The Rise and Fall of Bibi Netanyahu (and Maybe Steve Sweeney)

Sweeney and Blistan

The State of Israel and the State of New Jersey have a lot in common.  They are approximately the same size and have similar population totals.  Their mix of rural, suburban, and urban areas and agricultural and technological economies are very similar.  There are also interesting comparisons that can be drawn with their politics.

In 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu became Prime Minister of Israel, which is the same year that Steve Sweeney became Senate President.  Both of their ascensions have very dramatic back stories.  Last week, it was announced that following Netanyahu’s failure to form a governing coalition, a group of Israeli political parties representing the full spectrum of Israeli political thought, ranging from far-right to center-right to centrist to center-left to left and even an Islamist Israeli Arab political party have come together to form a national unity government with the primary goal being the removal of Netanyahu from the office of Prime Minister, his trial and conviction on corruption charges, and the restoration of normalcy to Israeli political life.

It does not appear that Senate President Sweeney is facing nearly as dramatic an end to his political career at this moment, but that does not mean that his current leadership position is as secure as he would like it to be.  However, before we explore his potential downfall further, let us take a moment to discuss how he and Netanyahu were both able to rise to their positions of power in the tumultuous year that was 2009, which also witnessed the inauguration of President Barack Obama and his efforts to help our country recover from the economic collapse of 2008 as well as the election of Chris Christie to the position of Governor of the State of New Jersey.

After the fall of the Oslo peace process, Ariel Sharon and the Likud Party defeated Ehud Barak and the Labor Party and won control of the Israeli government.  For most of Israeli history, Labor and Likud were the dominant political parties, representing the center-left and center-right in Israel’s parliamentary system with the left-wing Meretz Party and the Israeli Arab political parties to Labor’s left and nationalist and religious political parties to Likud’s right.

Since the State of Israel was founded mostly by secular socialists, because most Orthodox and religious Jews at that time eschewed the idea of creating a Jewish state before the arrival of the Messiah, Labor was the dominant political party for the first few decades of its existence.  It was only after the Yom Kippur War of 1973 where Israel came closer than it ever had previously or since to being defeated that Likud was able to rise to power, led by Menachem Begin, who would go on to sign the Camp David Accords with Egypt and would be followed by Yitzhak Shamir.

Labor would return to power following the first Intifada under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin, who began the Oslo peace process with Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat.  Unfortunately, he was assassinated by a far-right-wing Israeli Jewish radical and his replacement, Shimon Peres, was defeated by Netanyahu as resistance to the Oslo peace process began to grow.  Netanyahu was defeated by Barak as that resistance was met with fears that the failure of the Oslo peace process would lead to a second Intifada, which it did under Barak, resulting in his defeat to Sharon.

Sharon was an even more reactionary Likudnik than Netanyahu.  However, after a few years as Prime Minister and as a result of the rise of the Israeli secular centrist party, Shinnui, which was led by Tommy Lapid, the father of Yair Lapid, whose secular centrist Yesh Atid party leads the coalition that is on the verge of ousting Netanyahu, Sharon began to move towards the center as well in an effort to establish a legacy for himself.

That legacy would be the unilateral disengagement of Jewish settlers and the Israeli military from the Gaza Strip.  It was the belief of Sharon and his adherents within the Likud party that if Israel unilaterally disengaged from most of its outposts and settlements in Gaza and the West Bank it could build a security fence and define an Israeli border that would provide Israel with more territory than it could ever hope to gain through negotiation.  It was also believed by some of Sharon’s allies outside of Likud that pursuing this strategy could force Arafat and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table before facts on the ground could make future negotiations impossible.

Sharon’s strategy caused a major schism within Likud, which eventually forced him and his adherents to leave the party and form a new political party, Kadima, which would be joined by Labor and Shinnui.  What remained of Likud was a shell of its former self, led by Netanyahu.  Sharon’s strategy might have worked, but it depended on two things that ultimately failed; the first being the force and strength of Sharon’s leadership to implement the evacuation of Jewish settlements from Gaza and the Palestinian Authority’s ability to fill the void and maintain order in Gaza in the absence of an Israeli military presence.

Less than a year after the unilateral disengagement from Gaza was completed, Sharon suffered a stroke that incapacitated him.  His replacement as Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, the former Mayor of Jerusalem did his best to continue with Sharon’s policies, but as a result of ill-advised (by President George W. Bush) and ill-timed Palestinian Authority elections following the death of PLO leader Yasir Arafat, resulted in massive victories for Hamas, which was much more popular with the Palestinian street than Arafat’s party, Fatah, Arafat’s replacement, Mahmoud Abbas nullified the elections and retained control of the Palestinian Authority.  Hamas responded violently, driving the Palestinian Authority out of Gaza and turning it into a bunker where it would launch rocket attacks against Israel regularly to the present day.

The failure of the unilateral disengagement strategy in Gaza and a lack of leadership on the part of Olmert and Kadima allowed Likud and Netanyahu to rise to power.  After Olmert was driven out of office on corruption charges, his replacement, Tzipi Livni, the first Israeli woman to lead an Israeli political party since Golda Meir was Prime Minister failed to win enough seats after the next election to form a government, giving Netanyahu the opportunity to form one.  He offered her and Kadima the opportunity to form a center-left/center-right unity government, but she refused to serve in a Netanyahu-led government, believing that the political parties to her left would also refuse, preventing him from being able to form a government as well.

Unfortunately, this gambit failed when Barak and his now significantly reduced in stature Labor party betrayed the rest of the Israeli center-left by agreeing to join Netanyahu’s government and enabling him to form the first narrow, far-right-wing governing coalition in Israel’s history.  This decision would result in the shattering of the Israeli center-left for more than a decade into numerous small political parties that would regularly struggle to get barely enough of a percentage of the vote to win Knesset seats as they would compete with one another to be the center-left party that would join with Netanyahu to keep his narrow far-right-wing governing coalition afloat for as long as it did.

Steve Sweeney’s ascension to the Senate Presidency in New Jersey was no less or more contentious than Netanyahu’s rise to Prime Ministerial dominance and it most certainly had its fair share of Machiavellian intrigue, but there was not nearly as much bloodshed.  In some respects, the bloodless coup that enabled Steve Sweeney to replace the former Acting Governor of New Jersey, Richard Codey, as Senate President was of Codey’s own making.

Prior to the 2001 gubernatorial and legislative election cycle that former Governor Jim McGreevey won in a landslide, but the Democrats were only able to win a split of the State Senate seats and a narrow majority in the State Assembly, Codey led the redistricting effort that enabled the Democrats to be as competitive as they were that cycle by creating more competitive districts and less districts that they would win by unnecessarily large margins.  In addition, the Democratic Party also adopted a new strategy of recruiting more conservative Democrats to run in these newly competitive districts.  One of these conservative Democrats, whose victory in LD3 would be the difference between Codey becoming Senate co-President and remaining its Minority Leader was Steve Sweeney, Building and Construction Tradesman and childhood friend of South Jersey political machine boss, George Norcross.

With control over only two Camden County-based legislative districts prior to Sweeney’s victory, South Jersey Democrats had been relegated to second class citizenship, being forced to defer to North Jersey and Central Jersey Democrats as political machine bosses in Democratic strongholds in Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, and Union Counties united to control the party.  However, Sweeney’s victory finally gave Norcross the leverage that he needed to make some demands.

Norcross knew that he could not get his chief lieutenant, Assemblyman Joseph Roberts into the Assembly Speaker position yet, but he was able to get him the position of Assembly Majority Leader and even more important than that, he was able to convince the North Jersey and Central Jersey political machine bosses to throw the former Assembly Minority Leader Joseph Doria, who was also a nemesis of Roberts, under the bus in favor of another Hudson County Assemblyman and ally of then-Congressman Robert Menendez, Albio Sires.  Because Sires was an inexperienced freshman Assemblyman and Roberts had been in the Assembly for decades, it was essentially the same thing as having Roberts as Assembly Speaker.  To call Sires a puppet would be insulting to puppets.

In the years that would follow, Norcross and Sweeney would use the foothold that they now had within the Democratic establishment to destabilize the power structure in North Jersey and Central Jersey.  The first move that they would make would be to align themselves with then-Newark Councilman Cory Booker and the late Steve Adubato Sr., the political machine boss in the North Ward of Newark.

Booker, who had already positioned himself as the chief adversary of then-Newark Mayor Sharpe James, was the only North Jersey elected official who endorsed former Governor Jim Florio in his 2000 senatorial primary election.  Adubato was the mentor of then-Essex County Freeholder President Joe DiVincenzo who was positioned to become County Executive if the incumbent James Treffinger either moved up or out of his current office.  As luck would have it for Adubato, DiVincenzo, Norcross, and Sweeney, both would happen simultaneously.

As Treffinger was preparing to run in the 2002 Republican senatorial primary election, he would soon become the first in what would become an extensive string of high profile corruption busts for the state’s new U.S. Attorney, Chris Christie, who would eventually parlay his reputation as a corruption-buster into a successful run for Governor, DiVincenzo was preparing to face off against the then-Essex County Democratic Chair and New Jersey Democratic State Committee Chair, Tom Giblin in the Democratic primary election for County Executive.

On the surface, Giblin’s positions as county and state party leader should have given him the advantage over DiVincenzo, but this is probably the best example of a primary election where the party line did not win the day.  Adubato was able to use his power in Newark’s North Ward to convince James, who was deeply concerned about the challenge that he was facing from Booker in Newark’s nonpartisan Mayor’s race to back DiVincenzo against Giblin in return for Adubato’s and DiVincenzo’s support for James.

Adubato was also able to get the support of the Leroy Jones insurgent faction in deeply divided East Orange where then-Mayor Robert Bowser was under siege.  The party line only gave Giblin an advantage in suburban Western Essex County, which would prove to not be even close to enough to overcome DiVincenzo’s huge advantage in urban Eastern Essex County, which would lead to him winning a landslide victory, tilting the balance of power in the county towards DiVincenzo and Jones for the better part of the next twenty years with George Norcross as a close ally.

Adubato, DiVincenzo, Jones, and Norcross would overplay their hand at first, trying to replace LD34 State Senator Nia Gill with Jones by throwing her off the party line.  However, this was another example of the party line not winning the day as her overwhelming support in Montclair, combined with the backing that she received from grassroots progressives throughout the district and throughout the state who had begun organizing on behalf of 2004 Presidential candidate Howard Dean, would put her over the top.

Even though they did not succeed in defeating Gill in LD34, the Assembly candidates that they ran with Jones, including the incumbent former Clifton Councilman Peter Eagler and now-Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver would win their primary elections.  This victory would be the next step towards the coup to come.

2003 would be the year that Democrats would take control of the State Senate.  The same Howard Dean grassroots progressives that helped Nia Gill survive her primary challenge from Leroy Jones also helped Ellen Karcher, daughter of the former Assembly Speaker and gubernatorial candidate, the late Alan Karcher, defeat the then-co-Senate President John Bennett in one of the biggest upsets our state has ever seen.   She was most certainly not a Norcross ally as he had backed her opponent in the primary election, but Norcross would add another loyal State Senator, then-State Police superintendent Fred Madden in LD4 to the three that he already had in LD3, LD5, and LD6, further building up the core that would lead to the coup.

When Governor McGreevey was brought down in the middle of his first term, Senate President Codey became Acting Governor and would complete the remainder of McGreevey’s term.  In that role, he quickly became very popular and it was assumed by most that he would run for re-election in 2005, that is until billionaire United States Senator Jon Corzine let it be known that he was interested in the job.

Very quickly, Adubato and DiVincenzo, Codey adversaries and Norcross allies, began talking to their allies in Hudson County, specifically then-Congressman Robert Menendez and then-Assembly Speaker Albio Sires that if Corzine became Governor, they would advocate for Menendez to be appointed to replace Corzine in the Senate, Sires to replace Menendez in Congress, and Norcross ally, Joseph Roberts would become Assembly Speaker.  Together, they were able to get the political machine bosses in Bergen County and Passaic County on board.

County party organizations throughout the state had become beneficiaries of Corzine’s financial largesse ever since he decided to run for the United States Senate seat that retiring Senator Frank Lautenberg had vacated in 2000.  Those contributions continued well after he won the seat.

This, in addition to the political machine bosses wanting to avoid a contested gubernatorial primary election by any means necessary felt confident that if they quickly organized behind Corzine, Codey would back down, which he did.  Despite his statewide popularity, Codey would have had to recruit 80 State Assembly candidates as well as candidates for county and local elected offices and local political offices, which he could have done.  However, after seeing the degree to which Corzine had been able to outspend Florio in 2000, he did not think that his popularity would be enough to build an opposition infrastructure.  This would also expose Codey’s primary weakness, which was the lack of support among the political machine bosses, who tolerated him at best and allowed him to remain Senate President until they had a reason to dump him.

In the years leading up to the coup, Norcross would develop relationships in Bergen, Hudson, and Passaic County that would further destabilize the North/Central unity that dominated New Jersey politics at the time.  He would align himself with Jersey City Mayor and LD31 State Senator Glenn Cunningham and after Cunningham’s death, he would remain aligned with his widow, Sandra Bolden-Cunningham as she would ascend to the State Senate as well.

The Cunninghams were both insurgents in a county where the nearly-all-white party leadership continued to pit African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans against one another throughout a county where the Democratic primary election voter universe was mostly people of color.  Norcross and Sweeney would also align themselves with Union City Mayor and then-LD33 Assemblyman Brian Stack who often found himself at odds with North Bergen Mayor and LD 32 State Senator Nick Sacco.  When LD33 State Senator Bernard Kenny retired in 2007, Sacco backed West New York Mayor and Stack’s LD33 Assemblymate Silverio Vega in the primary election.  However, Stack was able to align himself with Cunningham in LD31 and anti-Sacco insurgents in LD32 to build an opposition bloc throughout Hudson County that would go on to win in two out of the county’s three legislative districts, proving, once again, that the best way to beat the party line is to build an opposition line.

During her battle with Bergen County political machine boss, Joe Ferriero, then-State Assemblywoman Loretta Weinberg received support behind the scenes from Norcross and Sweeney.  Weinberg would later play a critical role in the coup.  As the de facto face and voice of the progressive movement in the state legislature, her support for Sweeney over Codey prevented the coup from being perceived as the rightward ideological shift that it would quickly prove to be when Sweeney would go on to scuttle an effort to pass marriage equality legislation during the 2009-2010 lame duck session.  This occurred only a few months after the coup occurred and oddly enough did not result in Weinberg, the most visible and vocal advocate for the marriage equality legislation, changing her Senate President vote.

As U.S. Attorney, Chris Christie would continue to help (intentionally or otherwise) Norcross expand the reach of his power by taking down several of his adversaries.  With the cooperation of busted former Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski, Christie was able to convict six other high-ranking figures in county politics.

Christie also brought down Essex County political machine boss, Mayor of Newark, and LD29 State Senator Sharpe James and Middlesex County political machine boss and LD17 State Senator John Lynch.  The downfall of James directly empowered Norcross allies, Cory Booker, who would become Mayor of Newark, Adubato and DiVincenzo who would replace James in the State Senate with their ally, Teresa Ruiz.

These high-profile convictions quickly made Christie the most popular Republican in the state and guaranteed that he would challenge Corzine when he ran for re-election in 2009.  This is also the year that the coup would occur.  When you consider the timing of Norcross extending his power and reach throughout the state while Christie is rising to prominence on the Republican side, it is impossible to dismiss this as mere coincidence.  There are no coincidences in New Jersey politics.  Everything that happens here does so according to somebody’s plan.

Both the formation of an Israeli governing coalition and the election of a state’s legislative leadership are a basic numbers game.  The Israeli Knesset consists of 120 seats.  Israel is not broken up into districts with candidates representing a district.  The political parties create a list of candidates representing them in the election and based on their performance in national elections, the seats are distributed to the political parties.  If a party wins ten seats, the top ten names on the list receive Knesset seats.

In order to form a government, the political party that wins the most seats has to get other political parties to join its governing coalition, which has to consist of a minimum of sixty-one seats.  After every Israeli election from 2009 forward, Netanyahu and Likud won the most seats, which allowed them the first chance to form a government and every time, even though his far-right-wing bloc never had enough seats to form a governing coalition on its own, it could always count on one of the center-left political parties to be willing to break ranks and join his governing coalition and get it over the top.

In 2009, Democrats has twenty-four seats in the State Senate.  South Jersey had six of these seats after Assemblymen Jeff Van Drew and Jim Whelan won Senate seats in 2007.  This was the single largest bloc of Democratic State Senators in the state.  Essex County and Middlesex County had four each, Bergen County and Hudson County had three each, Union County had two, and Mercer County and Passaic County had one each.

Ever since Sweeney won his seat in 2001, deadlocking the State Senate 20-20, Norcross could always threaten to have his Senators or even just Sweeney vote with the Republicans to give them the majority.  When Karcher and Madden won in 2003, giving the Democrats a 22-18 majority, Norcross had four seats that he could threaten to vote with the Republicans.  When Whelan and Van Drew won in 2007, bringing the majority up to 24-16, Norcross had six seats that he could threaten to vote with the Republicans.

Until 2009, Norcross was satisfied having his close friend, Joe Roberts in the position of Assembly Speaker.  However, after Roberts announced that he was not going to seek re-election that year, Norcross let it be known that he was not going to simply replace Roberts with one of his other Assemblypersons.  With the largest bloc of State Senators, Norcross and Sweeney were going to seek to wrest the Senate Presidency from Codey.

If the traditional alliances held, North Jersey and Central Jersey had more than enough State Senators to keep Codey in his leadership position.  However, because of all of the division that Norcross had been able to sow in each of the counties, he was now in a position to go to individual State Senators and recruit them to support Sweeney instead of Codey.

In Bergen County, Norcross was able to get LD36 State Senator Paul Sarlo, who had been a close ally of Bergen County political machine boss, Joseph Ferriero, who was forced to resign his chairmanship of the Bergen County Democratic Organization when he was indicted in 2008 on corruption charges, and LD37 State Senator Loretta Weinberg.  After Ferriero’s downfall, Sarlo was concerned that the power vacuum could provide Weinberg and her allies the opportunity to take control of the party.  By joining with Norcross and Sweeney, he had the necessary leverage to replace Ferriero with Louis Stellato who was also from South Bergen.

In Essex, Norcross and Sweeney were able to get LD29 State Senator Teresa Ruiz by virtue of their relationship with Adubato and DiVincenzo.  They were also able to deliver LD34 State Senator Nia Gill, who was clearly not interested in having to win another contested primary election challenge and had also been recently given a job as a Counsel to the Essex County Improvement Authority.

In Hudson, they were able to get LD31 State Senator Sandra Bolden-Cunningham and LD33 State Senator Brian Stack as a result of the support that they received from Norcross during their 2007 civil war.  In Middlesex, they were able to get LD17 State Senator Bob Smith and LD18 State Senator Barbara Buono, the latter being given the position of Senate Majority Leader.  In Union, they were able to get LD22 State Senator Nick Scutari.

Fifteen votes was more than enough for Sweeney to win the Senate Presidency.  The only thing that Codey could do was threaten to get his allies to elect a Republican Senate President, but that was a threat that nobody took seriously and Sweeney became Senate President.  At the same time, U.S. Attorney Chris Christie defeated the incumbent Governor Jon Corzine.

Even though they represented different political parties, Christie and Sweeney were not very far apart ideologically on most issues and were able to work together better than Corzine, Codey, and Roberts had over the previous four years.  Some observers believe that Corzine’s poor performance in South Jersey and other parts of the state was a direct result of a purposeful lack of effort on the part of the county party organizations at the behest of Norcross.

Over the next decade Sweeney’s leadership team, like Netanyahu’s governing coalition would go through changes.  When Barbara Buono balked at a power-sharing deal in 2011, she was replaced as Senate Majority Leader by Loretta Weinberg.  When Sheila Oliver dragged her feet on the pen-ben legislation, she would eventually be replaced by Hudson County Assemblyman Vincent Prieto.

Shortly after Sweeney left the 2017 gubernatorial primary election race and Phil Murphy was endorsed by all twenty-one of the state’s county party organizations, Norcross struck a deal with the Middlesex County political machine boss, Kevin McCabe to replace Prieto with Assemblyman Craig Coughlin.  This was a direct result of Prieto’s efforts to expand casino gambling to North Jersey.

The beginning of the end for Netanyahu came in 2019 when he was indicted on charges of breach of trust, accepting bribes and fraud.  Since then, Israel has been forced to endure an inordinately lengthy trial process that would be stalled on numerous occasions as Netanyahu made numerous pleas for immunity and refused to step down from his Prime Minister’s office and allow someone else from Likud to replace him.

He continued to lead his Likud party through four elections over the last two years.  In each election the Israeli center-left continued to fail to unite behind a single party and the Israeli Arab parties struggled to remain united as well.  However, in the most recent election, there was a significant change.  Exhausted by the numerous elections and Netanyahu’s refusal to accept his fate and step aside, his far-right-wing bloc fell apart.

First, Netanyahu’s Likud Party split with most of the party remaining loyal to him, but a small breakaway faction formed a new political party called New Hope, led by Netanyahu’s chief rival in Likud, Gideon Sa’ar.  This was followed by Naftali Bennett announcing that his far-right-wing Yamina party, which was the second largest party in Netanyahu’s far-right-wing bloc would be willing to form a coalition with anyone other than Netanyahu, including the country’s center-left parties.  Given these options, following are the political parties that received at least 3.25% of the vote and won seats in the Knesset.

Party Name                                    Party Leader                    %           # of seats              gain/loss of seats

Likud (center-right)                      Benjamin Netanyahu     24.19    30                        (loss of 7 seats)

Yesh Atid (center-left)                  Yair Lapid                         13.93    17                        (gain of 4 seats)

Shas (far right/Sephardic)            Aryeh Deri                        7.17       9

Blue and White (center-right)     Benny Gantz                    6.63       8                          (loss of 6 seats)

Yamina (far right)                          Naftali Bennett                6.21       7                          (gain of 4 seats)

Labor (center-left)                        Merav Michaeli               6.09       7                          (gain of 4 seats)

UTJ (far right/Ashkenazic)           Moshe Gafni                    5.63       7

Yisrael Beiteinu (far right/secular) Avigdor Lieberman     5.63       7

Religious Zionist (far right)          Bezalel Smotrich             5.12       6                          (gain of 4 seats)

Joint List (Israeli Arab)                 Ayman Odeh                   4.82       6                          (loss of 4 seats

New Hope (center-right               Gideon Sa’ar                    4.74       6

Meretz (left)                                  Nitzan Horowitz                            4.59       6                            (gain of 3 seats)

Ra’am (Israeli Arab/Islamist)       Mansour Abbas               3.79       4

With the support of Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism, and Religious Zionist, Netanyahu had 52 seats.  This meant that he needed to convince Bennett and Sa’ar to bring Yamina and New Hope back to the far-right-wing bloc.  He failed to do this and the opportunity to create a governing coalition was passed to Lapid and his Yesh Atid party.

As negotiations began between Lapid, Bennett, Sa’ar, and the other parties who hoped to be able to form a national unity governing coalition with the hope that it could stay together long enough to at least witness Netanyahu’s trial come to an end with his conviction, the recent violence began between Israel and Hamas.  One can only guess that the timing of this outbreak of violence was not coincidental.  Just as in New Jersey politics, there are no coincidences in Middle Eastern politics.

Shortly after the violence began, Bennett broke off negotiations with Lapid.  Most observers believed that Yamina would not join a national unity government while Israel was in the midst of war with Hamas.  Fortunately for those invested in seeing an end to the Netanyahu era, a cease fire was brokered with enough time for and Yesh Atid, Yamina, New Hope, Blue and White, Labor, Meretz, and Raam to come together to form a national unity government.  What is especially historic about this arrangement is that for the first time in Israeli history, an Israeli Arab party was both invited and willing to join a governing coalition.

The only thing left is for the Knesset members to vote to ratify this government.  It is not likely at this point that any individual Knesset members who are members of the political parties that formed this agreement will defect, preventing the governing coalition from taking office, but after everything that Israel has experienced throughout its history, the one thing that is certain is that nothing is ever completely certain until it is.

Based on this, why is it possible that Senate President Sweeney may experience a similar fate sometime in the near future.  There is no reason to believe that he is currently under investigation for any acts of corruption similar to that of Netanyahu.

Any concerns about Norcross being linked to anything illegal or unethical associated with the Economic Development Authority have come and gone and he and Murphy and Sweeney appear to have achieved a cold peace on this and other issues that have been a source of conflict like marijuana legalization.  This past week, Murphy endorsed Vic Carstarphen, the Norcross-backed candidate for Mayor of Camden, who is being challenged by Elton Custis who has been endorsed by the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, which until recently has been on the same side as Murphy on most political fights, especially those with Norcross and Sweeney.

However, it appears as if the political machine bosses throughout the state are all in sync with Murphy as he is with them and progressive insurgents are, once again, on the outside looking in as he hopes to avoid the same fate as former Governor Jon Corzine in 2009.  Even though Murphy and Sweeney have not been able to work together nearly as well as Christie and Murphy did, they seem to be on the same page now.

Whether or not they remain on the same page if Murphy defeats the likely Republican nominee, former State Assemblyman Jack Ciatarelli, in November remains to be seen.  Once Murphy’s re-election is won, all bets are off.  One thing to remember about New Jersey politics is that nobody ever forgets or forgives and revenge is a dish that is best served cold.

The anti-Netanyahu governing coalition was able to come together, because each of the parties wanted it badly enough to be willing to work with other political parties with whom they are diametrically opposed.  In return for being willing to compromise on or put aside their primary policy agendas, they will have the opportunity to govern Israel and restore normalcy to Israeli political life.

Bennett’s Yamina party is a fierce, far-right-wing religious nationalist who not only wants to expand settlements, but also wants to annex the entire West Bank, ending any hopes of a two-state solution.  Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party is just as far-right-wing and nationalist, but also secular whose top priority is eliminating military exemptions and subsidies for ultra-Orthodox haredim Jews.  It is had been previously unimaginable that these two parties could coexist in the same governing coalition much less also work with a left-wing party like Meretz or an Islamist party like Raam.

Gideon Sa’ar’s Likud breakaway New Hope party wants to see Netanyahu convicted for his crimes and his political career ended so that he can reunite Likud under his leadership.  Bennett and Lieberman have similar ambitions.  Bennett in particular was enticed into joining this coalition, because even though Lapid’s Yesh Atid party received the second largest percentage of the vote and number of seats in the Knesset after Likud, Lapid was willing to share the Prime Minister’s office with Bennett.

Interestingly enough, Bennett will be Prime Minister for the first two years of this governing coalition’s term in office, while Lapid will be Prime Minister for the last two years.  Considering the fragility of governing coalitions in recent years, it is entirely possible that this one could fall before Lapid ever becomes Prime Minister.  However, in the same way that Bennett, Lieberman, and Sa’ar are banking on using this time in government to position themselves to be seen as the next Netanyahu of the center-right/far-right bloc, Lapid wants to be able to unite the center-left/left behind his leadership.

Does that mean that once Murphy’s second term is guaranteed, he could use what has historically been the most powerful Governor’s office in the country to change the current legislative leadership?  I would be shocked if he does not try.  The simple fact of the matter is that as long as Steve Sweeney is Senate President, Murphy has no way to guarantee that everything that he has gone through during his first term is not going to be repeated in his second term.  If anything, because Murphy will be a lame duck and Steve Sweeney could be Senate President for who knows how much longer, that gives Norcross and Sweeney even more power.

The other reason is the numbers game.  Going into this November’s election, the Democrats currently have twenty-five State Senators, six of whom are firmly controlled by George Norcross and the South Jersey political machine.  If nothing changes after this November election and North and Central Jersey united to elect a new Assembly Speaker and Senate President, Norcross could still threaten to elect a Republican Senate President, which would most likely break that unity effort.

However, if the Democrats gain one more Senate seat this November anywhere other than South Jersey, the worst that Norcross could threaten is to deadlock the Senate by aligning with the Republicans.  As Richard Codey would most certainly attest, being co-Senate President is significantly more impactful than being the Senate Minority Leader.

It is also important to note that the best Democratic takeover opportunity is in LD16 where State Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker is running for an open seat that has been vacated by the retiring Christopher “Kip” Bateman against former CD12 Congressman Mike “Twinkle Twinkle Kenneth Starr” Pappas.  Yes, Mike, that is the only thing that anyone is ever going to remember about your political career.  Deal with it.

If Zwicker can win this seat, it will not only protect a North/Central alliance from a Norcross threat to throw the Senate Presidency to the Republicans, it will give Middlesex County a fifth State Senator, which would create an opportunity for Middlesex County political machine boss, Kevin McCabe, who is currently the junior partner with George Norcross to turn the tables on him, much like Naftali Bennett did to Bibi Netanyahu.  If necessary, a North/Central alliance would be able to get to twenty seats, but once the threat of throwing the Senate Presidency to the Republicans is off the table, McCabe would only need to get the votes of fourteen State Senators to be able to make LD19 State Senator Joseph Vitale the Senate President.

So how does McCabe get to fourteen.  In the same way that we broke down the Israeli Knesset by political party, we can now break down the State Senate by county.

Middlesex (5) – LD14, LD16, LD17, LD18, & LD19

Essex (4) – LD27, LD28, LD29, & LD34

Bergen (3) – LD36, LD37, & LD38

Hudson (3) – LD31, LD32, & LD33

Union (2) – LD20 & LD22

Mercer (1) – LD15

Passaic (1) – LD35

Monmouth (1) – LD11

With the full-throated support of the Governor, McCabe would be able to get nine State Senators almost immediately by adding Essex County’s four State Senators to his own.  Leroy Jones and Joe DiVincenzo will make that deal, because the one thing that they most certainly have in common with Phil Murphy is the desire to make Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver the first African-American female Governor in the history of the United States of America.  However, that can happen regardless of who the Senate President might be.  What they also want to be able to do is give her the best chance possible to win re-election in 2025 and have a legislative leadership in place that is going be in sync with her and her policy agenda.  The only way that they can do that is if they can rebuild the North/Central alliance.

If Essex and Middlesex can come together without Jones demanding the Assembly Speakership for his protégé, East Orange’s LD34 Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake, Mercer, Monmouth, and Passaic will almost certainly be there as well without asking for anything significant in return.  This means that McCabe and Jones would be able to get to fourteen or fifteen by giving Bergen, Hudson, or Union the Assembly Speakership.

Will McCabe lean towards Union to put a Central Jersey stamp on the leadership team?  Possibly, but unlikely.  Union is far too divided at the moment and Scutari has too many problems in his own backyard to have any significant leverage.  He will be lucky to retain his Judiciary committee chairmanship if this coup happens.  If the Senate President is going to come from Central Jersey, specifically Middlesex County, it is all but certain that the Assembly Speaker will come from North Jersey.

Because for the last four years, the Governor, Senate President, and Assembly Speaker have all been white men and that will remain true for at least two of these three positions, it is very likely that McCabe, Murphy et al will make a concerted effort to make the next Assembly Speaker a woman of color and because it is possible if not likely that the next Governor will be an African-American woman, I think that it is just as likely that the next Assembly Speaker will be a Hispanic-American woman.  This leads me to believe that either LD32 Assemblywoman Angelica Jimenez or LD33 Assemblywoman Annette Chapparo will be chosen with Jimenez having the edge due to seniority.

Is there anything that Netanyahu, Norcross, and Sweeney can do to stop what is and may be happening from happening?  As mentioned previously, the full Knesset will vote this week to ratify the government and the governing coalition’s majority in the Knesset is so narrow that one defector would be enough to block this effort.  As a result, Netanyahu will most certainly try to place a tremendous amount of pressure on individual members of New Hope and Yamina to convince them to defect.

Norcross and Sweeney obviously have much more time and their existential crisis is clearly more theoretical than realistic at this moment.  It is also entirely possible that Murphy does not have the guts to rock the boat.  For all anybody knows, he knew exactly what he was doing when he made the deal that he made four years ago that enabled Norcross and Sweeney to join with Middlesex to form their leadership team in return for unifying the state’s political machines behind him.

It is entirely possible that Murphy prefers to play good cop with Norcross and Sweeney being the bad cops, enabling himself to be perceived as progressive, but unable to implement his progressive vision rather than risk having to suffer the same fate as former Governor Jim Florio who had the ability to achieve his policy goals and objectives only to have them be used against him when he ran for re-election.  It is also possible that Murphy did not want to suffer the same fate as former Governor Jon Corzine whose defeat at the hands of former Governor Chris Christie may have been aided by Norcross and his political machine boss allies.

This would explain why Murphy and Norcross have appeared to make peace, putting the EDA issue behind them, legalizing marijuana, and not using contested legislative primary elections this cycle as proxy fights.  Murphy’s endorsement of Carstarphen also supports this notion.

Has Murphy truly abandoned his progressive image or is he just biding his time to survive his re-election campaign?  Do Norcross and Sweeney trust Murphy enough to allow him to be re-elected?  Is it possible that they are either unwilling to unable to help elect a Republican Governor a second time?  If Murphy is re-elected and he does decide to lead a coup against them, what is their recourse?

If Zwicker wins in LD16 this year, like Netanyahu, Norcross and Sweeney would need to find one State Senator who would be willing to defect and threaten to elect a Republican Senate President.  Or much in the same way that Lapid is allowing his junior partner, Bennett to serve as Prime Minister for the first two years of their governing coalition’s term, the Republicans might prefer to have a conservative Democrat like Sweeney remain Senate President, blocking Murphy’s legislative agenda.

Who would be the most likely State Senators to defect from the North Jersey/Central Jersey alliance.  Bergen County’s LD36 State Senator Paul Sarlo would probably be Sweeney’s best hope.  Sarlo is as conservative as Sweeney.  However, it is very likely that if Hudson County gets the Assembly Speaker, Stack would be willing to allow Sarlo to become the Senate Majority Leader so that he could replace him as the Budget Committee Chairman.  That would most likely keep him on board.

This would force Sweeney to turn to Scutari.  However, it would be incredibly risky for Scutari to defect.  He is currently at war with the Mayor of his hometown of Linden and being investigated for his work or lack thereof as the town’s municipal prosecutor.  When he runs for re-election in 2023, his Chairmanship of the Union County Democratic Organization will be at risk as the full County Committee will be up for re-election as well due to a COVID-19-related decision to postpone the elections for two years, an unforced error that may ultimately prove to be his undoing.  He will likely be in the midst of a full-blown civil war and the last thing that he can afford to do is be a part of an effort that undermines the power of a seemingly progressive and popular Governor.

Is there anybody else to whom Norcross and Sweeney can turn?  Their only other hope would be LD11 State Senator Vin Gopal whose district is one of the most competitive in the state.  Gopal has been a Sweeney loyalist since he was elected to the Senate, but he also has a history as a progressive, supporting Dennis Kucinich during his past Presidential campaigns.  If Gopal is a progressive at heart, but a moderate because of the district that he represents, he could be torn between the progressive policy agenda that he would prefer to support and Sweeney’s more conservative approach that will help him continue to be re-elected.

When push comes to shove, it is highly unlikely that Gopal would defect.  Even if defecting would improve his chances to win a general election, it would all but guarantee that he faces an extremely difficult primary election in 2023.  There is a long list of progressives in his district who would jump at the opportunity to run against him and even if the Monmouth County Democratic Organization continued to back him, the party line is not going to mean nearly as much without a statewide candidate running on the line with him.

Gopal and his progressive challenger would be at the top of the ballot and his challenger would have no problem recruiting county and local candidates to build an opposition line.  Purple and red suburban districts also tend to have a primary election voter universe that is more willing to vote against the party line than the more party-line adhering urban blue districts, where there are many more community organizers with no-show jobs who are able to connect needy residents with essential services, winning their loyalty.

If Norcross and Sweeney cannot get Sarlo, Scutari, or Gopal to defect, would they still turn to the Republicans and try to get their support for a co-Senate Presidency for Sweeney?  It is possible, but it is unclear if the risk would be worth the reward.  As co-Senate President, Sweeney could still be in a position to block Murphy’s agenda.  He would either have his South Jersey Democratic allies or Republicans co-chairing all of the committees.

However, if there was ever a chance for progressive insurgents to have a well-funded and well-organized opposition against the South Jersey political machine, it would be in the 2003 primary election cycle.  With Murphy’s money behind them and the North/Central organizations helping them as well, they would have no problem recruiting state, county, and local candidates to fill an opposition line.  A civil war raging within the Democratic Party not only in South Jersey, but throughout the state as Norcross would most certainly be building his own opposition line in North/Central Jersey would get a tremendous amount of media coverage.

Knowing what the consequences would be, would Norcross and Sweeney be able to retain the loyalty of their entire team?  LD8 State Senator Dawn Addiego is a former Republican and LD4 State Senator Fred Madden, LD5 State Senator Nilsa Cruz-Perez, and LD6 State Senator James Beach are locks.

LD7 State Senator Troy Singleton was the Chief of Staff of the former Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts.  He is political machine born and raised.  His political talents have often been compared to that of United States Senator Cory Booker, but unlike Booker, Singleton has never been an insurgent.  Would he buck Norcross and Sweeney and give Vitale the majority he needs and Murphy the ability to pursue his policy agenda?

I think so.  First and foremost, Singleton is probably the most progressive of the South Jersey State Senators.  He is also the only one other than possibly Sweeney with a real future as a statewide candidate.  If Murphy resigned his office in 2025 after being offered a position in a Biden administration’s second term (or Harris administration’s first term), is it possible that Singleton could be chosen to be Oliver’s Lieutenant Governor?  Do establishment Democrats believe that a historic  all-African-American ticket can win statewide here in New Jersey?

I think that they do.  Singleton is most certainly young enough to be willing to wait until 2033 to run for Governor.  The only hope that Norcross might have to counter this historic ticket would be to convince Booker to run for Governor (with Cruz-Perez as his de facto Lieutenant Governor running mate since LG candidates do not appear on primary election ballots), but that is only something that he can do years from now.  Conversations about the next Senate President and Assembly Speaker will be taking place this year.

If a defector is the difference between Sweeney getting another term as Senate President, Vitale replacing him, or a scenario where they would be co-Senate Presidents, I think that it is more likely that Singleton defects than Scutari, Sarlo, or Gopal.  If I am correct, then it is most certainly possible that Sweeney, who rose to his position of power mere months after Netanyahu did may find himself experiencing the same fate as Netanyahu mere months after Netanyahu does.  Maybe coincidences do happen in Israeli and New Jersey politics.  If so, they do not happen often and may never happen again.

The final variable in all of this Machiavellian wrangling is the legislative redistricting process.  Murphy negotiated a deal between outgoing NJDSC Chair and incoming NJDSC Chair that removed all of the appointment power of the Democratic members of the legislative redistricting commission from the NJDSC Chair and distributed it between Currie, Jones, Murphy, Hudson County, the Assembly Speaker, and the Senate President.  At the time that this deal was made, it was assumed that the Assembly Speaker and the Senate President would still be Coughlin and Sweeney.

However, if Coughlin and Sweeney were replaced by Jimenez and Vitale, would Hudson get an additional pick.  My guess is that they would not and this could be how this conflict comes to a close.  Sweeney could still be out as Senate President, but he could be allowed to keep his appointment power in return for accepting the end of his time as Senate President.  He could be given the title of Senate President Emeritus, which is more than Codey ever got when he was taken down.

It is also possible that Singleton could still be offered the Lieutenant Governor’s position in an Acting Governor Oliver’s administration with the blessing of George Norcross.  In addition to avoiding a civil war in 2023, Norcross would still retain a tremendous amount of power and influence with the knowledge that he would most likely have control over the Governor’s office in twelve years.

Yes, twelve years is a lifetime in politics, especially New Jersey politics, but time is one of the four dimensions in the game of 4-D chess that is New Jersey politics and if there is very few, if any, people in New Jersey politics who plays that game better than Norcross.  If he has to wait that long to regain his power, he will wait that long, and, once again, revenge is a dish best served cold.

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  • Kathleen Demarest

    Bertin Lefkovic is probably a genius, and he is writing for people who have
    extraordinary bran power. I wanted to write a wise, thoughtful comment, but after reading this lengthy, fact filled column, I am just too exhausted to comment
    in any meaningful way.

    Don’t get discouraged Bertin Lefkovic, l am going to persist.
    My best wishes are with you.

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