Despite a history of getting little in return for being a candidate cash cow and putting up candidates who mostly get cash cowed before they ever reach the White House lawn, New Jersey has always liked to believe it is important in influencing the presidency. Standing at the knee of New York, it determinedly strikes a big league pose, dutifully devoted to elevator shoe visions of striding the Oval Office.
2020 is no different, with Senator Cory Booker taking the torch from Chris Christie, who took it from Bill Bradley, whose national aspirations at the time hinged in part on recognition of New Jersey as a legitimate battleground, with a 20th Century precursor in the person of President (and former New Jersey Governor) Woodrow Wilson, whose example assured that such aspirations amounted to more than merely starry-eyed hogwash.
But there’s another (arguably more compelling) reason why New Jersey politicos can’t resist plunging into national waters that have received them in icy fashion, and it has more to do with state than national politics. Lacking the character (or will; or both) to break through its own stagnant establishment politics, New Jersey relies on the national game to create movement; and while the rest of the country is already in on the joke and resists invitation to throw a rope line down to the swamp and drag anyone clear of the wreckage, New Jersey politicos indulge the parlor room of what a change in the national political structure might mean for their home state.
And again, 2020 is no different, particularly against the backdrop here of a powerful Democratic Party in political ruins.
On desperate roadside watering hole bar stools reeking of inertia, InsiderNJ has listened to the chatter going on in the party right now about the potential for political movement hinging on the outcome of the presidential election.
Here’s a road map to those conversations:
Once again, New Jersey has a candidate for the presidency; this time it’s Booker and once again, the country evidently sees what the state also only occasionally sees: namely that no one from dysfunctional New Jersey needs to be running the country right now. But Booker’s different, his allies insist. He transcends the bitter, ugly and rancorous politics that characterizes the state. He’s better that that. He’s presidential.
Plus, they say, he matches up well against the flamboyant Sharpe James-like President Donald J. Trump.
The polls don’t seem to agree, but then everyone post 2016 has a built-in aversion to the north star reliability of polls, so okay, they say, he’ll break through. Booker will impose his transcendence on the country the way he imposed it on New Jersey. A New Jersey guy (who like Woodrow Wilson was born out of state) will again inhabit the presidency, they insist. Booker’s got the goods.
So the conversation immediately turns to the senate seat currently occupied by New Jersey’s junior senator.
And – about a half step later – it turns to the seat currently occupied by Governor Phil Murphy.
For all of Booker’s new millennial, Carlos Castaneda-like, otherworldly entreaties, the state’s interest remains keyed to the seats ultimately welded to the state’s underbelly. Indeed, there are even bar rats in New Jersey who make an interesting case for why Booker’s presidential run is really all about musical chairs.
So let’s say Booker gets the presidency.
His seat opens.
The play is immediately there for George Norcross III to slap his younger brother, U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-1) into the empty chair. To avoid the way Murphy cooked South Jersey in 2017, the boss will need support up north. The south probably figures the way they manned up early to back U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) during his legal troubles and the aftermath means the north (if it really loves Bob) will have to give the south something in return.
But you already have Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) – and all the accompanying tentacles that control the engines of the legislature – runs the counter argument.
What does the north receive?
Donald gets the senate, Sweeney gets the vacated congressional seat, and Essex or Bergen (assuming
Craig Coughlin stays planted as speaker) has to get the senate presidency.
Pushed around for years by South Jersey and settling for consolation prizes, Essex is overdue for a warm body back rub of the legislative throne, even though the person will (barring a total southern meltdown and a defection by Middlesex to the north) bear allegiance to the same, South Jersey brain trust power structure currently in place.
Trouble is, Sweeney doesn’t want to be a congressman, straitjacketed into such a small area after all the heady years of statewide ranging. Having roamed New Jersey in empire-sized boots and outplayed the neophyte Murphy most of the time, Sweeney figures he’s gubernatorial material.
Earned it, he figures.
Anything short of that would be surrender.
Trying to squeeze the state into a CD1-sized universe would be downright humiliating.
But he has the same problem he had when he took his first stab at governor.
As long as the Norcross machine is intact, the political perception – especially on the heels of Sweeney’s aborted 2017 run – is that the ultimate play is for Donald – not Steve; and as willing as it’s been to play the role of South Jersey supplicant, not even this bullied iteration of the rest of the party (with a few obvious exceptions) could publicly tolerate two South Jersey Building Trades white (for lack of a more delicate way to write it) dudes in two of the three statewide slots.
Now, Norcross rivals will say the state Economic Development Authority (EDA) scandal will sink the Norcross name and make it politically possible to shut down Donald Norcross from ascending the stairs of statwide power. But, of course, Sweeney has been a chief enabler of Norcross, and presided in the senate over the advancement of the tax incentives that benefited companies affiliated with GN3.
Sweeney looks like he’s in governor or bust mode. The question for him – again, if Norcross gets further mangled or muddied – is whether the sitting senate president has sufficiently individuated himself from the machine that gave birth to him. Did he, in fact, define himself beyond his beloved region and its associative hard-nosed politics (and the Brothers Norcross) to endear himself to the rest of the state and demonstrate sufficient competence to remain – even on Norcross’s worst day – a real option?
It’s a significant ongoing question.
Won’t ever happen, Sweeney’s detractors argue.
Tragic, given his talent, but true, they say.
Too much bad blood with the public sector unions, who attempt to make his every move a burden as he navigates the state as part of his Path to Progress tour in defiance of Governor Murphy.
And then (even on Norcross’s best day) there’s that association in a Donald Trump-bumped progressive New Jersey party world intolerant of machine types who have been around for years and who see the future of the party as a combination of those forces that sustain Murphy: public sector unions, a couple of northern counties at least, progressives, independent Democrats, and African Americans, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka chief among them.
Ah, about Murphy.
So let’s say Booker gets the presidency.
His former state director serves as Murphy’s chief of staff; his brother works in the Murphy Administration in the Department of Education, and there are other correlatives.
There’s a relationship there.
There’s a bond there.
Would a Booker presidency mean that Murphy would go to the administration?
As sulfuric as the relationship is between Murphy and Norcross/Sweeney and as much delight (at least pre-EDA crisis) as they take in keeping him here as a stress-reliving political punching target, the latter group probably pragmatically value movement opportunities more than the visual of Murphy sunk in despair along the Delaware, reduced – like Jon Corzine – to running for a second term with middling, soft establishment support.
Up and out.
Now, to the extent that South Jersey wields real influence in Booker world, they’ll insist that the president-elect offer Murphy something along janitorial lines at the White House.
“Nothing more than that, Cory, G-d dammit, I swear to f-cking God.”
One can imagine the fury of those “conversations.”
Certainly, Murphy, for his part, sees himself as nothing less than secretary of state.
Ambassadorship of Germany behind him.
A progressive backwater governorship.
He was loyal to Booker even when it looked (we’re assuming, for the moment that is a past tense condition) like the junior senator from New Jersey had no shot.
He deserves something big.
Nothing less than the world, in fact.
Will giving Murphy what he wants make Booker’s life a living hell in South Jersey even as he tries to get his own White House off the ground?
Again, not if South Jersey sees a way to greater power.
This has been part of Murphy’s problem from the beginning.
Let’s say he gets secretary of state but leaves every person who stuck his neck out for him in New Jersey
in a more vulnerable position, susceptible to the slings and arrows of a Chris Christie-era schooled attorney general’s office helmed by establishment individuals still stinging from the anguish of Murphy’s rule? For every lowly troll on the slow-moving Murphy train, there is an army of bureaucratic quasimodos looking to ring the bell of anyone who offends. Murphy would be able to jab his finger in the face of Putin, but presumably be in no position to lift a finger to help the local mayor who said something on his behalf – or even remember his name. He’d either have to pack the state department with all his New Jersey allies who become much more vulnerable the day he leaves, or simply leave them to the wolves.
He’s from Wall Street, his detractors argue, so it doesn’t take much to figure out which option he’d exercise.
In any event, Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver would be governor, and – given the support she enjoys in Essex and her natural proximity to Hudson and Passaic given the sitting governor’s alliances in those counties, and the presumption of Middlesex staying close to Essex – it would probably tough for Sweeney (or anyone else, for that matter) to knock off the sitting governor. Timing would prove a factor, of course, but Oliver empowered would – at the very least – give Essex County Democratic Chairman Leroy Jones an easy way to gently tell South Jersey (again) that he can’t back Sweeney.
He would have a governor from his home county.
His home town.
How could he go anywhere else?
There’s a (gentle) movement afoot for U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11) to succeed Murphy, particularly if a Democrat seizes the presidency and pushes the pendulum in the Morris County-based 11th back to its Republican roots.
“We’ll never lose Mikie,” a Democrat – convinced of the congresswoman’s enduring status as a star – told InsiderNJ.
Failing Oliver as a longer term option, Sherrill as a resident of Montclair gives Jones another credible weapon with which to bludgeon back southern entreaties for a southern governor.
Here’s another intriguing wrinkle in this narrative.
If the South Jersey-backed Jones stays on course to knock off the Murphy-backed John Currie of Passaic County as Democratic State Party chair, the south can make the point that he empowered himself to the exclusion of having an option to empower someone else (ie. Oliver or Sherrill) while ignoring the aspirations of Sweeney or (especially) Donald Norcross. Even if Jones doesn’t really want the chairmanship (and who would?), if he takes the job he will own the will of wanting it, even without his own will at work.
But all of this presupposes Booker winning.
And he’s still at 1 percent in the polls.
So scrap all of the above.
Still, he’s a real option for VP.
If Elizabeth Warren, for example, were to beat incumbent President Donald Trump with Booker’s help, the senate seat would open and Murphy would be in position to make the same case for a ticket (or at least a dangling rope ladder) aboard a Hanoi helicopter.
Would Murphy be able – after a lifetime at Goldman and the initial, presumably lingering ego-boost of walking into the governorship – to choke down something less than secretary of state?
Chewed up in n the dreaded combine of New Jersey politics, would he basically accept anything at this point just to get the hell out of town? He could always take a job then quietly quit in a few months to retire to Italy.
Again, the conversation is the same.
Oliver occupies a strong position to guard Drumthwacket from Southern (Sweeney) incursion.
Sweeney still wants it and will make the play, probably on his own hook as GN3 makes the play for his brother to get the senate seat.
If Oliver were to stay in power as governor, Sherrill would still be able to make a strong case for the senate seat. Sweeney might be able to hold onto his senate seat in the face of a concerted northern one-two play for domination at governor and senate with Oliver and Sherrill.
Now, if Booker fails to land the presidency, and fails to lands a vice presidential spot, and finds himself
back in New Jersey facing Republican Hirsh Singh to secure his senate seat for another six years, he will be prodigiously buttonholed and prodded to run for governor.
It’s hard to see him doing it.
Even almost impossible.
You can be a hero, Cory. One can hear the case being made.
Yes, and so can someone who sticks his head in the mouth of a shark.
He’s not going to do it.
Corzine did it.
He moved from the U.S. Senate to the governorship of New Jersey.
And look what happened to him.
Yeah, Booker, born for the presidency, would go from the senate to the governorship so he could become Hickenlooper and Inslee (and those guys are from functioning states!).
If Murphy has no way out and finds himself preparing a reelection bid in 2021 and Booker fends off those who want him to displace Murphy, the sitting governor is paired off in any number of parlor room primaries.
The names of those who will at least be approached and coaxed and who will likely – to a man – resist?
State Senator Vin Gopal.
State Senator Troy Singleton.
Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald.
The young comers.
The young, sparkling commodities.
Again, Sweeney appears to have his head down.
Given all the potential intricacies described earlier and the ethnic politics favored by his party, the senate president’s best shot at the governorship might be a party face-off with an establishment-weakened, fellow Irish American Murphy. An I for an I. If the counties controlled by South Jersey stick together as planned (and here Middlesex, with Coughlin as speaker becomes key) and Sweeney amplifies it with a senate presidency dangle at Bergen (Senator Joe Lagana, for example. [New Bergen democratic Chairman Paul Juliano favors Murphy for governor, according to a public statement, even though his county is notoriously unwieldy. Could a Lagana senate presidency prove too tantalizing to resist an endorsement walk back?]) or Essex (Senator Teresa Ruiz?), he could probably take a real shot. Tough, Maybe too tough to knock off an incumbent governor who identifies as a progressive. But just as Norcross weathering too many punches would leave his empire gasping on its stool, Murphy sufficiently muddied could give Sweeney the establishment play he craves.
Murphy and Essex are complicated.
The governor’s got Essex County Freeholder President Brendan Gill commanding his political team, and
gill is often at odds with Essex County Executive Joe Divincenzo, whose interests appear more closely aligned to those of Jones. There was elastic back and forth with control and politics at the center of it when Murphy played coy with $40 million Joe D (as he’s called in his home county) needed. One source said Murphy needed merely to have told DiVincenzo that if he wants the money, Jones needs to remove himself as a contender for the state chairmanship. But with the situation fluid and the the governor only two years from reelection and with possibility of lacking at least part of the Essex flank he had in 2017, his best play may go directly to support for reelection.
Those are the kinds of considerations ongoing as New Jersey claws at the hem of the country and as a whole dreams in earnest, maybe not of the presidency, but of the openings that otherwise wouldn’t exist under statewide conditions that – for all the anguish and supposed upheaval – remain politically placid and certainly mostly politically stagnant.
- Bergen County Democrats
- Bill Bradley
- Bob Menendez
- Brendan Gill
- Britnee Timberlake
- Building Trades
- Chris Christie
- Cory Booker
- Craig Coughlin
- Donald Norcross
- Donald Trump
- Elizabeth Warren
- Essex County Democrats
- George Norcross
- Hirsh Singh
- Hudson County Democrats
- Joe DiVincenzo
- Joe Lagana
- John Currie
- Jon Corzine
- Leroy Jones
- Lou Greenwald
- Middlesex County Democrats
- Mikie Sherrill
- Morris County Democrats
- NJ Democrats
- Passaic County Democrats
- Paul Juliano
- Phil Murphy
- Ras Baraka
- Sharpe James
- Sheila Oliver
- Steve Sweeney
- Teresa Ruiz
- Troy Singleton
- Vin Gopal
- Woodrow Wilson
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