The political establishment in New Jersey awaited the first scheduled debate (tonight, at 7 p.m. on ABC) between incumbent Democratic Governor Phil Murphy and Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli with little anxiety or expectation, and decidedly more parlor room emphasis on relations between Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) then the incumbent and his GOP rival.
Pressed on operations, Democrats mostly admitted they weren’t paying attention and only casually entertained the notion of a Nov. 2nd contest.
It was more to have something to talk about than an excuse to lace on the gloves.
No one wanted a fight.
More than Murphy versus Ciattarelli, they wanted to talk about the possibility of Murphy conceivably humiliating Sweeney.
Best scenario “for Phil,” one source said deviously, harkening to that time – 2013 – when Steve Fulop won the mayoralty in Jersey City while conveniently sustaining the team casualty of Sean Connors. Talked into the fold as repayment for not running against Fulop for mayor, Connors appeared in the name of making Fulop look sage enough to assemble a team of rivals, only to lose while Fulop won.
The outcome merely intensified the high fives in Fulop’s inner circle.
It mirrors how some of Sweeney’s allies like the idea of Murphy doing just fine statewide, while losing Vince Mazzeo and Dawn Addiego down ballot, and planting the post Election Day bomb of trouble in South Jersey again – a year after the Jeff Van Drew fiasco.
“Sweeney will look vulnerable if he loses those two seats,” said a Democratic Party source.
What about Murphy versus Ciattarelli tonight?
There was a clap of static on the other end of the phone, followed, presumably, by regained equilibrium and then the observation, “That’s tonight, yes.”
Another party source grudgingly admitted that Murphy could talk, and is likeable, while Ciattarelli “who I like,” isn’t known and is running behind by double digits, and so will have to spend the evening attacking while also trying to be the likeable newcomer, an impossible task.
Then talk turned to Craig Coughlin for governor in 2025.
It was like that with Democrats this season.
They had swum in an overabundance of swamp power for so long, that the conversations easily strayed into considerations of the 2025 governor’s race sooner than undertake hard-nosed x’s and o’s assessments about Murphy v. Ciattarelli. The governor’s race, in short, became another opportunity for Democrats – who outnumber Republicans in New Jersey by a million voters – to spar with one another in the great, ongoing common hog wallow of boss politics.
It was the game they played to stay loose and hip and finally relevant; to remain of the mind that all the time invested in parties and small talk and conformity could result in a true demonstration of power.
Surely you see that, a source said.
The speaker’s law firm recently hired former Edison Councilwoman Sapana Shah, who once did legal work for the City of Jersey City back when Fulop began building his aborted runway to the governorship.
She’s the key to understanding Coughlin’s gubernatorial ambition on the Fulop model, the source insisted.
It was feasible.
It’s a game, and it’s played, and the moves resemble one another.
Or it was merely a coincidence.
In any case, one would have to go back to Jim McGreevey (2001) to find someone elected from the party’s own machine ranks to the governor’s chair.
That’s 20 years ago.
And it would be 24 years ago.
Since that time, Democrats have recruited and gotten behind two Goldman Sachs alumni: Jon Corzine and Phil Murphy, with the goal of seeming financially responsible while intensifying bar stool talk of eventually installing another supposed spendthrift goodfella from within the family.
Or at least another “good guy” with “government experience,” in other words sufficiently pliable to work with – not against – the power structure.
It always made for good conversation, and made starker implicating lines of a collision that on its own appeared to have little connectivity to the political aspirations of others.
If it didn’t look like the trajectory of American politics at this point, it was still – one could argue – the essence of New Jersey politics.
If this very election cycle showed a scintilla of South Jersey weakness (see above), Middlesex and the north conceivably had a strengthened redistricting hand, and a strengthened play for more power, which for Middlesex would either look like the senate presidency or the governorship. Anything less than that – short of a straight up play for more money and business, which was a possibility – would add up to a loss.
They needed senate president or governor.
Coughlin fit the bill as that perfect creation of the furnaces of functionary office: that sedate, unexciting and inoffensive trains-on-time guy whose success in a primary would empower the party apparatuses with new vistas of possibility. Coughlin was that elected official who could appear gently sympathetic to any number of progressive causes, while ramrodding Horizon overhaul and staying close to law enforcement. And he did so without talking a lot. If he had his faults, demagoguery was not one of them. He was the ultimate New Jersey Democrat, and what a kind of poetic justice for the state to return to the McGreevey model, after the Corzines and Murphys and Chris Christie jailings (Ciattarelli, it must be noted, lacks the name ID and public record amassed by Christie as U.S. Attorney ahead of his successful 2009 guv run against Corzine) the presidential buzz and bust, then to go back to Woodbridge, to start all over again with erstwhile, lunchbox and thermos amenable Coughlin for governor, with the mighty weight of the machines, northern and central, behind him?
If Sweeney – who had envisioned himself that kind of molded insider on the throne of Drumthwacket – lost Mazzeo and Addiegio, the motion of the 2025 machinery starting with Middlesex and Essex would begin.
And it was more exciting than Murphy v. Ciattarelli.
Murphy had come from the outside, and Ciattarelli had only briefly been inside – and as a Republican.
The debate gave the appearance of two harmless interlopers pecking on the perimeter of the incubator.
The real plans lay ahead, or so the operatives said.
Essex, of course, would want something bigger than the excruciating encumbrance of political powerlessness since it tamed with South Jersey to jettison Dick Codey from the senate presidency. Like Middlesex, they would need governor (U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, and Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver all hailed from Essex and all jockeyed in people’s minds as the big county’s statewide play) or a triumphant return to the senate presidency. Anything less (perhaps they had already gone the business route) would look absolutely awful.
That’s where the conversations were with time ticking down to 7 p.m. tonight and Murphy (“The internal polls aren’t looking as good as Patrick Murray’s polls,” a source grumbled, again with little urgency, as an afterthought.) versus Sweeney… er… Murphy versus Ciattarelli; as the state’s political establishment, in all unvarnished honesty and without resistance, probably awaited the next Corzine or Murphy.