Dux Femina Facti
(The expedition was led by a woman)
Based solely on the law of unintended consequences, State Senate President Steve Sweeney lost his chance for the 2017 Democratic gubernatorial nomination in November 2013.
That’s when the South Jersey legislative contingent in the State Assembly, captained by George Norcross, crafted the ouster of then Speaker Sheila Oliver of Essex County (pictured), who, by the way, was only the second woman to serve as Speaker and only one of two African Americans to hold the post in New Jersey history.
Speaker Oliver: smart, experienced and not someone who could be influenced without reason or facts, had, in their minds, gone rogue.
Their choice to replace Oliver for the then upcoming 2014 legislative session was Assemblyman Vinnie Prieto of Hudson County. That same year Prieto also replaced Bayonne City Mayor Mark Smith at the political post of Hudson County Democratic Chairman.
If the plan was to have Senator Sweeney as the future South Jersey standard-bearer for statewide office (with North Jersey support), then they had it all figured out, or at least, the Hudson County part of the tally sheet was checked-off.
But, lost in the calculation of having the South Jersey flag planted in the North was that Speaker Prieto turned out to be much more independent minded than most thought and when push came to shove (and there was lot of that), Prieto decided to put the interests of Hudson County and North Jersey first.
Prieto’s first choice for the 2017 Democratic Gubernatorial nomination was Hudson County’s Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop. When Fulop suddenly opted out, Chairman Prieto signed on for a northern quad alliance with Bergen, Passaic and lastly Essex County to steer the nomination, by way of the county ballot lines, to the eventual winner and now Governor Phil Murphy.
At the time, Union County was locked down and committed to the candidacy of State Senator Ray Lesniak (D-20) and his quixotic quest for the same nomination.
Without a ‘full county’ support (preferred ballot line) in the north, Steve Sweeney’s quest for the gubernatorial nomination became untenable and he folded his tent.
All that and more is likely why Prieto is no longer Assembly Speaker and why the popular and powerful Union City Mayor and State Senator Brian Stack (D-33) will soon replace him as Chairman of the legendary vote producing Hudson County Democratic Organization. Senator Stack, coincidentally, happens to be an ally of Senate President Steve Sweeney.
The lessons of the last four years are still being entered into the textbook of the ‘usually’ well-executed South Jersey game plans.
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If you open that textbook to page 2018, you can now see plans being formulated and battle lines being drawn once again in North Jersey. It may well be a blueprint for 2021, come what may.
Last week, shortly after Assemblyman Jerry Green of Plainfield (D-22), due to illness, submitted his resignation as Union County Democratic Party Chairman. State Senator Nick Scutari, also of the 22nd legislative district, immediately issued a statement declaring his intention to seek election to Green’s party post. The statement included a list of supporters.
And then, just as quickly, came a statement from State Senate President Sweeney (D-3) of Burlington County endorsing another one of his colleagues, none other than Senator Scutari, for the Union County post.
The supporters’ list, designed to be a show of strength, is a well-known tactic of South Jersey Democrats. They like to demonstrate inevitability.
The purpose of the South Jersey Senate President’s support for the North Jersey Union County political post might have been to simply underline Senator Scutari’s standing with Senate leaders, as far as that goes. More often than not though things are never what they seem to be.
It should be said that Senator Scutari is certainly an accomplished legislator. He serves as Chairman of the State Senate Judiciary Committee, appointed by Senate President Sweeney.
But, the reality is this: the unfolding events actually billboard an intention by South Jersey to re-align and strengthen political support in the North.
These best laid plans would include the party chairmanship in Union County going to Senator Scutari just like the party chairmanship in Hudson County goes to Senator Stack. Perfect together if your view is from South Jersey.
But should that re-alignment come at the expense or at the loss of opportunity to promote an accomplished woman to a higher post?
Union County Democratic Chairman Jerry Green’s resignation, which came as no surprise to the Scutari forces (given their immediate response), allowed for the elevation of the party’s Vice-Chair, Fanwood Borough Mayor Colleen Mahr, to the Chairmanship of the 800+ member Union County Committee. But that’s temporary.
Union County Committee bylaws mandate that the acting Chairperson arrange for a convening of the entire county committee within 30 days to determine by election their choice for party chair.
Of course, Vice-Chair Mahr has also declared that she intends to seek the top position. After all, she has invested a lot of time and effort in the Committee’s business.
She was passed over for an Assembly seat in 2015 but continued to serve in her party post for what’s now five years helping to promote others to elected office. In the meantime, she went on to win a fourth term as Mayor of the Borough of Fanwood.
Much like Sheila Oliver, Colleen Mahr is smart and experienced. Her stewardship of party functions, raising funds and helping elect Democrats countywide, is well regarded.
Mahr was recently quoted saying this: “When you look at a governing body, you have to ask, ’Is it reflective of the community it’s serving?’…” We’re moving in the right direction of women being interested, coming forward, staying involved… it’s consistency that we need to see…to move the percentages higher.”
This upcoming contest for the Union County Democratic Chairmanship comes down to highlighting one often asked question not only now in Union County circles but also in other parts of the state in this often referred to Year of The Woman. Here’s the question:
Why isn’t Union County Democratic Committee’s Vice-Chair Colleen Mahr’s candidacy being heralded as a rare opportunity for an accomplished woman to be elevated to the well earned, well deserved post of Democratic County Chair?
After all, 54% of registered Democratic voters in Union County are women. More women than men vote in presidential elections, as an example of voter participation.
Some reports posit that the chairmanship fight is a surrogate battle between the two Union County State Senators: Joe Cryan (D-21) and Nick Scutari (D-22). But, that scenario is too convenient and specious.
Besides, it has to be insulting to a woman like Colleen Mahr, who has more than earned her battle stars, to have it represented as such.
So, who in Union County is there to speak truth to power? The fact is there are only threeDemocratic County Chairs in New Jersey’s 21 counties that are currently occupied by women: Peg Schaffer in Somerset County, Arlene Quinones Perez in Hunterdon County, and Leslie Huhn in Sussex County. That’s 3 out of 21, less than 15%. Enough said.
This year, in Union County, it’s either the Year of The Woman, or Not.