Crunched into a plush armchair at the annual League of Municipalities, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) hardly appeared enthusiatic about the prospect of a Phil Murphy governorship.
An ironworker professionally schooled in clinging to the sides of buildings, Sweeney had worked too hard, been through too much, weathered too many political battles, some won, others painfully lost, to feel any emotional tug in the direction of a grinning newcomer from Wall Street who lacked a record in public office running on a promise to do better than the bums in charge.
Okay, he never said bums, but Murphy made a routine point of eviscerating Governor Chris Christie, and why not as the Republican struggles with an 18% job approval rating.
It was a sore subject for Sweeney in many ways.
After a first term game of (some would argue good government) footsy with the U.S. Attorney turned White House aspirant, a post-Bridgegate emboldened/2017 statewide Dems Primary mode Sweeney labored hard to make amends with public sector unions and liberals, spearheading marriage equality and slapping the nationally starry eyed Christie on progressive root issues like gun control.
When he tapped out of the governor’s contest, Sweeney – on the stength of his issues-advocacy but mostly becasue of a combination of caucus relationship buildign and South Jersey power ties – tried to burnish northern support for a reupping as senate president. It mostly appears to have solidified on the strength of GN3 deal-making with Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Kevin McCabe and longstanding Essex tentacles.
There are complexities to the deal, but mostly it boils down to Assemblyman Craig Coughlin (D-19) of Woodbridge getting plopped in the speaker’s chair in exchange for keeping southern colossus Sweeney installed as senate prez.
Not everyone up north likes the deal, and once all the high fiving subsided more than a few prime players north of Middlesex actually started asking questions like: outside of LG (which no one really wants, and that’s a fight between Essex and Passaic, or so it appears), what did we actually get?
You get a governor, Murphy’s staunchest inner city players who fear a war argue.
But the current deal also requires Hudson to lose a speaker.
And Essex? If Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter of Paterson gets LG, Essex – the biggest Democratic county in the state – ends up empty-handed.
But Cory Booker of Newark may become president!
It gets absurd after a while.
Anyway, then and now some Murphy allies want more than simply their guy in Drumthwacket.
In part fueled by vengeance, in part alert to the natural population dimensions of the state, they thirst, in fact, for an expungement from Trenton leadership of South Jersey. What faces Murphy now is akin to what the allied forces felt after WWII, in their view. It’s an unfortunate analogy for obvious reasons and should be seen as relevant only in purely miliary-strategic terms. Do they want to content themselves with having leveled Germany or do they want to stampede all the way to Moscow?
Sources say state Senator Dick Codey (D-27) esposes what might be described as closest to the George Patton point of view, which would require Murphy and his minions to attempt to take sufficient senate seats so the new governor can control – at least – an upper house legislative agenda and not risk getting pushed around by Sweeney and South Jersey Democratic boss George Norcross III. When Murphy sewed up the support of enough party bosses up north to nullify Sweeney in the pre-primary contest last year, Codey worked the phones on the legislative end, attempting to line up commensurate support for Senator Joe Vitale (D-19) to be the next senate president.
That effort went semi-dark through the holidays but the imminent return to the statehouse of former assemblyman (and now Union County Sheriff) Joe Cryan as a senator in LD20 has stirred discussion about another nothern alternative to Sweeney.
An Essex Democrat told InsiderNJ last week that Cryan would start with 13 senators if he choses to go with the General Patton battle plan and take out Sweeney as a way of giving his close ally Murphy a strong starting position with a majority in the senate. It might be an optimistic read on the part of the InsiderNJ source, given the long arm potential of South Jersey.
It’s the magic number if one does not take into account the possibility of the GOP influencing the outcome.
The Democratic caucus numbers 24, which makes the retirement of State Senator Diane Allen (R-7) that much more significant and the timing – by the recocking of the most hardened politics observers here – vaguely suspect. Allen gone gives Sweeney a can’t miss ally in Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-7), a fellow member of the Building Trades and South Jersey diehard.
But South Jersey Dems too worry about Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo in LD2. Many fear that he lacks the political arm strength to bench press a game Assemblyman Chris Brown (R-2). Both men will be vying to replace state Senator Jim Whelan (D-2), whom some Sweeney allies are begging to return for one more race. Every vote could count if the north (Cryan/Codey et all) is serious about a challenge. Senate Leadership could come down to LD11, where cash will pour in from all sides in an attempt to influence Democrat Vin Gopal, who will try to unseat veteran Republican Senator Jen Beck of Red Bank.
Or it come down – as it did once with his father in another lifetime – to Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean (R-21) and the GOP.
It is said that Kean’s father, who once cut a deal with Democrats to become speaker of the assembly, likes Murphy personally and respects his ability. Just how far he would go to help him for the sake of New Jersey could be part of the conversation going forward, if Team Murphy ultimately even sees South Jersey Democrats as threatening and seek to expend political capital in that direction amid multiple competing voices.