LeRoy Jones And The Long Game

Jones, right and Currie

If you’re going to play the long game in politics, doing things now that set you up for the future, the idea is not to come up short.

State Senate President Steve Sweeney and the South Jersey Democrats did just that when they lost a chance for the June 2017 Democratic gubernatorial nomination in November 2013.

And, recently they misjudged their chances to elect the next NJ Democratic State Committee Chairman and thereby assume control of the soon to be empaneled Legislative Apportionment Commission.

In 2013, the South Jersey legislative contingent in the State Assembly, captained by George Norcross, crafted the ouster of then Speaker Sheila Oliver of Essex County.

Oliver, only the second woman to serve as Speaker and only one of two African Americans to hold the post in New Jersey history, had, in their minds, gone rogue.

Their choice to replace Oliver for the upcoming 2014 legislative session was Hudson County Assemblyman Vinnie Prieto. That same year Prieto also replaced Bayonne City Mayor Mark Smith as Hudson County Democratic Chairman.

So, if the plan was to have Senator Sweeney, as the future South Jersey standard-bearer, lock down North Jersey support for statewide office then they had it all figured out.

Lost in the calculation, however, was that Speaker Prieto turned out to be independent minded. When push came to shove (and there was lot of that), Prieto decided to put the interests of Hudson County and North Jersey up high on his priority list.

His first choice for the 2017 Democratic gubernatorial nomination was Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop. When the Mayor suddenly opted out of the gubernatorial primary, Chairman (and Speaker) Prieto signed on with his fellow members of the northern quad alliance with Bergen County Chairman Lou Stellato, Passaic Chairman John Currie and Essex County Chairman LeRoy Jones.

All together they steered the nomination, by way of the county ballot lines, to the eventual winner and now Governor, Phil Murphy.

Short Game

In a similar way, South Jersey leader George Norcross lost his 2020 chance to elect the next NJ Democratic State Chairman in 2017.

Incumbent State Chairman John Currie planned to run for Passaic County Clerk in 2018 but was thwarted by not so friendly efforts including a proposed bill that would bar a political party chair on any level from serving as a county clerk.

Currie, as previously noted, was an early and ardent supporter of Governor Murphy.  Given a choice and a chance, odds are State Chairman Currie would have opted for the pensionable income of the county post.

That, some speculate, might have paved the way for the well-regarded Essex County Chairman LeRoy Jones to don the mantel of State Chairman if he chose to do so, which would have avoided the machinations of the past year and the ensuing party squabbles.

For Chairman Jones, along with many others, that would have been preferable to a yearlong battle in an on-going proxy war between South Jersey leaders and Governor Murphy.

The Real Game

It was really all about the Legislative Apportionment Commission which every ten years determines future district boundary lines. Efforts by South Jersey leaders to expand the number of appointees to the Commission by legislation were derailed. That was Plan A.

Plan B called for a fight to replace the person who makes the appointments, namely the Democratic State Party Chairman.

South Jersey’s choice for the post was Essex County Democratic Chairman LeRoy Jones and by design that resulted in the northern counties bickering among themselves instead of banding together, a familiar page in the South Jersey playbook.

With a shift of a town or two inside a legislative district, a Senate and Assembly seat, and careers, can be protected or made to disappear.  Being able to determine those outcomes is what the fight for the State Chairmanship was really all about.

Lost in the South Jersey calculation, however, was that LeRoy Jones, much like Vinnie Prieto, much like Sheila Oliver, ultimately decided to go rogue.

What many interested parties, observers, supporters of both candidates and other vested interests forgot was, aside from everything else, battle tested John Currie and LeRoy Jones were actually the best of friends. They have a long history of mutual respect.

These two members of the 2017 North Jersey quad counties alliance that served as the vanguard of Governor Phil Murphy’s march to the gubernatorial nomination and eventual election were pitted against each other and no one seemed to like it. Party stalwarts were confused.

They both had gone all in with Phil Murphy in 2017 and the woman who was deposed as Speaker back in 2013 was now Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver, a staunch ally of LeRoy Jones.

The Long Game

Last month one of the columnists for Insider NJ astutely observed that it was never a good look for an unelected South Jersey power broker like George Norcross to engineer a yearlong fight for a powerful state party post between two substantial North Jersey black leaders, a position that by tradition was the Governor’s choice.

Essex County Chairman Jones weighed what he considered the crucial factors in the contest, brushed past disagreements and bruised egos and decided in the end that the viability of the state party is more important that any one individual’s short term gain.

Rather than continue to oppose the Governor’s choice, the would-be and future (by agreement) State Chairman decided to put aside personal ambition and acknowledge that the Governor was entitled to his choice for Democratic State Party Chairman.

The squabble over Commission appointments was resolved with a compromise, and, most importantly for the Governor, it appears the quad alliance in the North is once again intact.

After all, when it comes to statewide Primary elections, the four counties in the North beat the six counties in the south, every time.

This Saturday morning when the NJ Democratic State Committee convenes at the East Brunswick Hilton, Chairman Jones of the Essex County Democrats is scheduled to nominate for another term as Democratic State Party Chairman not just his yearlong rival but also his long time friend, Passaic County Chairman John Currie.

In a way, it’s like Essex County laying down a welcome mat for the Governor. It’s their way of giving him a head start for re-election. LeRoy Jones decided to play the long game.

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