The Murphy World Peace that Prieto Never Sought


Standing in a subterranean passageway in Trenton, Building Trades Prez Bill Mullen told InsiderNJ that Speaker Vincent Prieto’s alliance with ambitious Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, and the speaker’s decision to forego posting Senate President Steve Sweeney’s northern casinos bill was going to doom Prieto politically.

That was January of 2016.

At that time, the state appeared right at the edge of an all out war between Sweeney and Fulop for the 2017 governorship.

Sweeney would have the south and, presumably, that portion of Essex controlled by old chum Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, and other pieces – supposedly those machines and bodies pulled by the likes of Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37) and Senator Paul Sarlo (D-36).

Fulop would have Hudson and Bergen and Passaic and pieces of Middlesex (he was originally from Edison, after all). Of course, the Jersey City mayor would have Prieto’s back in a coming fistfight, because Prieto, who doubles as chairman of the Hudson County democratic Organization, which awards the line to Democratic gubernatorial candidates, would have Fulop’s back.

Alliances began to appear more vividly in the aftermath of that comment by Mullen.

“Politics is about picking sides,” Guy Gregg often says.

People were picking them.

In LD14, it was going to be building trades leader Assemblyman Wayne DeAngleo with Sweeney and Assemblyman Dan Benson with Fulop. In LD36, Assemblyman Gary Schaer was going to be with Fulop, and Sarlo, of course, was going to be with Sweeney.

Senator Sandy Cunningham (D-31)?


Atlantic City Councilman Marty Small?


It was a backroom fight that would only be resolved on  June 6th, 2017, when the divisions produced victors…

But that all changed last fall when Goldman Sachs banker Phil Murphy, a former U.S. Ambassador to Germany, sat down with Fulop, who subsequently bowed out of the race for governor and endorsed Murphy.

Deprived of his rival, Sweeney stuck around, apparently in hopes of securing Essex County.

But the Quad Northern County Alliance consisting of Hudson, Passaic, Bergen – and Essex – backed Murphy sooner than empower South Jersey Democratic Boss George Norcross III. The fear of Norcross outright controlling the executive in addition to the grip he already has on the legislature propelled a fast resolution in Murphy’s favor.

Without Essex, and with his longtime Northern allies forced to go to Murphy for the sake of self-preservation (for there were always longstanding questions about the viability of a South Jersey ironworker in some of the little upscale towns of a county  like Bergen), Sweeney folded.

Lacking a path to the governorship, Sweeney decided to focus on preserving his senate presidency, a political design that required getting rid of Prieto. So with the relationships in Hudson dried up and only a hardened regional antagonism remaining of what was once a mutually self-serving friendship, South Jersey went around Prieto and state Senator Nick Sacco (D-32) to seek a deal with Middlesex. Assisted by Middlesex’s senate votes, Sweeney would get the senate presidency in exchange for South Jersey in exchange for South Jersey backing Assemblyman Craig Coughlin (D-19) of Middlesex.

But Sweeney and Norcross werem’t the only political suitors of Middlesex County Democratic County Chairman Kevin McCabe.

Thrown off the senate throne by Sweeney, state Senator Dick Codey (D-27) made an effort to convince allies in the north that they had to move fast to counteract Sweeney; and his play was to bring Sacco together with state Senator Joe Vitale (D-19) for a North Jersey-Middlesex deal to preserve Prieto and land Vitale the senate presidency.

Codey knew there was a natural divide in Middlesex between Vitale and state Senator Bob Smith (D-17). Vitale, after all, had backed re-upping Codey for senate prez in 2009, while Smith supported Sweeney. But Middlesex opted to stick together this time, keeping its delegation (minus Assemblyman John Wisniewski) intact behind the deal with South Jersey rather than go with Codey-Sacco.

That left Prieto unprotected.

For a handful of sources loyal to the sitting speaker, the question became whether Murphy, supported by the North at the outset, would intervene on behalf of Prieto, who had given his support to Murphy during that critical drag time between Fulop’s exit from the gubernatorial contest and Sweeney’s exit. But what they failed to acknowledge was the handshaking that already occurred in Middlesex, where McCabe had backed Murphy for governor prior to the Quad County Alliance in the north.

McCabe was in with Murphy before anyone. Indeed, the talks prior to Fulop bowing out included an alliance of Essex with Middlesex for Murphy.

But Coughlin was getting to the speaker’s chair because of a deal with South Jersey, his autonomy threatened, if the past speakerships of Sheila Oliver and Prieto provided instruction, by the flagpole of the south and the stronger upper-hand by definition of the senate. If Norcross bullied Jon Corzine through the legislature and made him do what he was told, wasn’t it incumbent on Murphy – a political neophyte – to get legislative leadership on his side in order to be an effective governor?

The Codey model would still enable him to prioritize Middlesex. In fact, it would make Middlesex stronger. Vitale as senate president would make McCabe the Norcross of Metro Park. But it wasn’t that easy. McCabe worked for the Carpenters, a Building Trades outfit within the private sector labor super-structure ultimately affiliated with Mullen, Sweeney’s chief defender. When Union County Sheriff Joe Cryan – running for state senate in the 20th district – who for years had his own difficulties with the south, and who always made sure to keep his hands on the helm of the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee (DACC) lest South Jersey gain too much power, backed Sweeney for senate president, he effectively ended any shot at a Vitale for Prieto, Prieto for Vitale rebellion.

If Cryan, Corzine’s biggest cheerleader, could back the South Jersey-Middlesex deal, then it was truly over; then the talk of an insurrection could be narrowed down to the biter backroom exercises of Codey, whose motivation had to include revenge. Wasn’t the whole idea of going with Murphy to begin with a way to ensure survival of the greatest number of incumbents? Sweeney versus Fulop would have been a bloodbath. Murphy world was snow on the TV screen, a preferable atmosphere to fist-fighting if the goal is getting everyone back in the legislature.

Everyone opted for peace and the $20 million candidacy of Murphy to remove all oxygen from a Democratic Primary if the alternative was picking sides, getting a bloody nose, or worse, losing a seat.

And now here was Prieto fist-fighting, back to the wall, the slain candidacy of Fulop little more than an afterthought at this point, Sweeney in cruise control, and Dems – certainly ones holding elected office with the exception of that handful in battleground districts – on snooze alarm until after the general.

Fighting Vinny Prieto.

Could he really hope, a year and change after that day Mullen stood in the statehouse and called him out, to be the champion of what had become a safety-status quo first, pacifist party?

Prieto had one lifeline: the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), still ticked at Sweeney after all the public sector pension tinkering in the Christie era. But the howls of laughter that ensued in Atlantic City when InsiderNJ asked Sweeney allies about the candidate the teacher’s organization managed to dredge to run against him, confirmed the reluctance of Democrats to stir up any real trouble ahead of June 6th.

The best they could do, apparently, was the chairman of the Salem County GOP, Fran Greiner, a union guy who said he was ready to scrap with Sweeney, which sounded vaguely like something Prieto had said once, or continues to say, on an otherwise utterly flat Democratic Primary landscape.*


*Editor’s Note: On Friday, June 2nd, the NJEA formally endorsed Greiner for the LD3 Senate seat.




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