One of the factors that makes New Jersey a Nirvana for political junkies is the scheduling of a major election every year of the four-year cycle. There are Presidential and Congressional elections in the even numbered years and Gubernatorial and state legislative elections in the odd-numbered.
And the speculation on future gubernatorial candidates begins immediately after the most recent election is over. As we begin 2022, there is already virtually no doubt that Jack Ciattarelli, after his surprisingly close showing against incumbent Democratic Governor Phil Murphy will be the Republican nominee in 2025.
There is actually a strong historical analogy between the Jack Ciattarelli who lost by a hair’s breadth to Phil Murphy in 2021 and the Christie Whitman who lost to incumbent Democratic US Senator Bill Bradley by a gnat’s eyelash in 1990. Both Ciattarelli and Whitman were Somerset County Republicans. Each was a huge underdog on Election Day 2021 and 1990, respectively. Due to the unexpectedly close margins, they both emerged from their defeats with star quality.
Star quality is evanescent. It doesn’t last forever, but it continued long enough to take Christie Whitman to a victory over incumbent Democratic governor Jim Florio in 1993, and it may last long enough to enable Jack Ciattarelli to win residency at the governor’s mansion at Drumthwacket in 2025.
On the Democratic side, speculation is largely focused on Mikie Sherrill as a prospective 2025 gubernatorial nominee. Her star quality as a candidate is unquestionable, and she has been an excellent member of the US House of Representatives.
Her overall record of distinguished public service is second to none in the politics of 2022. An Annapolis graduate, Sherrill bravely commanded as a navy officer a Sea King Helicopter in the Middle East. She served with distinction as an attorney in the New Jersey US Attorney’s Office.
Her record as a Congresswoman is one of diligent service to her New Jersey constituents. Mikie has worked intimately on issues relating to New Jersey’s military bases and infrastructure. She worked with local governments to secure resources in the aftermath of the worst storm to hit this state in 100 years. Sherrill has been a most effective advocate for New Jersey’s infrastructure needs, including the Gateway Tunnel project.
Sherrill is only 49. Some day, she will be in an ideal position to run for US Senate and win as the successor to incumbent Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, now 68.
If Mikie Sherrill were elected governor, she would serve New Jersey with excellent ethics, unquestionable competency, and her characteristic diligence. Not that it matters, but I would almost certainly vote for her against any GOP opponent.
As a gubernatorial candidate, however, Mikie is lacking in terms of relevant political and governmental experience and achievement. The comparison is now being made between Sherrill and Christie Whitman. This is a most inapposite analogy.
I served seven years in the administration of Christie Whitman. I am not personally close to her, and I am certainly no uncritical Whitman acolyte. While I have a more positive than negative view of Whitman’s service as governor, I do have my criticisms.
Regarding Whitman’s ill-fated tenure as Environmental Protection Agency Administrator under President George W. Bush, I will refrain from comment, except to say this: I was appointed by President Bush as Region 2 EPA Administrator in 2005, two years after Whitman departed the agency. The fact that I never served under her at EPA was a total positive for me, within the Bush Administration, within the agency, with the media, with the environmental community in general, and with New York City and State officials, particularly those who worked on 9-11 cleanup matters.
Regarding Christie Whitman as a gubernatorial candidate, however, I can say without hyperbole that she was close to being ideal, right out of central casting. And as a gubernatorial candidate, Christie Whitman had assets and experience that I very much doubt that Mikie Sherrill will be able to obtain and develop before the 2025 campaign.
To begin with, Whitman had a record of extensive experience at the local government level as Freeholder-Director of Somerset County and at the state level as president of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU). In both positions, she was able to refine her abilities to project executive leadership and policy mastery. Sherrill has no such experience at the state and local level whatsoever.
Whitman’s Freeholder-Director service gave her great insight and sensitivity into the intergovernmental role of the governor’s office, an area where she excelled as governor. As BPU president, she displayed executive competence and comprehensive knowledge of New Jersey energy issues.
This governmental experience was one of two major factors enabling Whitman to develop a remarkably extensive knowledge of state issues prior to her 1993 victorious gubernatorial campaign. The other was her uncanny ability as a quick study on issues. I personally witnessed Whitman displaying this capability in numerous political and governmental issue briefings over a decade.
Perhaps Mikie Sherrill possesses a Whitmanesque “quick study” capability. I wouldn’t know, as I never worked with Sherrill. All I can say is that over a five-decade career in working with high officials in the governmental and business world, I dealt with nobody who came close to achieving Christie Whitman’s “quick study” facility.
If Mikie Sherrill fails to develop the extensive knowledge of state issues that characterized Christie Whitman as a gubernatorial candidate, she will be at a dire disadvantage in a debate against Jack Ciattarelli, a proven superb debater in the 2017 Republican primary campaign and 2021 general election campaign. As a former member of the Raritan Borough Council, Somerset County Board of Chosen Freeholders, and New Jersey Assembly, Jack Ciattarelli gained the experience with state and local issues that Mikie Sherrill lacks.
Gubernatorial election debates are often a decisive event in the campaign. A clear Ciattarelli victory over Sherrill in debates could severely damage her election prospects.
Jack Ciattarelli would face a far more competitive challenge from the current Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin. Craig may lack Mikie’s star power, but in debates, his state experience would make him more than a match for Ciattarelli.
I have seen Mikie Sherrill in two debates of consequence. The first was in her 2018 initial race for the House of Representatives against Republican Assemblyman Jay Webber. The second was in her 2020 race as an incumbent Congresswoman against Republican challenger Rosemary Becchi. In the Webber debate, Sherrill was lackluster; in the Becchi debate, she was more impressive, but not overwhelming.
It is in the area of debate that Christie Whitman as a gubernatorial candidate had her most pronounced advantage over a Mikie Sherrill candidacy. Whitman faced master debaters in Bill Bradley in 1990 and Jim Florio in 1993. In all the debates with these two political luminaries, Whitman gained at least a draw, due to her masterful projection of executive competency and state issue knowledge.
Sherrill falls far short of Whitman in both areas. She could display in a gubernatorial debate excellent federal legislative competency, but have a difficult time projecting state executive competency or New Jersey state issue expertise. And unlike Whitman, she has yet to be tested in debate against a master debater, like a Bradley or Florio. Discussing issues with Bill Maher on the HBO show Real Time is good media exposure for Mikie, but it is not a debate test.
Mikie Sherrill has a great prospect of being elected in the future as a US Senator. If that happens, she could well find herself on a future Democratic national ticket.
All this will be jeopardized, however, if she runs for governor and loses to Jack Ciattarelli. Given the factors mentioned above in this column, such an outcome is not unlikely.
Alan J. Steinberg served as regional administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.