Despite tactical differences on messaging, SJ-EC leadership deal will hold, say sources

LAWRENCEVILLE – Usually their underlings try to avoid getting that all-too-familiar phone call from upstairs, but this time, New Jersey’s two most powerful Democratic Party chieftains must themselves negotiate a discomfiting wrinkle in their ongoing power hug that basically spans the state.

At a North Ward Center breakfast event two weeks ago – right in the organizational wheelhouse of fellow boss Steve Adubato – George Norcross surprised political operatives in casual conversation when he openly mentioned his continuing disapproval of Speaker Sheila Oliver, (D-34), East Orange, somewhat amplifying past public comments.

Shortly after the event, sources close to Adubato told PolitickerNJ.com that North Ward Democratic Party leader Steve “Big Steve” Adubato still emphatically backs Oliver for speaker.

He’s not the only one.

Sources say Adubato acolyte Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and the Democratic legislative delegation plan to meet next Tuesday and reinforce their commitment to Oliver for another term as speaker and the preservation of their ties to Norcross and South Jersey.

Whatever organizational tremors exist as a consequence of Oliver, the other delegation members don’t want to unseat her.

There’s loyalty there, sympathy for her awkward position as a public employee of the county DiVIncenzo runs, and worry about contributing to the political tomahawking of an African-American woman leader.

Sources further confirm that despite his gritted teeth, in the end, Norcross and company take too seriously the symbiosis of their relationship with Adubato/DiVincenzo, and won’t risk cementing another alliance to budge Oliver from her chair of power.

Certainly Norcross and South Jersey recognize that their 50% of the legislative leadership deal – the continuing state presidency of state Sen. Steve Sweeney (D-3), West Deptford, holds up in exchange for DiVincenzo’s contribution – Oliver.

Still, “It’s time for Sheila to step up – like Steve Sweeney – and be a leader,” said a South Jersey source, reflecting on the speaker’s unwillingness during the course of her leadership tenure during these months of Chris Christie’s governorship – to serve as animated saleswoman for controversial policies that divide her Democratic caucus.  

Those undercurrents beset the room last night at Rider University when Norcross, long the mysterious equivalent of Loch Ness to those bruised detractors who cross him politically, stepped up to a microphone to talk about  necessary changes in public education.

The issue is a critical and well-publicized area of disagreement between Oliver and Norcross, key players in a Democratic Party thrown into turmoil when Christie and the GOP stood united on public worker pension/benefits and healthcare scale-backs, while peeling away the Democratic votes they needed by teaming with Sweeney, Norcross, DiVincenzo and a public union-backed, conscience-stricken Oliver.  

As Christie now publicly drives an argument on the benefits of merit pay for teachers and charter schools, the speaker continues – at least publicly – not to support the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA) voucher pilot program, which Norcross and Adubato of Newark staunchly back.

Last night in his public address at Rider University, Norcross laid out ideas he said leaders in this state need to engage for the good of public school children, while deriding Democratic Leadership for not actively engaging the issue of education reform.

He didn’t cite OSA by name, but he mentioned every buzzword tied to the act save vouchers.

Most sources read into the remark another unnamed rebuke of Oliver.

But at least two sources said Norcross was also expressing frustration with Adubato, who Norcross respects immensely but who has not effectively and publicly promoted charter schools as an alternative to the schools that exist now, in Norcross’ opinion.

Norcross believes that if he himself accomplished what Adubato did as founder of Blue Ribbon charter schools in Newark, he would be even more vociferously leading on the issue statewide.

He wants Adubato as engaged on beating down that side of the party resistant to making changes that don’t require middle class taxpayers to pay $20,000 to $22,000 per pupil for urban public education.

Not to mention engaged in keeping Oliver engaged in the program.

One of the problems for Adubato is that while members of his and DiVincenzo’s delegation back OSA on command, they don’t want to be boosters on the issue and further estrange themselves from those caucus members resistant to opposing the powerful NJEA and to overhauling public education.

Sources close to both Adubato and Norcross say the issue alone is insufficient to break down the relationship and send Oliver and Sweeney scrambling for back benches.

And although Norcross recently sat down with Bergen County Chairman Lou Stellato and Assemblyman Gary Schaer, (D-36), South Jersey sources also determinedly deny that Norcross is actively pursuing a back-up alliance elsewhere should Oliver not commit to promoting the vouchers pilot program.

Norcross simply sat down with Bergen’s new chairman in a friendly meeting orchestrated by former U.S. Sen. Bob Torricelli, said a source close to the South Jersey boss.

But with reorganization on the horizon in November, intrigue persists.