The Race is On! Smart Money Picks for Governor Come 2025

Three peas in a pod: Murphy, Coughlin and Sweeney.

The snooze fest substituting for a 2021 gubernatorial election already has insiders – newly unleashed on the barstools of the state in the supposed wake of the COVID-19 disaster – looking ahead to 2025.

Of course, the best candidate for the Democrats is someone who pays homage to the party organizations and their operatives while also not requiring them to work. That translates into someone with no record who has a lot of money; which means he can pay the people who do his mail, who can basically invent a history for him rather than having to counter an actual history they fear will get picked apart by an opponent. He or she can also pour money into his own campaign rather than have to depend on the party organizations to actually muster pushups and sit-ups in an election year.

The party requires someone agreeable to North Jersey chairs who can neutralize the always ambitious Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), while also enabling the chairs to keep focused on the more important work of lobbying the senate president on behalf of their corporate clients and maintaining friendly establishment relationships, starting with Sweeney.

In other words, they love Sweeney – they just want him to stay in there as senate president to keep the current, longstanding structures intact – and to keep his organization clear of conceivably weaponizing the AG’s Office against its favorite Northern targets.

Democrats prospered with Jon Corzine and Phil Murphy in power, relying on neophyte executives who would never actually finally interfere in the business trajectory of the party, and keep their aspirations firmly fixed on national destinations.

The trouble with Corzine, of course, is he couldn’t beat Chris Christie, but they resolved that little issue in the post-Christie era by recruiting another Goldman Sachs veteran – this time with a personality.

It appears to have worked, in time for the party organizations to massively line up in support of  Murphy (albeit with the jury still out on the details of Horizon’s restructuring), while Republican favorite Jack Ciattarelli tries to survive a primary fistfight with the Capitol desecrating wing of his party. If he gets past Hirsh Singh, Ciattarelli will encounter the same establishment enthusiasm for his candidacy as Barbara Buono did for hers against Christie in 2013.

Republicans should not fear, however. Former President Donald J. Trump lives in New Jersey, and will no doubt take a political interest in recruiting someone with enough independence to be able to allow Trump’s operatives to run his campaign out of the former president’s Bedminster golf course, with an approving nod from Christie.

With all that in mind, the question becomes, who exactly will run in 2025, on the other side of the 2021 love lest?

Some possibilities appear below.

Drew Faust

As Former President of Harvard University, she is “well-positioned to provide insight on the firm’s strategies relating to diversity, recruiting and retention,” according to the website of Goldman Sachs, where she works. There remain questions about residency – like whether she actually lives in New Jersey – and political ambition, like whether or not she has any. But she works at Goldman, which is a huge head start in New Jersey.

Mark A. Flaherty

See above.

M. Michele Burns

See above.

Mark O. Winkelman

See above.

Ellen J. Kullman

See above.

Sweeney
Sweeney

 

Sweeney

The party already knows the sitting senate president craves a place on the executive throne. The question is whether he can convincingly sell himself to the public on the strength of his having tried to undermine the governor of his own party for three years before reluctantly folding in during the COVID-19 pandemic. The party may have to ram him out there if he has sufficient backing in the caucus to continue as senate president and will cede power to someone else (like Senator Joe Vitale, for example) only if he gets the full backing of all 21 party organization (or at least Middlesex and Essex; or at least South Jersey and Middlesex) for governor.

Sherrill
Sherrill

 

U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill

In the event that they can’t find a sufficiently progressive Pygmalion from Goldman, Northern party sources appear prepared to line up behind Sherrill to stop Sweeney. It could be a risky move politically for the organizations, as Sherrill – a retired Sea King helicopter pilot – possesses something anathema to well-heeled party leaders: an actual record of public service. But if Sweeney tries to pull Middlesex into his statewide column in exchange for Vitale to the senate presidency, Hudson, Bergen and Passaic could conceivably pull Essex County Democratic Chairman (and, in a few days, State Party Chairman) LeRoy Jones into their column by backing home county pol Sherrill.

Oliver
Oliver

 

Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver

See above. Jones will have to sit both Sherrill and Oliver down to figure out who between them will run out of Essex. If Murphy leaves early to join the Biden Administration, or to run on a national ticket with Kamala Harris, clearly Oliver will have the advantage of incumbency. She will also, as always from the beginning when Essex recommended her to serve as Murphy’s LG – have the built-in organizational advantage of Essex, and the long-slumbering anxiousness of a massive, Democratic Party-dominant county that since 2002 has essentially allowed itself to serve at the whim of South Jersey (with a few exception, like when Jones backed Murphy for governor instead of Sweeney ahead of the 2016 election, and cut the deal with John Currie for the state party chairmanship without waiting for South Jersey’s phone call).

Baraka
Baraka

 

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka

Since winning in the face of most of the party establishment back in 2014, Baraka has mostly played it safe, shying away from controversial progressive causes for the sake of being a mayor who needs establishment relationships, not a bullhorn cowboy in constant tear-down mode. Still, those who keep track of the slow decay of New Jersey politics, can’t forget Baraka’s defiance of the machine when he came into being. This moribund cycle might have been the perfect time for him to raise hell, but in fairness to the Newark mayor, he didn’t see anyone among the insurrectionary forces who had put sufficient time and energy into an anti-establishment cause to risk his own political neck. That could change if and when the Newark mayor decides to run statewide.

Gopal
Gopal

 

State Senator Vin Gopal

If the already battle-tested LD-11 leader gets through his reelection bid this year, he will have established himself as a genuine force to be reckoned with in his party, with relationships around the state that will make him a power player whenever talk turns to offices like governor.

Coughlin
Coughlin

 

Speaker Craig Coughlin

If Sweeney wobbles or if the north finds itself pinned down in an Oliver-Baraka-Sherrill war, or if another Goldman guy stumbles onto the landscape and fails to impress anyone early, the ultimate game manager quarterback may just decide that he’s tired of merely fulfilling the role of functionary lower house leader and respond to a sudden spasm of actual personal ambition. Remember, most lawmakers in Trenton see themselves as governor- or president.

Testa
Sweeney swears-in Testa

 

Senator Mike Testa

The Republican LD1 state senator has impressed people in both parties with his aggressive, substantive first two years in office. A gifted orator with excellent political instincts, Testa made himself a South Jersey power player in his party to rival the longstanding machinery of the Democrats and would excel on any stage where politicians are actually debating issues. Certainly, he has the disadvantage at present of toiling in a party damaged by the back-to-back misfires of Christie and Trump, but Testa has enough talent to beat the odds.

Schepisi assumes the oath of office.
Schepisi assumes the oath of office.

 

Senator Holly Schepisi

The Bergen County Republican this year assumed the oath of office as the senate’s newest member, and – on the strength of her fearless floor presence in the Assembly and strong knowledge of the issues, particularly those in her chosen field of the law –  must be in any gubernatorial conversation. Some pairing of her and Testa or, as InsiderNJ columnist Alan Steinberg has already written – state Senator Declan O’Scanlon – offers the downcast NJ GOP a compelling new beginning.

Grewal
Grewal

 

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal

Most insiders expect him to depart the Murphy administration come November, and while he has told people he won’t run for statewide office, others don’t count him out as a spoiler. As for who Murphy intends to replace him with: the names Matt Platkin (the governor’s former counsel), Middlesex County Sheriff Millie Scott, and Assemblyman John McKeon (D-27) circulate, among others, with Platkin the smart money successor, according to a party source.

Mnuchin
Mnuchin

 

Former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin

He probably doesn’t live in New Jersey, but his stout credentials as a Goldman Sachs alum with Trump administration roots give Republicans someone to hit back at the Democrats with in the event the Ds turn to one of the other aforementioned Goldman names or someone else like Corzine and Murphy.

Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop
Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop

 

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop

Like Sweeney, the mayor of New Jersey’s most populous city has a history of wanting the governorship. The fact that the urban Democrat played this 2021 cycle in Edison – holding a small, intimate fundraiser for Sam Joshi – shows his potential to play politics again statewide. Maybe he has real designs on breaking out of the pack, or forging a political alliance with Middlesex and muddying the North in order to give Middlesex a stronger play. It’s interesting.

 

 

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