Phil Murphy, Sheila Oliver, and the Rehabilitation Opportunity of the Essex County Democratic Party
NEWARK – Essex experienced something on the order of a full systems collapse in the Chris Christie era, which began with the elimination of its own Senate President Dick Codey, ostensibly in exchange for empowering Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo with Speaker Sheila Oliver, and ending up without Oliver, or the money sought for county programs, and finally shackled like a dumb beast to the priorities of South Jersey and a preposterous, scandal-hampered GOP presidential ambition.
Egos irritated by having to lump themselves in the Codey camp or the Joe D. camp, went in their own directions, a condition epitomized by Oliver – jettisoned as speaker – pulling the ripcord on her own renegade run for the U.S. Senate in 2013 against the county-backed Cory Booker. “Somebody needs to get to her, DiVincenzo said into a cellphone when he heard about Oliver’s petition drive just as Booker walked onto a stage with former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley to present as the statewide face of a new generation. There was also state Senator Nia Gill’s 2012 hotdog campaign in the face of the same line occupied by the county-backed Donald Payne, not to mention Ras Baraka’s Magic Bus campaign for Newark Mayor in 2014. Under all of it curdled Codey’s bitterness – “George! George!” – over having been ejected from the senate presidency in favor of Iowa and Camden, even as DiVincenzo – in a display of bipartisanship – embraced Christie’s 2013 reelection bid, and Codey’s nemesis, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), wore the tires out on his car driving up to Essex to party with friends who saw him as the successor to Christie in Drumthwacket.
That ongoing bar brawl dumpster fire in neighboring Essex enabled Assemblyman Vincent Prieto of Hudson County to step over the ruckus and – with state Senator Nick Sacco’s (D-32) assistance – cut the deal with South Jersey for leadership. That was back in 2013, the same year South Jersey operatives landed in Jersey City and helped Steve Fulop become mayor over another Codey ally named Jerry Healy.
The ambitious, higher-office seeking Fulop helped solidify Hudson power, and soon took to fighting with the South, with the specter of Sweeney’s own gubernatorial aspirations very apparent and a North-South collision course cast. The mayor had some success coalescing the northern counties behind him, but with the exception of support from Baraka in Newark, he could not align the mangled Essex.
That job would fall to Murphy, and today, under the auspices of his gubernatorial campaign, the ravages of the once mighty Essex began to inchworm its way back up the political food chain. The work Murphy and his team – including, critically, Essex County Freeholder Brendan Gill, his campaign manager – did to bring together the torn fragments of individual wriggling egos impressed politics watchers early. It certainly caught the eye of Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman Leroy Jones, who unlike other chairs, remained coy about his gubernatorial choice. If he was ever going to be part of an exercise to unify Essex, he would almost be starting from zero. Then something rather sunning happened. Fulop and Sweeney dropped out of the gubernatorial contest and Jones, Baraka and DiVincenzo got behind Murphy.
Codey had already been with him.
But it wasn’t hard at that point for everyone to align.
“Find out where the parade is going and jump in front,” the late Ray Durkin, once chairman of the Essex County Democratic Committee, would always tell young politicos seeking counsel.
Joe D. could no longer make the case for Gloucester and Camden.
Not up here.
The countywide numbers compelled.
In the Democratic Primary, Essex County put up 35K votes for Murphy, more than any other county, reasserting its dominance If Oliver had offended South Jersey, the Newark native had a dedicated base here. Although an enabler of the pensions and benefits overhaul championed By Christie and Sweeney, Oliver bucking the county organization when she did and resisting charter schools expansion gave her some union street cred; made her look like she could throw the war bonnet on when she needed to, which meant the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) could show up at her rollout rally on Broad Street today without fearing contradiction. She had started as a supposed back bencher with establishment ties. (D-Adubato) someone texted to InsiderNJ when the inquiry went out in 2009 about her political associations. It was unfair. But the utter ravaging of the party during the Christie years gave Oliver a chance to prove equally adapt at being able to work on the reservation when the times called for it, or off.
“It was a no-brainer to come together for Sheila,” veteran Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-28) told InsiderNJ. “Everybody still seems to be pretty independent, but what today showed was our ability to galvanize behind someone. It was Sheila. She deserves it.”
Murphy gave her a chance at total repackaging, but more than that, expressed the intention of larger symbolic import. The Oliver selection signaled his hope that Essex be bigger than what it has been for almost a decade. If some public sector union leaders squirmed at the sight of Oliver, the fact that key portions of South Jersey liked her less had more political significance. It wasn’t that Murphy wanted to make an overt statement against the South with Oliver, but finding a way out of the wreckage to specifically make the case for the county’s rehabilitation as a key to his victory and a touchstone of political strength counted as much as any other single political play.
No, LG wasn’t senate president.
It wasn’t even speaker.
But it was something.
Essex incrementally reanimated today at the Murphy-Oliver kickoff; and, yes, the throatiest cheers were for Oliver, as Gill hovered, operating feverishly in the background, but the baby steps back to greatness for Essex began at the parade engineered by the candidacy of a guy from Monmouth County.
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