear Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) deliver an excoriation of him that Election Night in 2013 must have stung state Senator Thomas Kean, Jr., worsened by Governor Chris Christie‘s later pronouncement that “elections have consequences,” what sounded like the signaled death knell of Kean’s leadership in the upper chamber.

But Kean’s caucus recognized the leader’s willingness to play against South Jersey with real, warm-blooded candidates in spite of Christie’s mutual back rubbing exercises with George Norcross III, Sweeney, and their ilk. Instead of punishing him for simply trying to seize on an opportunity to pick up seats in their caucus, his fellow Republicans rewarded him, by keeping him around – a move that would prove to be the first indication of Christie’s downfall.

Kean’s dogged, fruitless effort to win seats, contradicted Christie’s strategy of prioritizing his own brand over the aims of his party.

Now Christie is limping out of office, his presidential aspirations mangled by Bridgegate, hubris, Donald J. Trump, and the passage of time – and Kean – gentlemanly, never mean-spirited and seldom channeling any other than those discomforts one might associate with a patrician trying to accommodate the myriad outrages of the modern world – survives albeit in diminished political fashion.

For what has Kean, really, but the prospect of those fellow 15 members of a Republican minority potentially made even more isolated by a Republican brand further imperiled after Christie by the Trump circus, as far, arguably, from that sedate political atmosphere projected by Kean’s presence in any room or public chamber; or that congressional seat in CD7 when U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7) retires?

The example of his own father, former Governor Thomas Kean, Sr. would suggest that he has much more, if not the speakership – as his father was able to leverage from the Democrats as a member of the minority – or the senate presidency – perhaps the title of kingmaker in a new gubernatorial era. To get the speakership in 1972, Kean Sr. relied on four Democratic votes, one of whom was infamous Assemblyman David Friedland, who later went on to fake his own death by drowning.

As it now exists, South Jersey has honed in on its third County north of I-195 to summon a speaker to prop up one end of a deal that critically keeps Sweeney on the senate presidential throne.

There was Essex and Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-34), in exchange for Sweeney.

But Oliver didn’t like charter school education to the degree that South Jersey wanted.

So then there was Hudson and Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-32), in exchange for Sweeney.

But Prieto insisted on protocol that broke up that cozy relationship between Christie and Sweeney – that same cozy relationship that Kean ran up against in 2013 when he dutifully attempted to run Republicans against Democratic incumbent Sweeney and Christie refused to campaign anywhere near those candidates opposing Sweeney.

So now it’s Assemblyman Craig Coughlin (D-19) of Middlesex, in exchange for Sweeney.

Or so it would appear, as it stands right now.

The allies of former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy don’t want Murphy to tackle Sweeney or South Jersey now. It makes no sense to take on South Jersey in the middle of a Democratic Primary. Or in the middle of a general. Perhaps it makes no sense to ever take on Norcross and Sweeney. But others argue that that is a mistake Governor Jon Corzine made – hanging on to the south, even empowering his tormentors – when he could have supported a coup to make his ally, then-Assemblyman Joe Cryan (D-20) speaker.

And Murphy doesn’t want to be like Corzine, despite every effort by antagonists in both parties to make that association his political epitaph. So the question is whether he can – at some point – broker a deal with those disaffected and jaded South Jersey rivals to get a leadership team he wants, that doesn’t first prioritize Sweeney and South Jersey, as did all those past deals.  If it sounds too speculative and too removed from political reality, do not forget that Murphy’s biggest early backer among elected officials was Senator Dick Codey (D-27), the man cast off the senate throne by Sweeney.

Sweeney has the following people locked up or very close to locked up in his corner:

Senator Jeff Van Drew

Senator Fred Madden

Himself

Senator Nilsa Cruz-Perez

Senator Jim Beach

(presumably Senator-elect) Troy Singleton

Senator Linda Greenstein

Senator Bob Smith

Senator Pat Diegnan

Senator Joe Vitale

Senator M. Teresa Ruiz

Senator Sandra Cunningham

Senator Paul Sarlo

Senator Loretta Weinberg

Senator Robert Gordon

That’s 15, and in a 24-person caucus – more than good enough to keep Sweeney in power.

Leaning Sweeney if it doesn’t turn to a firefight but unpredictable:

(Presumably Senator-elect) Joe Cryan (the south didn’t attempt to make his life miserable with a senate primary in LD20)

Senator Nick Scutari (he’s had a strong position in the southern regime, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee)

Senator Nellie Pou (close to Sweeney, but also tied to Passaic County Democratic Party politics)

Senator Nia Gill (she has county work, which keeps her close to Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, but is also uncontrollable)

Mercurial:

Senator Brian P. Stack (he’s fighting South Jersey at present and very close to Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, but he’s also a fiercely pragmatic politician)

Opposed to Sweeney:

Senator Dick Codey

Senator Shirley Turner

Senator Ronald L. Rice

Senator Nick Sacco

Other Factors and intangibles:

LD11 is a battleground this year where Sweeney foe state Senator Jen Beck (R-11) faces  stiff challenge from Vin Gopal, the former Monmouth County Democratic chairman. If Gopal wins, he will presumably be loyal to Sweeney, who’s already held a big fundraiser for Gopal.

Then there’s LD16, another battleground where Democrats put up a soft touch against Senator Kip Bateman (R-16). In a bloodbath, with both parties engaged to pick a senate president, Bateman could conceivably break from his caucus and back Sweeney.

One other thing to consider: Murphy could talk someone like Gordon into his cabinet, and then Bergen County Democratic Chairman Lou Stellato could promote Assemblyman Joe Lagana (D-38), who doesn’t have the ties to Sweeney and could be a vote for someone else.

Now the questions here become how badly do those scorned by the south – Kean, Codey, Prieto, and others – want revenge, can they depend on an aggressive advocacy by Murphy, can Kean pull his caucus, and can those hardened foes of the south pull some of those no man’s land senators?

Is Sacco willing to fight to keep Prieto as speaker as fiercely as Norcross will fight to keep Sweeney planted as senate president?

Let’s say for the sake of argument that Kean can hold 15 members. Fifteen plus Rice, Turner, Sacco and Codey gets you to 19. Then throw in Cryan, Scutari, and then Stack – and with 22 (one more than the required 21 in a 40-person caucus) you can make either Kean – or any of the other aforementioned senators – most probably Scutari – senate president.

Prieto – aided by Republican votes harvested and bound up by Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-21), Kean’s staunch ally – stays as speaker and a cooperating upper chamber Kean helps fellow Union County guy Scutari nab the senate presidency.

Or let’s say, with things leaning in that direction, Essex politicos, Murphy and former Governor Kean get to DiVincenzo.

“It’s over, Joe. You have to remove Essex from the life support system of South Jersey.”

“But George backed me in 2002.”

“That was then, and this is now. It’s over. We’re going to all get behind Ruiz – your deputy chief of staff – to be the next senate president.”

The rationale for getting DiVincenzo to that point?

Norcross and Sweeney tomahawked his speaker, Sheila Oliver, and went around him to Sacco and Prieto.

Now Sacco’s coming to him and saying, “Joe, Norcross messed with you and he messed with me. this is about north Jersey, not him. If you let me keep Vinny I’ll give you Ruiz.”

It’s not personal now. Just business. And anyway, an appeased diVincenzo can argue, he and Essex County Democratic Chairman Leroy Jones can award the line to Norcross brother U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-1) the next time there’s a U.S. Senate vacancy to make up for the loss of Sweeney in leadership. And anyway how can he resist the promotion of his own Essex county born and branded deputy chief of staff Ruiz? No brainer. Sweeney and DiVincenzo are close, but this is someone from DiVincenzo’s inner circle.

Codey and Rice would never go for it, the counter argument inevitably runs. But their hatred of Norcross supersedes their hatred of Divincenzo. Also, Cunningham’s love of Ruiz might outlast her love of Sweeney. They could possibly pull her and pad the majority.

One soothing sit-down with Murphy and Kean Sr. – coffee courtesy of Freeholder Brendan Gill, Murphy’s campaign consultant – might be enough to heal the long balkanized Essex. Or the Keans could make the Norcross-style argument that their 13 votes merit Kean, Jr. the senate presidency, and history could repeat itself, in the name of shared government and the ignominious end of the Norcross-Christie-DiVincenzo power share.

Although the Middlesex-South Jersey deal looks sturdy, it is not in stone.

Any shift could produce the rebellion long craved by Codey, which would not appear, in the final analysis, to be anything other than a highly imaginative political reenactment of one of the finer moments in the annals of the elder Kean, come to rest on the shoulders of his son, whose partisanship on the 2013 campaign trail masks cross-the-aisle connections of his own.

The Codey Funeral Home once supplied a driver to the young Kean’s grandmother, Rice in casual conversation refers to him as “my son,” and David Friedland still lives.

It’s volatile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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