Murphy’s U.S. Senator Weinberg Option (if it Gets to that) Would Empower Stellato

He had the retail down, looked the part, had a county executive and freeholder board stoutly on his side of most arguments, and had presided as chairman over the gurgling demise of the county’s rival GOP organization, and yet Bergen County Democratic Committee Daimyo Lou Stellato lacked a senator he could truly call his own.

That fact became more apparent than ever in the 2016 pre-primary season for governor when Stellato, who had supposedly liked the idea of Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop as governor, watched whole sections of his county collapse to the column of emerging gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy. Forget about South Bergen Senator Paul Sarlo (D-36), who was already a declared supporter of Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3). There was also Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-37) breaking for Murphy before anyone said go – and Johnson was close to Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37); and then there was the Paramus Mayor declaring – again without the county chair’s consent – his support for Murphy – in the biggest town in state Senator Bob Gordon’s (D-38) district.

It was irritating, but Stellato could stick the landing at least behind a podium when all four of the quad county chairs aligned behind Murphy – and in turn stuck it to South Jersey by blocking George Norcross III’s shot at dominating not only the legislature but also the governor’s office – through Sweeney.

And yet… and yet…

It still felt fractured, a condition borne out by the developing legislative leadership fight. Stellato wanted to stick with his friend, Hudson County Democratic Chairman Vincent Prieto, the sitting speaker, until further notice. Part of that holding pattern originally contained a play that would hand the speakership off to Stellato’s ally Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36). But Gordon, Weinberg and Sarlo all backed Sweeney’s return to the senate throne, votes that contributed to South Jersey’s deal with Middlesex to have their man, Assemblyman Craig Coughlin (D-19), succeed Prieto.

Whatever the senators’ personal and particular gains attained through their relationship to Sweeney, their empowerment of South Jersey empowered Middlesex in the leadership battle, not Bergen, and certainly not Stellato, a player by nature who felt mildly reproved and sidelined.

There had to be a better way.

And maybe there was.

Senator Bob Gordon (D-38) continues to circulate as one of those lawmakers most likely to surface on the other side of the election as a cabinet member in a Murphy Administration. Not that there’s any antagonism between Gordon and Stellato, but Stellato didn’t make Gordon. Having him out of there would help the cause somewhat, if Stellato could promote his own party person, Assemblyman Joe Lagana (D-38) to the senate position. That looks to be in motion.

Then there’s the possible U.S. Senate vacancy created by Bob Menendez going down on corruption charges, a fate as yet undecided. Legal experts and reporters covering the trial say the case remains 50-50, with the slight edge going to Menendez, mostly based on a case framed only by circumstantial evidence, the absence of a smoking gun and the absence of a star government witness. But if Menendez does go down and finds himself in a position of having to resign his senate seat, and Murphy is governor when that goes down, a vacancy will give Bergen another play.

There are arguments for Murphy to appoint U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9) to the seat. He’s a veteran statesman with obvious North Jersey support. Appoint Pascrell then step back and let the party fight it out in 2018. There’s a case to be made to install U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-1) as part of a deal to offload Sweeney as senator. Norcross goes to U.S. Senate and Sweeney goes to Congress or elsewhere, anywhere but installed on the senate throne where he can impede Murphy’s agenda, or so runs the political logic. But North Jerseyans fear giving Norcross senatorial courtesy. There’s the case for U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6). He’s an unthreatening compromise choice from Central Jersey. Former Senator Bob Torricelli on one side and Norcross on the other gives Murphy the natural option of Pallone.

Then there’s the option of rewarding a certain feisty Jewish grandmother for her years of progressive service.

Murphy could pick Weinberg for the vacancy. A former LG candidate and long-serving legislative leader who defined herself with a tough, gutsy takedown of Gov. Chris Christie during the Bridgegate scandal, Weinberg already has statewide chops. The pick would thrill progressives.

And it would likely thrill Stellato.

The Bergen County chairman could appoint Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37) to the senate seat and thereby build another, stronger inroad to Trenton that he now lacks. Like Lagana, Vainieri is a party organization person who has a strong relationship with the party chairman.

In a sense, with a vacancy, Murphy has a choice. He can either try to grab his own senate president right away by trading Sweeney at senate prez for Norcross at U.S. Senate, or he can opt for an incremental attack, whittling Sweeney’s northern support by slow degrees, by empowering Weinberg and, in the same motion, empowering Stellato.

Stellato could muscle up fairly quickly, going from having no senators under his domain to two out of the sitting Democratic three (if Gordon goes to the administration) and from that vantage point exert greater pressure on what at that point would be South Jersey’s last-standing staunch ally in Sarlo; and – at the very least – wield greater negotiating power, particularly in legislative fights and close caucus battles – beyond the boundaries of a county government operation Stellato already fairly firmly controls.


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