Senate Presidency Stories from the (Ongoing) Era of Steve Sweeney

Sweeney

The first casualty of the 2017 pre-primary season lay crumpled in the consciousness of a political establishment trying to figure out its next move. This was the fall of 2016 and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop had just dropped out of the race to blandly endorse Phil Murphy, the former ambassador to Germany.

The statewide campaign of Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) of South Jersey was still alive.

Hudson, Bergen and Passaic were all with Murphy.

But Essex… Essex hadn’t endorsed anyone.

Sweeney’s candidacy hung on Essex.

All the Joe D events. That tent at the North Ward Center. Newark. Senator Ruiz. Nanina’s in the Park.

Was it all enough?

They had arrived at a moment.

If Sweeney’s guys roaming the hallways of the senate could have donned blue face paint like the characters in Braveheart, they would have.

Bergen…with…Murphy.

That didn’t sit right with Team Sweeney.

Didn’t feel right.

Bergen was not like some other organizations, or like South Jersey, where operations were absolutely air tight.

Lou Stellato was not Brian Stack.

Trying to gut check, the senate president’s handlers herded the Bergen senators into Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg’s (D-37) office.

It was Weinberg, state Senator Bob Gordon (D-38), state Senator Paul Sarlo (D-36), Sweeney, and a handful of operatives.

“Dammit, why…why?” someone with Sweeney berated. It was an animated conversation with Gordon that trailed from the floor of the senate into Weinberg’s chamber.

Gordon was explaining.

Loyalty to the caucus and Sweeney. Yes, of course.

Loyalty to the chair; to Stellato. Had to.

Caught in the crossfire.

“But the money, Bob, all the money.”

Stellato had wanted Murphy. Gordon had to be with Stellato, his county chairman.

In politics, you start with your backyard. As intimate as the caucus was, and it was with Sweeney in charge because he was so accommodating, so loyal, it still wasn’t where you had a cookout with family.

“Well, there’s always Essex,” someone said. It was Sweeney himself, dangling from the end of the pendulum, his words sounding almost endearingly and maybe even tragicomically close to Humphrey Bogart’s, “We’ll always have Paris” reminder to Ingrid Bergman.

And, as it turned out, just as hopeless.

“Essex just went for Murphy,” announced Sarlo, looking up from his phone.

Stillness in the room.

Sweeney sat or stood, it didn’t matter, like a husk of a man resembling the politically surging flesh and blood version in their midst a moment earlier.

Then Weinberg, eyes twinkling, that reliably feisty Jewish grandmother, picked up the room.

“There’s still senate president,” she said, for the senate presidency, not Essex, was Paris, after all, for Steve Sweeney and those close to him in a chamber under the Gold Dome.

It didn’t take the sitting president long to reanimate, to reach for a phone.

Too far from the populous heart of the empire, but too young to play Lear, if he wasn’t going for governor, he needed to start harvesting caucus votes for another tour of duty on the throne he occupied at that moment.

There were rumbles out of the north.

Senator Nick Sacco (D-32) was supposedly talking to the old, grumbling allies of Senator Dick Codey, the former senate president, and names – or a name – began to circulate.

Sweeney would pivot to senate prez before they made a move on him.

And like then, and the times before then, going back to when he and rival Codey in 2009 ran around the state button-holing the same caucus members on front porches, parade floats and cutaways and dimly lit rooms or coffee shops, Sweeney last week hit the phones again to gather the majority votes he needed to secure another two years as master of the New Jersey senate.

“He needs to jump on those phones now,” a North Jersey Democrat opined, referring to the ongoing investigation by the state attorney general’s office of the state Economic Development Authority’s tax incentive program, approved by the senate on Sweeney’s watch, which benefited the South Jersey business network of South Jersey power broker George Norcross III.

The stillness belies volatility.

If Norcross is weakened politically in the near future (unlikely in New Jersey, say party sources, pointing to the political survival and election victory of an indicted and hung jury salvaged Senator Bob Menendez) by the results of that investigation into the awarding of $1.5 billion in tax incentives to Camden projects, “Sweeney needs to lock up support now, not later,” the source speculated.

“Just in case,” the source added.

The senate president has no caucus opposition of consequence, as outlined here, and while his move to reassert power slows those palpably ambitious men who in their forties not too long ago now must absorb – on Sweeney’s time table – the reality of becoming less youthfully vibrant versions of themselves if ever the day comes when Sweeney’s senate presidency ends, no one seems to care.

On Sweeney’s watch, the Smiths, Vitales and Gordons become the Sarlos, Scutaris and Stacks, become the Laganas, Gopals and Singetons.

“The smart money’s on Lagana, Gopal, and Singleton right now,” a party source insisted, reflecting on some distant moment in time when Sweeney surrenders the senate presidency.

“They’re young enough,” he added.

But just this afternoon, another source made the case for Union County, even in its fractured, punctured condition, arguing the impossibility of someone else rising out of quite as politically demanding an environment as the one that shaped (and shapes) rival senators Joe Cryan and Nick Scutari.

“I’d bet Cryan,” the source said referring to the former assemblyman and former state party chair, who hails from an Essex County political family, and has a leg always anchored in the county of his birth.

Essex.

There’s that word again.

But again, no one’s pawing at the turf, or so it appears in the sitting president’s realm.

No one’s ambition seems to rankle bitterly under the yoke of Sweeney’s rule.

Certainly, the party organization takes care of its own. Lawyers get work. Lawyers whose friends are lawyers get work. Engineers get work. Engineers whose friends are engineers get work. And, under Sweeney’s leadership, caucus members get things they want: money for district projects and initiatives.

One source said Sweeney – whatever the moods of his political affiliates, some of them known to have a penchant for phone calls heavy on excitable profanity – never uses intimidation or fear in his own personal dealings with members. He’s good at giving people things to do that play to their individual strengths. He makes friends of enemies, as he did with that person in the caucus seemingly most opposite him politically – at least in public – briskly advancing and re-upping to the senate majority position an ally like Weinberg, who might have been his worst nightmare. He withstands in stony-faced, substance-focused dignity the mob taunts of archenemies who pour, Twisted Sister soundtrack in tow, into his Path to Progress town halls. He remains the best cat herder in Trenton, a man who will make the most gallant effort to talk to everyone in a room of a hundred people, and always speak equally to everyone. And even when he was hip deep trying to defend himself in the midst of the most expensive contest in the national history of legislative races, he was still reaching out to members trying to help them with money.

Can he politically survive the worst legal torments that could weaken his most powerful benefactor in the event in the AG’s Office goes nuclear? Most sources say yes. For the next two years? Definitely; to the source’s point, particularly if the commitments come in now. And they have. Agree or disagree with his politics, even amid law enforcement scrutinizing of the needle-threading legislation he enabled, Sweeney excels at individuating himself, through the friendly upkeep of relationships, and for all the aforementioned reasons. The web of the senate sticks to itself.

Can he, on the strength of the relationships he’s so carefully cultivated, summon the statewide organization out of the south needed to be governor, to gut through a Democratic Primary, even dragging the self-imposed stockade of his pensions and benefits overhaul and ongoing designs and Christie history and with the shadows of South Jersey still over him up north, conceivably against an incumbent from his own party, or a new northern name in training?  Few say yes. Too much human wilderness to cross. But just as Weinberg said once as he re-calibrated that day in 2016, Steve Sweeney will always – or for a little longer anyway, given the organizational atmospherics softened by his own ironworker’s touch – have the senate presidency.

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