Asbury Park’s Berkeley Oceanfront Hotel played host to the New Jersey Democratic State Committee
Reorganization meeting on Thursday evening. The outdoor event saw the installation of a new executive committee, touted as the most diverse the state has seen to date.
The executive committee slate was unopposed and saw the passing of the torch from State Party Chairman John Currie, Passaic County Chairman, to LeRoy J. Jones, Essex County Chairman. Jones, now at the helm of the party ship, is joined by Peggy Schaffer who returns to her position as Vice Chair, Claribel Azcona-Barber as Secretary, and Medinah Muhammad as Treasurer. The Chair Pro Tempore at the meeting was Senator Teresa Ruiz.
The meeting was not held in a lavish banquet hall or an auditorium as one might expect, but the committee members gathered around the hotel’s swimming pool with a buffet and bar running constantly toward the back, where people could go to escape the uninterrupted two hours of speeches and snag a drink or a sausage and pepper sandwich. Those in attendance could not have asked for a better day, as Governor Murphy pointed out: sunny, cool but not cold, a gentle breeze. Apart from a handful of people wearing masks, the occasion, though a formal meeting, was in essence like a 2019 style barbeque with all the wealthy and/or well-connected extended family gathering for the first time in ages. And, in truth, that was the case for many.
The meeting seemed to carry with it a few concurrent themes: loyalism, optimism, and triumphalism—all three of which orbited around a party with new leadership but continuing its support of Governor Murphy.
The long line of speakers, which included Representatives Mikie Sherrill and Frank Pallone, were
generous with their praise and acclamations for Governor Murphy, who sat near the podium and beamed almost as brightly as the sun shining down and reflecting off the swimming pool. The very gathering, with no social distancing practiced and no mandatory masks, was because of Phil Murphy and his administration’s efforts, they were bold to point out.
As much as the meeting was to install Jones and salute the outgoing Currie, it was a rally for Phil Murphy among his party faithful—many of whom had not been sold on the Murphy brand prior to his run against Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno in 2018, though Currie had thrown his support behind him and the governor professed his undying gratitude for that. But there was another message being broadcast loud and clear: Phil Murphy had beaten the virus, and Phil Murphy was going to beat the Republicans. Though he faced considerable opposition—much from within the Democratic Party—Phil Murphy’s victory over the virus was a victory for all of New Jersey, and the party hopes that voters will keep that in mind when they head into the next election.
Murphy is seeking to end a trend that no Democratic governor had been re-elected in New Jersey since Brendan Byrne, something both Currie and Jones presented absolute confidence in achieving. While there was no mention of Jack Ciattarelli during the entire meeting, Murphy promised to run a hard campaign where, in his words, they would be operating as though they were consistently ten points behind.
With Currie ending his eight years as New Jersey State Democratic Chairman, Jones will be taking up the mantle and continuing the North Jersey leadership of the party. Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) didn’t attend, while Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver hailed Jones as a hard-working leader who had experienced and operated on all levels from the local to the state. She boldly announced that she was ready to put on her “flak jacket and combat boots” to be a soldier in Jones’ army. The shift from Currie’s Passaic roots and Murphy-loyalist-base to the Essex County establishment will signal a new direction in the party, but one which Jones promised will continue Currie’s work.
Jones made as much clear, saying that while he was told he had large shoes to fill by taking up the
leadership post, he was going to wear his own shoes while following in Currie’s path. The former state chairman was credited with turning his home county of Passaic from solidly red to solidly blue, and that during his time as state chairman, the Democratic congressional delegation had grown, despite Jeff Van Drew—called a “turn coat” on more than one occasion by two speakers.
Governor Murphy had likewise saluted Currie’s success, crediting him for making New Jersey a blue state from a purple one. While the northern and southern regions of the state are still thoroughly red, Democrats have nearly one million more registered voters than the GOP now—a phenomenon which may be as much due to the unpopularity of Donald Trump as it might be for the appeal of the Democratic Party among rank and file voters.
While the meeting itself presented no surprises, it was, in many respects, a victory celebration. A victory not just for the unopposed slate headed by Jones, but a Murphy-led triumph over the pandemic by virtue of the fact that the committee members gathered as comfortably and as freely as they did. A ubiquitous air of ineffably confident optimism, relief, and expectation for further victories in November was inescapable. While a good number of committee members retreated from the unbroken succession of speeches to catch up with their fellow Democrats, providing a constant low roar throughout the event, none failed to dutifully and passionately cheer.