The Most Consequential Decision in the Career of State Party Chairman Currie

Political Parties: Currie, emblem of one half of NJ's main political parties.

“I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” – Will Rogers

Tomorrow in Asbury Park, the eight-year run of Democratic State Party Chairman John Currie will come to an end when he hands the gavel to his successor, LeRoy Jones, and heads back to his fulltime political role as chair of the Passaic County Democratic Party, thereby ending a consequential term of service forever defined by one critical decision, which reflected a kind of personal consistency and – perhaps shockingly in New Jersey politics – finally, decency.

The man who would preside at two Democratic National Conventions – first in Philadelphia in 2016 and second virtually in COVID-wracked 2020 – first became deeply aware of presidential politics in his hometown of Paterson, where he learned of the assassination of John F. Kennedy and mourned as he crossed the Great Falls after high school football practice. The player who would go on to be a coach – one of the best in the city – and a car salesman – maintained his abiding passion for politics, and found a way to navigate the colossal egos and Napoleon Bonapartes in double breasted suits in his home county. Currie and Bill Pascrell would emerge as the prime, power-sharing duo of a county they helmed from GOP to Democratic control in the new millennium, their hegemony challenged when a Republican congressional redistricting map put incumbent Congressman Pascrell and his native Passaic County on a 2012 collision course with fellow Democratic Congressman Steve Rothman of Bergen.  The outcome of the race turned Pascrell and Currie into New Jersey political folk heroes when Pascrell surprised the political establishment by beating Rothman on the strength of big Passaic pluralities.

A year later, Currie – still beaming from Pascrell’s win – emerged as the compromise candidate to succeed John Wisniewski as Democratic State Party chair. The party nominee for governor that year, Barbara Buono, wanted then-Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell as chairman, but South Jersey balked. Close to incumbent Republican Governor Chris Christie, South Jersey and state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) did not want a pro-public sector union chairman, much less one who had voted against Christie’s public pensions and benefits overhaul. They initially backed state Senator Ray Lesniak (D-20) to spite Buono and public sector labor, and derail O’Donnell.

Buono picked Currie to break the stalemate and South Jersey accepted.

Scared of Christie, a former U.S. Attorney who made his name throwing politicians behind bars, the Democratic establishment mostly ignored Buono or made sure to stay away from her gubernatorial candidacy.  But Currie – in a demonstration of party loyalty and good sportsmanship that transcended the transactional and fearful realm occupied by his political colleagues – stood by her. He personally walked her around at the Brownstone in Paterson, old school style, fastidious in his party organization attentions to every person he felt a governor should know. Currie’s old friend, former Bergen County Democratic Committee Chairman Lou Stellato, likewise loyally backed her. Buono lost to Christie in a landslide, but Currie in the process showed his willingness to distinguish himself from that wing of the party that lived in terror of Christie, whose bullying tactics had cowed large segments of lobbying interests cloaked as county party organizations and reduced much of the Democratic establishment to the status of a lapdog.

Currie was never a firebrand or a demagogue.

Nor would he immerse himself in issues and develop lawyerly positions on thorny subjects as some of his predecessors would, among them Wisniewski and Lesniak. But he would stand with people whom he thought had the best interests of the party, never losing sight of a public sector-friendly North Jersey base, and he built allies to remain political relevant even if it meant putting himself at risk.

In the months leading up to the 2017 Democratic Primary, Currie made his most consequential decision as state party chairman when he backed former Ambassador to German (and former Goldman Sachs executive) Phil Murphy for governor. He made the move after Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop abandoned his bid for the governorship, and did so alongside three other party chairs: Jones of Essex, Stellato of Bergen, and Hudson County Democratic Organization Chairman Vincent Prieto. Together, they comprised the so-called “quad,” and they effectively ended Sweeney’s bid for the governorship of New Jersey.

Sweeney didn’t forget.

Nor did he forget Murphy’s and by extension Currie’s supposed inability to keep the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) from running the most expensive contest in history against him; labor payback for Sweeney aligning with Christie on pensions and benefits overhaul.

Murphy entered office as a target of South Jersey, which controlled the Legislature and in particular the Senate Caucus. No one in his inner circle had deep deal-making experience or happy relationships with leadership in the catacombs of Trenton, and that included Currie, a creature of Passaic politics; and Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver, who had served as speaker but early fell out of favor with the Sweeney-Christie dominated old boys network, and ran afoul of South Jersey political boss George Norcross when she refused to support charter schools. The governor for two years took a beating in the State Capitol, as his own party fought his budgets, resisted his efforts to secure a millionaire’s tax, and routinely made his state party chairman, Currie, the object of ridicule and attack.

The Democratic Party fracture came to a head in late 2019 when the party establishment headed by the South and joined by Middlesex and Essex, sought to “Barbara Buono” Murphy and humiliate him by ousting his state party chairman. Currie fought back, however, refusing to give up his leadership post. When someone from the South said he had been there since 2013 and the party needed to head in another direction, a Currie backer noted that Sweeney had served as senate president since 2009. Maybe it was time for Sweeney to finally lumber on.

The old divide persisted, and in a surprising twist that demonstrated again the political survivor in Currie, the endurance of the quad that backed Murphy and continued to spite the south’s quest for expanded mischief, and perhaps the toxic toll of an $11.5 billion tax incentive scandal that touched almost everyone but concussed on the South, Currie and his successor worked out a deal on their own, without the imprimatur of Sweeney and Norcross. Their agreement allowed Currie to remain as chairman for another year and a half, through the 2020 convention.

Thus, tomorrow marks the statewide end of the old school chair, and with the end of his time perhaps, at least for the moment, the end of his kind in this Democratic Party, namely a man with a political pedigree not sustained by a lobbying or public legal career, undergirded by old fashioned, hand shake and eyeball to eyeball friendships and relationships; favors, yes, and patronage, of course; defined, buttressed, and at times arguably undermined by his loyalty to neophyte Murphy, a gubernatorial candidate made inevitable by the strength of Currie’s political circle.

A grubby practitioner of New Jersey politics who absorbed his losses too (he had wanted his goddaughter Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, not Sheila Oliver to serve as LG, and the ascent of at least one close ally to the administration proved disastrous) Currie, it must be remembered lest an incorrect image of him arise of one who merely fashioned the ring of power to kiss the ring, proved no less adamant – when others ran and hid or jeered at her chutzpah for running against Christie and openly worked against her – about the candidacy of Barbara Buono, putting himself out there proudly for her amid a world of  profusely sweating “Christie-crats.”

For better or for worse, Buono was a Democrat, like Murphy; and in the final analysis, like Currie.

 

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