The Democrats’ Stalingradification of Mercer: Contextualizations and Implications

Norcross and McCabe

Lil’ ol’ Mercer, that mostly forgotten county, usually left out of hardcore chest-thumping routines, scene of quirky and independent collateral theater, home to a ravaged capital city, this month officially became the poster child for New Jersey’s next political season.

In some ways it replays the 2014 Democratic Primary between Bonnie Watson Coleman and Linda Greenstein, but with some substantial differences that mostly reflect the evolution and devolution of relevant political machines.

As much as incumbent Mercer County Executive and his rival, Assemblyman Dan Benson, have


credibly developed as politicians in their own right, the course of New Jersey’s statewide fights in a sense force them to play the roles of political centaurs, each bolted and welded to remote control motorcycles, while presenting top half portraits of apparently grounded suit and tie friendly humanity.

It’s not really about Mercer, of course, and even less about Hughes and Benson, respectively the scion of a respected family dynasty and progressive alternative to an otherwise pretty Building and Trades-heavy legislative slate.

It’s more about the Middlesex County Democratic Committee, that mechanical octopus of power still burgeoning even on the heels of a string of massive wins, and an accumulation of the most senate seats, among all the connective tissue, a team in ascendancy, in short, under the leadership of County Chairman Kevin McCabe, amassed behind Benson. On the other side – and not without some heavy irony, given the presence with Hughes of veteran independent representatives like


U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman and state Senator Shirley Turner – a hugely depleted and hollowed out South Jersey Democratic Party apparatus wants to protect the sitting county executive, not just against Benson, but further incursion of Middlesex, in a somewhat desperate flex of power on muscles badly withered by successive election cycles going back to Mike Testa’s 2019 butt-kicking of the Democratic machine.

Again, notwithstanding their individual qualities, Hughes v. Benson on paper gives off a mismatch vibe, if one considers the trajectories of the two machines revving underneath them.

Since Mercer’s Watson Coleman defeated the Middlesex-based Greenstein and fed a wild mongoose v. cobra storyline, Middlesex has bounced back and notched multiple wins. South Jersey, which was with Greenstein and Middlesex back then, has since gone into a political tailspin. Still, the combination of Hughes with Trenton-connected power AND the bruised but ruthless South Jersey Democrats, offers a compelling barge of resistance troops to Middlesex and Benson’s amassed trove of power.

Moreover, the explosion of Mercer as a proxy fistfight for bigger wars (in a sense the 2023 version of last year’s Edison mayoral contest, but only in a sense, because South Jersey, in a play for relevance, cozied up to Midldesex, in a show of organizational symbiosis, only to force an inevitable wrenching separation – hence, this) gives the state a Battle of Stalingrad set-piece to test everyone’s dust-gathering catapults and trebuchets.

Democrats killing one another?

Perhaps, but the party numbering one million more registered voters than Republicans, who lost only a single candidate this year (already slated for sacrifice), figured they could afford to have a gladiatorial contest that pulls out all the stops.

Republicans, they suspected, on the strength of an anemic, Trump-encumbered 2022 GOP showing, offered little promise of reviving, let alone putting up a red wave.

Democrats delighted, it seemed, in a chance for Mercer to entertain, as they craved stories of increasingly human collisions, as occurred earlier this month when Hughes and former Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer got into it on the phone. Longtime political friends, they parted company in this contest, with Palmer backing Benson and Hughes irritably accepting a brotherhood fractured. Maybe they weren’t such good friends, after all, their ties hardened into hopes – on Palmer’s part at least – for local cannabis transactions. In any case, their last interaction ended when they each told the other – “F-you” – and slammed the phone down.

But again, more importantly, the organizational implications protrude beneath the podiums and patriotic buntings. A Middlesex ally, speaking on condition of anonymity, scorned South Jersey’s attempts to reinflate itself on the back of Hughes. 2022 George Norcross still thinks he is 2012 George Norcross, said the source. On the one hand, his playbook in Mercer looks like the same one he has successfully deployed for quite some time in NJ: see an opening for intra-party chaos outside of South Jersey and try to exploit that; align with elected officials County that do business with Conner Strong as is the case in Mercer; try to preemptively roll out a list of a third party supporters which Hughes did before Benson last week; and don’t be afraid to utilize threats, like when Steve Ayscue resigned earlier this week as a consultant to Benson-ally John Cimino’s engineering Firm, potentially jeopardizing the Firm’s South Jersey book of business; or working the phones threatening Greenstein, at one point Zwicker too, the Sheriff, the mayor of Hamilton, and the other commissioners with Primary candidates under the Hughes Line.

If one squint a little, he can see the old Norcross back at his game. But this exercise, the source insisted, looks to be another example of “George no longer being George.” The threats don’t pack the punch that they used to.  Cimino kept his name on the Benson letter along with 84 others.  Greenstein came out publicly in support of Benson in defiance of a primary threat. The statewide allies that would ordinarily team up with Norcross to create a sense of futility behind challenging a Norcross ally just aren’t there anymore.  Maybe trying to go toe to toe with Essex County Democratic Chairman (and now State Party Chair) LeRoy Jones a couple years back didn’t help.  Maybe aligning with widely disparaged Joey Muniz (see the developing West New York fiasco for some parallels) who bungled redistricting in Hudson in an effort to harm Brian Stack was a bad bet? Maybe trying to knock off Andrew Zwicker’s attempt to replace Kip Batemen didn’t endear himself in Middlesex?  Maybe Ray Lesniak, John Lynch, Joe Ferriero just don’t seem to be around anymore.

When Team South Jersey calls the Governor’s office and demands that Phil Murphy stay out of the Mercer fight — and the Governor responds that he will strongly and publicly back any challengers to a Mercer-delegation backed slate, this is something Norcross just hasn’t been accustomed to in recent decades.

The losses have tallied: threats to kill the career of Phil Murphy during the EDA scandal and then currying up to him afterwards out of necessity after damage inflicted. New Jersey’s political class watching Amy Kennedy beat up on the South in a Primary. The string of losses in legislative elections, including boyhood friend Sweeney. The outmaneuvering and kneecapping in legislative redistricting by Jones and Middlesex Dems, who have both seen their power grow, not diminish, by standing up to Norcross.

It’s intriguing, the Hughes play for an oxygen campaign tank by leaning on the South, and the South reanimating its connecting points with Hughes for a chance to rev up the battered engine, but it looks less like power and more depletion and exhaustion and sunken riverboat faded glory, in the face of Benson’s cockpit headset to McCabe and Middlesex.

Still, though, Mercer being Mercer – not itself a powerhouse but a jagged jumble of basically irreconcilable foxholes called Democrats, for lack of a better utilitarian term – possesses enough variables, even if Benson trounces Hughes in the coming convention, to make the contest at least volatile, the term most useful to the South Jersey version of that same club, now shriveled at the end of a state drenched in a perpetual red wave.


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2 responses to “The Democrats’ Stalingradification of Mercer: Contextualizations and Implications”

  1. I have to laugh at the news writer’s naivete about Trump, and his Trump Derangement Syndrome when he said “Republicans, they suspected, on the strength of an anemic, Trump-encumbered 2022 GOP showing, offered little promise of reviving, let alone putting up a red wave.” First, let’s look at politics in New Jersey. Since they got the Dominion voting machines, Democrats have been winning by an uncanny 55-45% spread in elections. Most Dems are winning by the same margin. Then we had the Murphy re-election where challenger Ciatterelli was ahead of Murphy by 15,000 votes at midnight with 100% of the vote counted. By 8AM the next morning, Murphy had won by 15,000 votes, with 114% of the votes counted, with ballots found in the back of a van in Essex County and ballots found behind voting machines at a voting place in Bergen. Several NJ Congressional seats were won in the same manner.–ballot stuffing, ballots found after the fact, unsigned or mis-signed ballots, computer voting machines going down in Republican districts, etc. I have been voting (R) for over 25 years. Yet, when I vote in the Presidential or Congressional elections my vote always shows “Undecided”.

    When NJ corrects the election and ballot fraud that goes on each election cycle, whether for federal or state elections, we won’t be listening to Democrats saying they have the power. It’s all a fraud in the first place.

  2. No mention of Mercer County’s Voting Fraud Investigation by Prosecutors, interesting.

    For those of you that are unaware, many, if any of the Dominon Voting Machines didn’t work this pass November 8, 2022 election.

    By the time this is over, Trenton will have had three separate elections in less than 3 months because of the fiasco.

    Fake names were allowed on the Ballots.
    Criminals were allowed to run, including Binnie’s aide.
    More white candidate won in a predominantly Bkack town.

    So, what is new in Mercer County, all this under Hughes watch.

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