June 8th: Camden Versus Middlesex

Norcross and McCabe

“They’re amateurs,” a Democratic insider growled, in reference to the Middlesex County Democratic Organization’s efforts to subvert New Jersey’s 2021 version of democracy in the name of the party, and pining for another brazen show of pure unexpurgated power by the Camden County Democratic Organization, that almost undisputed champion of transcendental desecration.

The comment came about a week before Election Day in which the most notable June 8th contest here consisted of Middlesex versus Camden.

Both Democratic Party-dominant counties have executed the same play calling and now have Tuesday to try to put up Brian Stack-like numbers in a bid for county party organization domination. Not coincidentally, of course, state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) operates with the power of Camden behind him; while Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-19) does business out of Middlesex.

The organizations have incrementally positioned themselves for Tuesday’s Fat Man versus Little Boy alchemy.

A few weeks ago, Camden City Mayor Frank Moran looked ready to run again, but amid buzz about his


own troubles, he bore the humiliating encumbrance of having held executive power during blowback from that searing $11.5 billion tax incentive scandal. The organization dumped him, and like a trowel flinging wet cement into a vacuum, slapped Councilman Victor Carstarphen into the mayor’s chair, then cued the federal event with U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge.

Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Sheila Oliver thinks it’s a bad idea for Carstarphen to hand over the city’s finances to the county, and while the mayor doesn’t have a damn thing to say on the subject, he has friends in higher places than the New Jersey Governor’s office.

Like Fudge.

Not to be outdone in the brazen, let’s-step-on-people-because-we-can department, Middlesex in roughly


the same period of time gave the hook to Mahesh Bhagia, the Democratic Party mayoral candidate who scored the backing of the local Democratic Organization. The sitting incumbent mayor, Tom Lankey, bore the humiliating encumbrance of the Suez Water deal going down in a referendum vote, a plan backed by legal minds close to the county. Lankey was not an option. Neither was Bhagia, who promised to take on the county. So the Middlesex Democrats dumped Bhagia and installed Edison Council Vice President Sam Joshi on the county line.

A Trump and COVID-19 cocktail appeared to have finished off the Republican Party in New Jersey, leaving Jabba-the-Hut-sized Democratic Organizations to literally slug it out for new paved over realms of power.



Middlesex versus Camden.

That was the New Jersey contest come Tuesday.

If Camden mayoral challenger Elton Custis summoned a substantial number of losing votes in his challenge to “incumbent Mayor” Carstarphen, George Norcross III and company would look weak.

Camden wanted – and demanded – nothing short of a massive Tuesday win.

If Edison mayoral challenger Bhagia summoned a respectable number of losing votes in his challenge to “fresh young talent with the entire establishment Democratic Party behind him” Joshi, Middlesex County Democratic Organization Chairman Kevin McCabe and company would look weak.



Somewhere caravans tried to hold their own in bumper to bumper traffic with signs and fanfare and passion for issues. Young operatives undertook, with a seriousness born out of the horrors of the Trump era, a real effort, only vaguely alert to the strange, dislocated atmosphere.

All of them out there – they could have their horn honking fun.

This was serious business.

This was Middlesex versus Camden.

They were head to head.

Godzilla versus Mothra.

Whichever ramrodded establishment candidate scored more votes, his accompanying organization would assume a shinier, glossier finish in the statewide scheme of events.

Others out there in the swamp-scape had plays to make. Union County Democratic Committee Chairman Nick Scutari obviously wanted Plainfield Mayor Adrian Mapp to win.

Mapp going down to longshot challenger Richard Wyatt would humiliate Scutari against the backdrop of corporate marijuana legalization.

Make him look bad.

If Camden and Middlesex emerged victorious, he’d have to hear it from Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3).

He wasn’t the only jittery second banana-level Dem boss out there, though.

Bergen, operating out of the ever weakening political north, its loss of inner sanctum institutional power commensurate with its population advantages, in other words real people, feebly tried to get in on the act.

Bergen County Democratic Committee Chairman Paul Juliano would feel humiliated – and have to hear it from Speaker Craig Coughlin and McCabe – if Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37) beat Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-37) on Tuesday.

Bergen was not top tier.

Not to Camden and not to Middlesex.

Juliano was too nice.

He supposedly had all the old school mannerisms of a North Jersey boss.

But finally his record of ruthless disregard didn’t reach Camden and Middlesex levels.

Bergen would object, of course.

“We stepped on someone too.”

But it wasn’t quite the same.

Now, Camden wasn’t ready to say Middlesex operated on the same level. McCabe had gonged Bhagia. Norcross cronies had simply made Moran disappear and made Carstarphen mayor.

One could hear the protested voices of Middlesex underlings.

But in Edison, we have the actual endorsement of Governor Phil Murphy!

One too could hear the roaring laughter of Camden.

The fact that Murphy didn’t get involved in Camden at all and let the insurrectionists dangle after the sulfuric stench of the tax incentive scandal, amounted to an even more diabolical Camden win.

They could have those debates in a statewide intellectual vacuum.

Middlesex v. Camden.

Camden with the edge – but Middlesex threatening.

For Democrats, and a governor insulated by the environs of the COVID-19 disaster in the same way

Governor Phil Murphy in Newark.
Governor Phil Murphy

Hurricane Sandy blew Chris Christie back into office, the weight of corporate, lobbying, party, and cloakroom power put Middlesex and Camden on a collision course, with the political reputations of those in the vicinity, namely the whole state, an afterthought (even as those smaller Trenton players fall over one another to kiss the rings) and Murphy projecting a small town Rotarian’s zest for running around under the huge, Caesar-sized legs of the twin chest-thumping party organizations.

Soon, the national-playing Democrat – virtually unknown prior to 2016 when he began running for governor – would be gone.

Middlesex and Camden – with deep John Lynch and Norcross roots – would distribute the future.

The Republicans were still arguing over who won last year’s presidential election.

Everyone else was just an amateur.


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