The Party’s Over: Democratic Forces Brace for the Worst

Democratic State Chair Fun: Currie, Timberlake and Jones.

Like so many things in New Jersey, it started on the streets of Paterson, in 2014, where those forces affiliated with Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman Leroy Jones could be glimpsed behind the candidacy of Jose “Joey” Torres, who would enjoy, on the heels of his victory, a little endzone comeback dance before landing in the can on public corruption charges.

It had been Ocean County Committee Chairman George Gilmore, himself since cracked up with his own troubles, who had helped get Torres a job in the aftermath of his 2010 loss, who stood outside City Hall near the statue Garret Hobart – New Jersey’s favorite son and vice president who suffered a heart attack prior to the assassination of William McKinley, thereby inadvertently creating the legendary political career of President Theodore Roosevelt. “We need to do something about our cities,” said a grim Gilmore, the attorney for 1868, the firm run by Jones and Idida Rodriguez, who had run Torres’ successful reelection campaign.

On that other side of that citywide campaign divide stood Passaic County Committee Chairman John Currie, brimming with political good health on the heels of his 2012 effort to reelect U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9), slated to get sawed out of existence by a Republican redistricting map. Fueled in part by Patersonian Pascrell’s improbable win, Currie wanted Ward Councilman Andre Sayegh to be mayor, as did Pascrell. Sayegh lost, but, following Torres meltdown, staged his own comeback in 2018, were behind him one could see those recognizable faces of people close to Governor Phil Murphy, among them Sayegh’s longtime ally Brendan Gill, Murphy’s chief political strategist.

This piece does not mean to consign either side to the associations of those others they fought for, or alongside; only an examination of the interesting side battles (whose allies and alliance change from cycle to cycle) the principals and their firms waged on northern turf, perhaps the inevitable collisions of family members living in crunched quarters, gone awry now, or haywire, in the full-blown statewide collision of sitting Democratic State Party Chairman (and still the Passaic chairman) Currie; and his challenger, Essex County Committee Chairman Jones.

In a war with South Jersey, the Governor’s forces present themselves as the good guys. But insiders (at least those who lean Jones) say they know better. Bored by the developing spectacle, a cynical source proved himself a romantic at heart when he described the collision as would-be epic drama without a hero. “It’s hood on hood,” he grumbled. He explained. Everyone wants to demonize the south because they played ball with Republican Governor Chris Christie, who limped out of office. The sitting governor, by contrast, looks like a joyful friend to liberals and grand marshal of the Trump-perpetuating progressives’ parade. It’s easy to scapegoat Jones – a principal at 1868 – as a lobbyist, but Murphy, the source said, has key ally ties to Public Strategies Impact (PSI), an 1868 competitor and affiliate of the BGill Group, whose principal happens to be Murphy’s main political strategist, Brendan Gill, who also happens to be an Essex County Freeholder.

“They yank him off the line next year,” a source said at a Thursday night state Senator M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29) fundraiser, reflecting on Gill’s chances of surviving Jones blowback in 2020 amid a din that turned into an Essex chest-thumping exercise on behalf of the sitting state party chair.

Gill was absent. Sporting event. Family.

“He wouldn’t show,” the source said. Clink of ice on teeth. “Loses line.”

Even Newark Mayor Ras Baraka was there, and he’s supposed to be a backer of Currie.

“Leroy polled Essex state delegation,” the source said. “Rock solid.

“It’s over,” the source added, referring to the Jones v. Currie debacle.

They’re commonly heard words at present as Jones – on the hunt for a majority of support from 113 Democratic Committee members (98 voting members) – stands athwart 12 counties in his column against nine lined up behind Currie. But they discount the reality of an intensified backroom rubber hose war for committee votes in advance of an as yet unscheduled presumably December (or January) convention.

Currie allies are intent on making up ground through the techniques and tactics of a fully operational campaign. “Do they have a war room?” queried a Jones ally, unconvinced of anything coming out of Murphy world resembling sound strategic design. “They have one model, which is the Fulop model, which is to dig up something on someone, drop it, and end it, but I don’t think they can do that here,” added the source, making a reference to the 2016 conversation Gill and Murphy had with then-gubernatorial hopeful Steven Fulop, the mayor of Jersey City, spooked out of the contest after that mysterious sit-down.

“They don’t get it,” the source said. “Leroy ain’t Fulop.”

Still, as Murphy personally is said to be in diner booth booth mode with supposedly wobbly members of the committee in his sites- there were strands of opportunity, or so believed Currie’s cohorts.

Union County’s politically mangled, as everyone knows, with Trenton elected officials fighting same-party mayors in their home towns. Arch rivals Senator Nick Scutari (D-22) – who chairs the Union County Democratic Committee – and Senator Joe Cryan (D-20) would at least appear to share (if nothing else) the same side in the state party chair war, a consequence in part of Cryan’s employment at the Middlesex County Improvement Authority, under the auspices of a political apparatus that firmly backs Jones. But under the wings of both men reside committee members who claim membership in public sector unions, who would likely find themselves nose to nose with union leadership intent (over the entreaties of Scutari and maybe Cryan) on keeping them in the Currie column. Same goes for Ocean. Chairman Wyatt Earp- Building Trades guy – earlier this week declared his support for Jones, but he has committee underlings on the other side of the labor divide susceptible to a scruff of the neck talking to from someone like Communications Workers of America (CWA) stalwart Hetty Rosenstein, a key Murphy ally. And so it is in every county, the apparent interests of a county chairman or woman in one direction undercut by the other affiliations of their committee members.

Of course, it cuts both ways.

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) wields considerable power over his caucus (another reason why someone like Cryan would have to think twice about darting in a direction other than Jones), arguably making the fireblanket endorsement by Bergen County Democratic Committee Chairman Paul Juliano for Currie less than final against the backdrop of Sweeney caucus members Paul Sarlo, Loretta Weinberg and Joe Lagana. Then there is Passaic County itself, where the freeholders last year tossed Bill Pascrell III  out of the county counsel chair, infuriating his father, U.S. Rep. Pascrell. That divide could produce another surprise come crunch time, given the consequent level of vitriol, the Pascrells’ humiliation, and their specific rage over Currie not preventing it from happening.

So – short of an actual vote – the whole situation is muddy and susceptible to power playing.

An insider circled Monmouth, Ocean and Essex (the chief of staff to Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver is a committee member; yes, Oliver backs Jones, but her COS might have to back Currie – these were the types of arguments as both sides tried to secure votes in their camp) as key potential territory for Currie. Yes, state Senator Vin Gopal (D-11) belonged to a county already in for Jones, but he wasn’t controlled by public jobs the way so many others were, and just maybe, a Currie ally prayed, he’d be open to discussion. The problem there, though, again for Currie was Gopal belonged to Sweeney’s caucus. Why would he want jeopardize his standing within, especially when the governor’s office – mostly populated by neophyte operators born on third base who thought they hit triples – seldom produced? It was a common story. Not only was the front office hamhanded, but the establishment continued to entertain questions about Murphy’s long-term commitment to the state. “I’m going to put my f-ng neck on the chopping block for this guy and when it’s payback time, he’ll be long gone, probably at his villa in Italy – or in Germany, or wherever the hell it is guys like that go when they want to disappear and can, the places I can’t go, because I’m stuck here – and I’ll still be here, unprotected,” a source confessed to InsiderNJ.

If the establishment got itself up to its own neck in the muck of the Economic Development Authority (EDA) scandal, it was at least familiar turf with familiar, tangible reinforcing players; people who had even been in and out of courtrooms and/or prison cells, survived indictments and scandal, but lived to tell the tale on the same miserable highways and on and off ramps. Christie had ties to law enforcement, he’ll protect me, was the mind set of a typical longtime insider, the same kind of individual who lived in fear of Christie when he was U.S. Attorney, until he accepted the yoke of Christie’s political habitation in exchange for breathing space, acclimated now to the belief – particularly through the early stumbles of Murphy’s front office – that it was still the safest space in town. It was the same space where the main players did business (sat on the boards and commissions, fulfilled the lobbying contracts, occupied the chairs of elected officialdom while dutifully plugged into the machines that made them), and accepted those fudged features of the EDA deal as merely the reality of politics in New Jersey. Nothing to see here. To the opponents of South Jersey it represented the most obvious abuse of power, the consequence of an association between Christie and the Democratic establishment, bred by government-insulated arrogance and contempt of the general public.

That would be the crux of Currie’s argument to reup as chair. If it was very nearly a predator versus alien situation, the principals under investigation now by the FBI and the state Attorney General’s Office, the EDA mess – with South Jersey Power Broker George Norcross III at the center of it – represented the most egregious threat to the common good. Okay, we’re cutthroats and pirates, just like them, but they’re worse, because they’re under investigation; or they’re worse because they’ve beaten us up a few times and now we identify more strongly with that long-suffering group of duped individuals out there otherwise known as the public. Or – and here was probably the big one for them, the big argument – the people (like it or not) elected Murphy governor, and the governor has always gotten his choice for state chair, and his choice is Currie; and to allow Jones to overrule that choice would be to enable a non-elected official to assume the power the people invested in a person they elected. Their business, their structure of alternative interest to the public, awarding themselves and their business pals tax credits totaling more than a billion dollars – and all the connective tissue that made it happen – all that was under siege by Murphy. And that – and only that – is why they are attempting to deplete his power. They thought Murphy would go in and look the other way, the way someone like Jon Corzine did. But Murphy is not Corzine. Vote Currie.

Some variation on that message – without the gratuitous invocation of Corzine – is forthcoming from the camp of the sitting chairman. Look back at the race Amy DeGise ran against Brian Stack, who as a matter of short hand could be said to be the candidate in the race affiliated with Sweeney, and an upholder of the same structure of power arranged around the interests of Norcross and Christie. Stack had, after all, backed Christie’s reelection. Running against Stack for the chairmanship of the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO), the messaging of the DeGise campaign made sure to remind committee members that Stack had backed Christie. That was DeGise’s core argument. It worked. Hours after Jones declared his challenge of Currie, Murphy signaled the same strategy earlier this week with this quote: “After eight long years of Chris Christie and his enablers weakening our state and our party, I don’t know why anyone would want to go back to that. We’re building a party that not only wins but wins by standing up for the values we cherish.” Jones’ main countywide ally in Essex, County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, Jr. -who ran against the Dick Codey wing of the party back in 2002 with the support of Norcross – like Stack, supported Christie’s 2013 reelection. Don’t let Christie enablers run the Democratic Party. Vote Currie.

Then there’s Jones. He’s supposed to sit there and allow Murphy and Currie to depict themselves as the protectors of all that is good and sweet and light, while they advance the interests of Gill? Jones’ allies were already apoplectic over the hypocrisy. President of the freeholder board and a contract lobbyist running a campaign that a lobbyist can’t be a state chair. “Come on,” a Jones backer groused.  “I mean, how dare they,” a second source said. “Murphy isn’t looking out for progressive interests. He wants the money that was going down south to go up north, to his friends.” Don’t forget attempts by Gill’s clients to cite a marijuana grow facility in a Muslim neighborhood. Vote for Jones. He’s not a hypcrite. But there had to be more. The elections result. Maybe. Currie and Murphy fumbled away a 2019 senate seat. Vote Jones. It was weak. There was also the lingering fact that on Jones’ watch the party whittled the Republican delegtion down to one guy. Even if it could be proved that Currie slept through the year, as chairman he racked the win. What else? The Lizette Delgado Polanco debacle? Jones had already stuck up for the former vice chair, disgraced when the Murphy Administration tried to make her the head of the Schools Development Authority. “This is our friend,” a pacifying Jones supposedly told an angry South Jersey delegate to the Atlantic City convention, who wanted a public condemnation of her actions. Would a PAC go there? To avoid more Lizette Delgado Polanco-like episodes, vote Jones. Maybe. But unlikely. Al Steele? Gobbled up by Christie on corruption charges when Christie was AG, the former assemblyman from Paterson did time, then resurfaced to give a Currie-authorized benediction at a Passaic County Democratic event, playing havoc with the atheist tendencies of the most secular attendees.

It was a long time ago.

There were, of course, other options, of the nuclear variety, inevitable maybe after the breakdown of negotiations.

Early on in the process, the sitting chairman of Essex county looked out his window and saw a car parked outside. A tracker? Then he heard Adam Alonso, a Murphy guy, was digging. When Murphy wanted to show up at a party breakfast, Jones said he could attend, provided he leave Alonso behind. First Lady Tammy Murphy showed up instead.

The whole episode angered Jones.

Who did these guys think they were anyway?

No doubt the time frame (Currie as the sitting chair can schedule a convention to have a vote between now and the end of January) required a campaign. Alert to the dirt the other side was trying to move, Jones allies would have done their own digging on Currie. If it got ugly, they would have their own detonations at hand. No one in New Jersey politics can survive the light of day. It’s why someone like Murphy gets to be governor in the first place: he’s not stuck to the gears of the state in a sickly compromised way, like everyone else in the establishment. There’s a reason James McGreevey, 20 years ago, was the last person to emerge from the legislature as a statewide candidate who became governor, and it’s not just money. The public doesn’t trust the capacity of someone that close to the engine room to run the state. But because he was an outsider (and supposedly not sufficiently detail-oriented, and sufficiently ambitious for higher office, to pay attention to things like the EDA), there was also a limit to Murphy’s ability to protect the people around him. If they went after Jones hard, they would get it harder. And if the New Jersey Education Association’s (NJEA) efforts to get closer to Sweeney were indeed sincere, who’s to say even that potent labor organization would risk again more political deterioration by going all in for Currie at the risk of enraging the senate president? The Jones camp looked very confident that if it came to a vote right now, they could win. Again. Thirteen to 9 counties, with a stronger, deeper, more threatening hand to play to twist arms and keep people on their side. That’s why Jones declared when he did. He believed his allies had summoned the necessary votes to win. The party, moreover, had created that mood of inevitability around him. DeGise won last year, they might argue, not because of Stack’s political fondness for Christie, but because she represented a long-standing establishment with its back to the wall, not unlike the core of the party power structure Jones seeks to uphold. Contracts. Jobs. Professional security. Incumbent-protection. Gravy train. Stack was conceivably a threat to all of that. To the extent that Murphy with his task force and public exhortations represents a threat to the EDA operation (and other machinations like it), Currie’s continuing chairmanship of the party is a threat. The progressives want to believe they are the party; but the establishment – that group of people making the meetings, holding the votes, licking the envelopes, paying the dues, living not as individuals really but as the members of an organization, however comprised, however morally depleted, suffering the indignity of the fear of the Christie years. It’s is versus ought. Vote Jones. Vote Democrat. Murphy is a cult of personality, a threat to party. Vote Jones.

“I love Leroy, I love John,” a tormented party member confessed this week to InsiderNJ, feeling – apparently – the segmentation of his own anatomy, in agony enduring what was now the unavoidable break into camps, his loyalty to one or the other tested beyond belief, feeling his own disintegrating slide into the progressive wing of the party he distrusts as mob rule on the one side, and the worst corrosions of a party organization wrapped up in itself to the exclusion of public priority on the other. Politics, said Ambrose Bierce, is “a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.” Democrats were supposed to be fighting President Donald J. Trump. Instead, the old Oscar Levant observation became increasingly apt: “The only difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is that the Democrats allow the poor to be corrupt, too.”

The party’s over, the Democrat added, and then, almost out of a sense of despair, groaned, amid the discord, “I’m pretty sure [NJ Republican State Party Chairman] Doug Steinhadt is somewhere laughing his ass off right now.”

 

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