Watson Coleman on the State Party Chair Fight: Important for Murphy ‘to have His Choice’

Watson Coleman

U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12) served as Democratic State Committee chair from 2002 to 2006, through some of her party’s most turbulent times; and stood at the side of Democratic nominee for Governor Barbara Buono in 2013 when the party establishment bigfooted Buono’s selection of a state party chair to succeed Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-19). Now, as her party faces the prospect of a showdown between Governor Phil Murphy’s choice for chair (sitting Chairman John Currie), and a potential challenger (Essex County Democratic Chairman Leroy Jones) backed by the same brain trust that wedged Buono away from her choice of Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell (D-31), Watson Coleman said Murphy should be paid the respect of making his own choice for the party chair.

The nominee for governor or incumbent governor traditionally makes his or her choice for a person to lead the party. Murphy backs Currie. Given precedent, with the recent exception of 2013 when the same group that denied Buono her choice, the governor should get who he wants as a matter of party protocol, the Congresswoman and former state party chair said.

“The governor represents unification of the whole party and he represents the idea that when we can be together, it’s difficult to beat us,” Watson Coleman told InsiderNJ. “When we show dysfunction, we show vulnerability.” The Buono situation projected “chaos and disruption all around,” which at the time served part of the party establishment’s core mission, which was to ensure the priority of reelecting Democratic legislators while not putting up significant resistance to Christie’s reelection.

The fight for the chairmanship as waged in the statements between Jones and Currie with 2021 redistricting control on the line says, at the very least, to the opposition, “Here’s an opening,” Watson Coleman said.

InsiderNJ wanted to know if Jones – who has not formally declared his candidacy for the job – is merely the 2019 version of former state Senator Ray Lesniak (D-20), thrown into the gears to halt Buono’s choice of O’Donnell and force a compromise (which turned out to be Currie)? Or is he a credible candidate?

“This is a situation, given the communication I’ve witnessed, where part of the party is trying to force this change, and of course, it’s related to the unfortunate dysfunction between the north and south,” Watson Coleman said. “It is somewhat of a trial balloon.”

But it’s real, she added.

Sources in the midst of the developing contest – which will amp to condition red on the other side of Nov. 5th – would probably dispute the “north-south” divide, and hasten to describe Jones as a candidate who would represent Northern interests first (or forge an Essex-Middlesex power share, of sorts), but it’s difficult to deny the South Jersey opposition to Murphy, going back at least to when the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) – major supporters of Murphy’s – tried to take out Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), from whose chair power emanates in the upper chamber, and distributes to his caucus members.

South Jersey – and its strongest northern allies, among them Essex County Executtive Joe DiVincenzo – backs Jones.

Jones’ allies argue that the goal is to get their candidate in, and then they can go about proving how he would not be merely a “South Jersey” candidate, and could, ultimately, prove more valuable as the overseer of Essex County (which contains the state’s largest number of registered Democrats among all 21 counties) to Murphy than Currie, who as chair of the Passaic County Democratic Commitee, depends more on an alliance with bigger Bergen – and even Hudson – to begin to project larger delineations of power.

Regardless of that fracture and how either Jones or Currie characterizes it, “I think it’s important for the governor to emerge with his candidate of choice,” Watson Coleman said.

“We’ve got enough dysfunction in the country right now without adding to it,” the Congresswoman from Ewing added.

Watson Coleman said Currie is doing a good job, in part owing to his recognition of party growth and expansion. “It’s a winning proposition,” she said, referring to pick ups around the state since Currie has been chair, including four congressional seats in 2018.

“If it isn’t broke, what are we trying to fix?” she said.

“We need to grow, not divide. I think the governor should have his wishes.

“Now,” she added. “He has a responsibility to talk to committee members and make his case for Chairman Currie, and remind them about how and why he has done a good job, and show how people are welcome in our party. We are touchable and reachable at a time when we were trying to grow,” as the country absorbs the House of Representatives’ developing impeachment inquiry into President Donald J. Trump.

“The more information that emerges with regard to the betrayal of the oath this president took to this country, the more people will agree he’s unfit to serve,” Watson Coleman said. “Nancy Pelosi has been an amazing leader as she has taken her time to try to make some sense of this. We are in a very troubling time, but our way of government is by and for the people. The people are having their say, and what they’re saying it we’re not going to cede our democracy.”

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