Listen to audio version of this article
As Democrats wrangle over party leadership, with sitting Democratic State Party chairman John Currie on one side and Essex Democratic Chairman Leroy Jones on the other, Assemblyman Tom Gibin (D-34) can speak to the subject from a unique vantage point. He grew up in party politics as the son of state Senator John J. Giblin, and went on to serve as Essex County Democratic Committee Chair (1993-2003) and Democratic State Part Chair (1997-2001). His legislative district, moreover, encompasses parts of Essex and Passaic counties, so he pays homage to both Currie and Jones, each in his respective political domain.
In that light, how does Giblin think the party should resolve the mishmash of Democrats down to the rank and file level getting button-holed and arm twisted in one direction or the other?
First of all, what galls Gibin is that none of this had to happen. If state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) had allowed Currie to get what he wanted three years ago – a clerkship in Passaic County – the party could have avoided a bloodletting.
“He would have been out of the picture and Leroy would have a clear path,” Giblin said, even as Sweeney allies note that Currie started the shoving match when he backed Phil Murphy for governor and cut off the South Jeryean’s North Jersey oxygen supply, and conitnued to support Vincent Prieto for Speaker.
Now, Governor Murphy wants Currie back in the chair of power as assurance within a civil war-rended party that he has his own man in the state organization’s premier political position. And Currie, who presided over a county Democratic Party takeover of Passaic and served as state chairman during a party renaissance, has pride on the line.
It didn’t have to be this way.
Still, Giblin said, maybe there is a way out.
“A pretty well-respected guy like that, a guy who got all the constitutional officers in his home county, and expanded the party while state chairman – figure out a way to give him a face saver,” the assemblyman added.
What would that be?
And why shouldn’t Murphy merely be given who he wants as state chair?
Essex as a domain name, in fact, makes a case stronger than most, particularly when the governor considers his own survival. In other words, while the governor has the courtesy of state chair, the Essex chair has the courtesy of showing the governor the door.
“As long as I’ve been involved in politics, the state party chair has always been the prerogative of the governor, going back to when I was a kid,” Giblin told InsiderNJ.
One leader who stood out back then as the future assemblyman learned about politics was someone named Thorn Lord. Of course, Dennis Cary was the dominant figure for 15 years as chair of the Essex County Democratic Committee.
The veteran Democratic Party leader said the number one consideration in the chair’s contest is 2021 redistricting, as party members angle to try to put themselves – in a particularly New Jersey political variation on Voltaire – in the safest of all possible worlds, while condemning their political enemies to more tenuous districts. The second consideration, said Giblin, is the upcoming 2020 Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, where the chair will assemble the realm of delegates and attendant rooks and as part of New Jersey’s travelling delegation. The state chair has closer access to the governor’s office, and influence over salaried and nonsalaried appointments.
The fight, at its heart, reflects an embarrassment of riches for Democrats, said Giblin, who pointed to party gains in the Trump era leading to overpopulated Democrats complacently going to war with themselves. “Sometimes the opposition party keeps you in check,” the assemblyman said.
In this environment, with North versus South, or the North of the South fighting the North of the North, or the North resistant to the South, Murphy “has to systemically reach out to party chairs throughout the state, region by region, and check the pulse about party leadership. Remember, he still needs these same folks to be onboard for his own reelection.
He needs Jones, to be sure, as a prime building block of his reelection efforts.
Essex County – where Giblin’s hometown of Montclair is situated – is the motherload of Democratic Party power statewide.
“Essex carries a lot of stick in a gubernatorial primary,” the assemblyman acknowledged. Giblin, in fact, put James McGreevey in a prime political position statewide in 1997 when he awarded McGreevey the line in Essex over South Jersey Congressman Rob Andrews.
In that context, and with Murphy on Currie’s side, with Bergen a beast at the moment and not a lockstep Passaic ally in the chairman’s fight like, say, Hudson, “The governor needs a face to face with Leroy Jones. If he can’t deliver, and he feels he can get Leroy his day in the sun, they need to find a graceful exit for Currie. You don’t have to sell the political leadership of Leroy Jones. It speaks for itself; and yes, he [Murphy] needs that wind beneath his wings in 2021. If he and Jones work out this issue, Murphy is guaranteed a smooth primary, and as it is right now, he’s not in bad shape. Murphy needs to reach out to Leroy.
So is it simply a matter of giving Jones the chairmanship and a golden parachute to Currie to make up for Sweeney denying him the clerkship?
Giblin says not quite.
If Murphy truly wants Currie in the position, he should strike a deal with Jones that allows the sitting chairman to stay there in time for Murphy’s 2021 reelection. But once the governor’s reelected, Jones should be given the chairmanship and support.
Currie deserves that respect, the assemblyman said.
Asked about his own leadership of the party at the beginning of the millennium, Giblin said he was concerned about the next generation of Democratic leadership, and invested in Ocean and Monmouth counties, a consequence of seeing transplants from Essex and Hudson move down the shore.
“I think the roots that were planted then, we’ve seen emerge with Downey, Gopal, and Houghtaling,” Giblin said. Critical responsibilities included teaching people the ABCs about party structure, district leader training, having cash to support races, and keeping the lights on during Republican years.
Giblin said the emergence of the AFL-CIO as a political powerhouse under the leadership of Charles Wowkanech also proved critical to his stewardship of the state party organization.
If Jones asked him if he should indeed run for chair, would Giblin tell him yes?
“He needs to understand that he has to take time to do justice to Democrats throughout the state,” Giblin said.
“He has to show his face in Camden as much as Essex,” added the veteran party leader.
- Charles Wowkanech
- Eric Houghtaling
- Essex County
- Hudson County Democrats
- Jim McGreevey
- Joann Downey
- John Currie
- John Giblin
- Leroy Jones
- NJ Democrats
- Passaic County
- Passaic County Democrats
- Phil Murphy
- Rob Andrews
- Tom Giblin
- Vin Gopal
Click here for the full Insider Index