TRENTON – It was every person for himself, except for when transactionalism required the proximity of a tedious ally today who might be wholly expendable tomorrow, as Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) mounted the rostrum this afternoon to swear in two new cow hands to the state senate, each of whom came with the usual encumbrances of a little New Jersey hobgoblin called politics.
First up was former Passaic County Clerk Kristin Corrado, a Peter Murphy-assisted ally of former state Senator Kevin O’Toole (R-40), who assumed the oath of office for O’Toole’s old senate seat on the same day she resigned the Passaic County clerkship and left it in the hands of her former assistant, Deputy Clerk Walter Davison . The timing of Corrado’s departure from the clerk’s office after an Oct. 1st deadline denied Democratic State Party Chairman John Currie a crack at running for the seat this season. That seems like an unsurprising denial given Corrado’s affiliation in the Republican Party, right? Sure, but Corrado rode out the deadline with an assist from Sweeney, O’Toole’s old cross-the-aisle pal who still smarted from Currie’s decision to back Phil Murphy instead of himself for governor. The fact that the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) continues to flood money into the pockets of a Salem factory worker named Fran Grenier and Currie hasn’t blown that play dead also infuriates Sweeney.
Upon taking the oath, Corrado paid tribute to O’Toole (today’s the birthday of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey chairman), while basking in the glowing presence of the Senate Prez. Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37) welcomed Corrado with a gender endzone dance, proclaiming that she was glad “to see a woman” join the prestigious club of 40.
Next to climb atop Sweeney’s throne of power was Colin Bell, a former Atlantic County freeholder and a Democrat, who bore the unhappy (but politically advantageous) task of having to assume the oath of office with a month to go in the LD2 senate contest. The death of state Senator Jim Whelan left the seat vacant in the middle of Bell’s contest with Assemblyman Chris Brown (R-2). In the 2nd, where Bell’s allies insist that their candidate has a strong shot against the GOP – even with the neighboring LD3 sucking the district nearly bone dry of cash as South Jersey attempts to keep Sweeney powerfully propped – the same labor civil war divide permeates the contest. Just as in the 3rd, where Sweeney has Building Trades backing and his Republican opponent Fran Grenier has the support of the public sector-centered NJEA, Bell has the Building Trades and Republican Brown (counter intuitively?) has public sector labor.
Bell set his hand on the Bible and took the oath.
In his brief speech he spoke of the honor of a lifetime, and family, and “this sacred office,” and lamented the circumstances of his having to become a senator, giving a nod to the late and beloved Whelan.
“Don’t rule out Bell now that he’s a senator,” a Democratic source told InsiderNJ, apparently convinced
that the office itself would invest the former freeholder with such an aura of gravitas as to break like a dam over the voters in the 2nd, forgetting that it didn’t work for Sonny McCullough in 2007 when he ran as the “incumbent” against Whelan, who devoured him.
Would Bell last past the month at hand?
Would he be worth forging a relationship with on the strength of a Stockton Poll that showed him neck in neck with the favored Brown?
Whatever the answer to those questions, which may have passed casually through the minds of any of the senators seated in that chamber today, South Jersey allies refuse to write off Bell, initially sized up as cannon fodder as the party apparatus prepared to absorb the loss of the retiring Whelan by augmenting its delegation with a pickup in LD7, where Assemblyman Troy Singleton is cakewalking his way in to assume a seat left by the retiring state Senator Diane Allen (R-7).
That leaves LD11, initially assumed to be the season’s real battleground, by the reckoning of most insiders, now irritated that all the party infighting has gotten in the way of a real slugfest on the issues between incumbent Senator Jen Beck (R-11) and Democratic challenger Vin Gopal. That’s the larger view of those who still see Sweeney hunkered over the cash resources to protect himself that otherwise might have been whole hogged into the 11th to elect Gopal. Internally, both Beck’s and Gopal’s camps still see a real contest. Beck lost her running mates in 2015 and now has the added albatrosses of Donald Trump and Chris Christie to shake off, while Gopal comes saddled with what the GOP widely derides as a North Jersey-centric gubernatorial campaign by Democratic candidate Phil Murphy.
“We love him,” a GOP source exulted in LD11, a Beck ally, who sees Murphy – he of the $1.3 billion in new revenues raised – as a drag on Gopal.
InsiderNJ caught up with former Governor Dick Codey as he sauntered down the marble staircase to make his entrance into the session just moments before Corrado and Bell got sworn in by Sweeney. “I’m not bitter,” he said cheerily, the apparent imminent victory of Murphy dancing like sugar plum fairies in the Irish American’s eyes.
Codey was an early backer of Murphy, and so can gloat with authority, though he chose not to in the hallway as he extended a hand to state Senator Kip Bateman (R-16), he of that district that might have been more competitive but for a supposed deal Sweeney cut to protect “Kip,” depriving Somerset Democrats once again of a clear shot at the venerable Republican senator.
InsiderNJ asked Codey if Sweeney was inevitable if he holds off Granier and the NJEA and he shrugged. Then he fielded a question about why those Democratic allies – if they detest Sweeney so much – can’t engage the services of state Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean (R-21) when they all reconvene after Election Day. His father once pulled Democrats into his corner in the lower house to win a leadership fight, why can’t Codey snag the kid and put together a bipartisan club to oust the sitting senate president?
Codey’s eyes shone merrily.
It was difficult to glean an answer, or to conclude that – much like his dreaded enemy Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo always prioritized his relationship with the governor first, whether it was Jon Corzine or Chris Christie (especially Christie, let’s face it) – he was simply going to bank on being an early (and avid) ally of Murphy. But at the moment, as senators scurried in to assume their seats, Sweeney looked like the one with more obvious GOP cards in his hands, as Bateman grinned and posed dutifully with Codey, and Corrado, having vanquished the Democratic State Party chairman with Sweeney’s help, joined the club, a sworn ally of what Nick Acocella dubbed “the imperial senate presidency.”
Come-backing on the rising Murphy narrative – which the GOP, cackling over lost opportunities in this cycle for Democrats as the Civil War-embattled Sweeney fights for his life in the South Jersey suburbs, say favors an urban and not suburban battleground agenda – Codey and his ally state Senator Ronald Rice (D-28) appeared more likely to agitate to prevent Sweeney from adding another senate ally in the form of Gopal to his stable than they cared to entertain enhancing a leadership alternative to Sweeney through an alliance with Kean.
But that was just today.
Old alliances and battles may die hard.
They may never die until burial rights depose those who would never stop on their own.
But politics could forge something anew out of the governorship, possibly with a Woodrow Wilson-like one-term incentive (as unnerving as it would be to a Christie ambition-fatigued population here) by the next occupant, who would have motivation in such circumstances to see as momentary, and certainly expendable, those power structures concentrated in a politically dysfunctional New Jersey.