When he served as U.S. Attorney, Chris Christie specialized in immobilizing Democrats, both those pesky anti-establishment types who provided ready fodder for powerful players to take the spotlight off themselves while bulking Christie’s resume, and those players who helmed powerful political machines that made and broke governors of New Jersey.
If his prosecutions bore some semblance of a political design, Christie appeared not to want to rid the state of Democratic machines necessarily, but to control them: making examples out of some of them, while communicating power and opportunity – and the advantages of an alliance – to those who remained.
Christie’s rise to power through the auspices of the U.S. Attorney’s Office occurred simultaneous to – and arguably at times not independent of – the sinking of the Middlesex County Democratic Organization. If New Jersey operated according to the edicts of boss politics – namely the awarding of public jobs and public contracts to control those who hold elected office and influence their votes for the final purpose of power – a few bosses distinguished themselves as either inevitable or at least formidable.
Among these stood John A. Lynch, Jr., the former state senate president, former mayor of New Brunswick, and critical behind-the-scenes player in support of the gubernatorial candidacy of state Senator (and Woodbridge Mayor) James McGreevey; Bergen County Democratic Committee Chairman Joe Ferriero; and South Jersey Power Broker George Norcross III. Both Lynch and Ferriero ended up indicted on charges served by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, their political machinery stalled and their successors put on notice. Middlesex in particular paid a costly political price for having climbed to the heights of the suddenly 2004-imploded McGreevey’s governorship, quietly entering a rebuilding phase even as the further humiliation of Assemblyman Joe Vas’s plunge from power augmented the extent of – for lack of a better diagnosis – a Middlesex problem.
By the time Christie became governor, Norcross kept alive as that arguably most powerful surviving
political boss of the new millennium. He also proved Christie’s most reliable cross-the-aisle shadowy ally, as the crux of his and then-Senate President Steve Sweeney’s public policy drive – reforming the state’s runaway public pensions and benefits plan – dovetailed perfectly with Christie’s eagerness to make government pay.
As South Jersey strengthened itself in the Governor Christie era, Middlesex entered a period of intense self-examination and increasing sense of powerlessness. Another party chairman, Joe Spicuzzo, derailed on corruption charges. A subsequent fight for the chairmanship revealed countywide fractures between east and west, and – as Sweeney and South Jersey Democrats ran for reelection with Christie staying far away from their GOP challengers – a would-be challenger to Christie, state Senator Barbara Buono (D-18) from where else but Middlesex, ran against Christie in 2013 with the party quietly preparing for her failure.
On the other side of Christie’s own challenging second term, arguably the consequence of the principal lulling himself into complacency on the strength of his friendly machine relations in the opposing party, Democratic Governor Phil Murphy found himself primarily challenged by a machine that had grown enormous with power in the Christie era; South Jersey. Having found the habit with Christie in the front office of jeering at their adversaries, and secure in their knowledge of virtual freedom from prosecution as long as they enabled the Republican governor and his (mostly shared) policies, South Jersey found itself up against a genuine liberal square in Murphy.
Hence, the main battles Murphy immersed himself in during his first term involved South Jersey, as the governor attempted to extract the state from the main political dynamic of Christie’s eight years in the governor’s office: that of a prioritized South Jersey fused with those Republican policies nursed by a governor with national political aspirations. Along the way, Murphy appealed to various allies, among them progressives, North Jersey’s John Currie (chair of the Democratic State Committee for the bulk of Murphy’s first term), and those county party chairs eager to get out from under the stifling mechanics of the last regime.
Critically, Murphy and his front office staff – scrounging for establishment allies – relied on that long routed and denied entity, which had summoned itself in 2017 sufficiently to cut a deal with South Jersey for the speakership, namely; Middlesex County. The relationship developed slowly, as Murphy over time gently extracted Speaker Craig Coughlin from the side of Senate President Sweeney, and in empowering the political priorities of Middlesex, gradually and as inoffensively as possible – stymied South Jersey.
As significant as Republican Jack Ciattarelli’s challenge of the Democratic incumbent was in 2021, especially as it would come to reflect a level of impassioned disaffection among working class taxpayers and business owners, Murphy’s reelection cycle contained a deeper cloakroom drama. It contained the possibility of a resurgent Middlesex – now under the leadership of County Chairman Kevin McCabe – seeking an additional senate seat to give itself an edge over South Jersey, which had lost one in 2017 and 2019, but desperately gained one in between.
On Election Day and the VBM sludge of its aftermath, not only did South Jersey lose three contests, but choked down the indignity of its most costly casualty, Sweeney – Christie’s longtime cross-the-aisle ally; even as Middlesex gained a seat with the state senate victory of Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-16).
Pared down to a delegation numbering four, lacking now the senate president and the prioritized ear of the front office, South Jersey found itself confronted by a newly muscular Middlesex County, which claimed five senators from within its own borders, and very stout allies in state Senator Joe Cryan and state Senator Vin Gopal.
What did it mean exactly?
In the short term perhaps, it meant Murphy could rely on the intimate political intoxications of a single county: Middlesex; just as Christie, in his own acknowledgement of the machine political procedures of New Jersey, had relied on his own surgically conceived South Jersey.
Boss politics abided, regardless of party; regardless of who occupied the throne of the executive branch.
Absent a preferred kingdom, whether South Jersey or Middlesex, a governor left himself exposed to the powers concentrated therein, short of developing deep and sustaining connections elsewhere. Helping to empower one machine saved the time – and political frustrations – of maintaining many or several.
In the longer term, the dimensions of Democratic Party Chairman McCabe’s Middlesex power became the frequent topic of conversation, as insiders likened him to Lynch, and the possible mounting of a 2025 Middlesex march on the governorship behind Coughlin; their play more discernible as a consequence of Senator Nick Scutari’s elevation to the senate presidency. Scutari had a majority of one – himself – in his claim to the throne; powerless, in the strictest New Jersey political sense, without South Jersey, which rushed to put its prints on the deal for him to succeed fallen son Sweeney, and critically, without a rising Middlesex. Finally, did Middlesex – treading now as the notoriously ambitious Murphy decided his own political future amid signs of national Democratic Party dysfunction – possess the intellectual muscle mass and northern support to forge its own statewide path out of the shadow of the era of Norcross, who preferred Christie?