On Murphy’s Plate if He Gets Governor: Juggling Democratic Party Power and Diversity

NJ Governor Phil Murphy and First Lady Tammy Murphy are scheduled to speak at Senator Cory Booker's 2020 presidential campaign kickoff rally.

Confident of former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy‘s succession of Governor Chris Christie, Democrats are also alert to the balancing act of power Murphy will have to manage as he settles into the role of shogun-in-chief for a disparate and embittered pride of lesser party lions.

Most insiders anticipate that Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-35) of Paterson will serve as Murphy’s running mate. If Sumter leaves, that will spark a showdown – at the very least – between Passaic County Freeholder T.J. Best and Paterson Democratic leader Al Abdel-aziz for her seat. There will be others vying for the position too, of course, but Best and Abdel-aziz attended the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia last year looking like heirs apparent.

At present, there appears to be little forward motion on a concerted effort to displace Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), who wants another term on the senate throne and has good relationships with a majority in his caucus. If Murphy World – delicately negotiating that gauntlet of power otherwise known as South  Jersey – decides that it can’t cope with Sweeney in the role, the governor-elect can  look to the GOP for a power-sharing agreement to get rid of Sweeney. Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. (R-21) would likely be a willing facilitator of such a move, but no immediate compromise alternative comes to mind.

Sweeney is a very tough out right now.

Does Murphy really want to shoulder a fight with George Norcross III on his way into Drumthwacket? There are differing schools of thought, but one of them – a bide-his-time approach – would require Murphy to work with Sweeney now while waiting for a U.S. Senate vacancy. In that event, the governor would have to broker a deal that gets South Jersey to the U.S. Senate with U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-1) in exchange for offloading Sweeney (possibly to the congressional seat) and replacing him with a Murphy-branded senate president. The new senate president would likely be from the north, the trade for those counties binding and signing off on Norcross.

Sheriff Joe Cryan (a 2017 candidate for senate who is close to Murphy and a veteran legislator) and Senator Nick Scutari (D-22), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, are strong candidates to succeed Sweeney in such a scenario.

Less sure-footed but well-positioned by virtue of seeming support in South Jersey and from Murphy (County Party Chairman Kevin McCabe and the Middlesex Democratic establishment clamored for Murphy early), Assemblyman Craig Coughlin (D-19) has a strong inside track on the job of speaker of the general assembly.

That could change.

If the north consolidates, Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36) or Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37) could emerge as contenders. But that appears unlikely. Again, Coughlin’s strength for the lower house leadership position proceeds from the unique confluence of goodwill he enjoys from South Jersey and Murphy.

Because of Middlesex’s strong hand behind Murphy and Murphy’s dependence on Middlesex relationships, Coughlin would likely survive a Sweeney departure (outlined above) one or two years in, which diminishes the likelihood of a Senator Bob Smith (D-17) or Senator Joe Vitale (D-19) senate presidency and makes Cryan or Scutari (or someone else- Senator M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29)?) more likely.

There are two many power centers to abide two legislative leaders from Middlesex.

In any case, if this foundational Murphy-Sweeney-Coughlin structure survives and notwithstanding Sumter on the ticket in an LG role that can be redefined, Murphy – as noted before on this site – still must overcome the reality of three Irish American guys occupying the triumvirate of statehouse power.

Murphy. Sweeney. Coughlin.

It’s a tough sell for a party purporting to be the diversity party.

That means Murphy have to put together a cabinet heavy on diversity, or at least make a statement early with the appointment of people to key visible positions.

It starts with Cuban American Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-32), the sitting speaker and chairman of the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO). The buzz is Prieto will be the next Department of Community Affairs head. That opens an assembly seat.

In the shogun circle of state Senator Nick Sacco (D-32), who controls that Hudson-based district, Commissioner Allen Pasqual and Commissioner Julio Marenco will have to exorcise their respective samurai spirits to land Prieto’s seat. Sacco minder Joey Muniz will feel out a play for Prieto’s HCDO chairmanship but he’ll have to fight Hudson Freeholder Bill O’Dea for it, and probably others, sources say.

Chieftain of that New Jersey county with the biggest Democratic Party pluralities, Sacco will likely have another opportunity to put his fingerprints on a Murphy administration.

The talk right now is that Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez will likely be on any Murphy short-list, the possibility of him picking her made more urgent by that diversity quest necessitated by Murphy-Sweeney-Coughlin.

Another possibility.

Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-7) chairman of the Assembly Health and Human Services Committee – stood down rather than challenge Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-7) for the vacant senate seat created by the retirement of Republican Diane Allen. Conaway might be there for a cabinet post. Department of Health seems a natural fit for the licensed medical doctor.



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