As Essex County mourns the death of pioneering U.S. Rep. Donald Payne (D-10), party leaders in the coming days face the prospect of filling the now-vacant 10th Congressional seat.
Sources say key players within the Democratic Party establishment prefer Newark City Council President Donald Payne, Jr., over Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-34).
“It’s his decision at this point,” said a well-connected source.
Several Oliver supporters want her to be the next congressperson from the 10th District.
Criticized within party circles for occupying a county job under the auspices of Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo while serving as speaker, Oliver could rid herself of the Joe D. stigma by making history as the first African-American woman from New Jersey to serve in Congress, say the speaker’s allies.
Sources within the Essex County Democratic Party power structure worry, however, that if Oliver leaves her speaker’s seat, Essex could lose a speakership gained through painstaking political deal-making.
Those same sources prefer Payne, Jr. to succeed his father as congressman.
A Payne congressional succession means an easy transition that honors the name and legacy of the father – while eliminating the prospect of Statehouse volatility. Payne Junior in Congress also removes a 2014 mayoral rival to North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos, a key ally of DiVincenzo’s and North Ward Democratic leader Steve Adubato.
Allies of South Ward Councilman Ras Baraka are ready to mobilize behind him in the event that the similarly south ward-based Payne, Jr. goes to Congress and abandons what many insiders expected would be a 2014 mayoral bid.
After several days of speculation back and forth between Payne and Oliver, sources say Oliver’s chances of getting the congressional seat appeared to wane.
Essex fears Oliver’s departure could give rise to Hudson-South Jersey opportunism, with Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-32) or Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-6), for example, making a play for votes; or in an ensuing standoff between those regions, the emergence of a compromise candidate like Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-19) or Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-15).
Payne and Oliver are not the only names circulating.
Last week, Mayor Cory Booker allies recommended to the DiVincenzo brain trust that Newark West Ward Councilman Ronald C. Rice receive consideration as a Line A candidate for Congress.
An original member of the Booker Team, Rice has already transitioned his exploratory committee account to an active campaign account, but as the son of renegade state Sen. Ronald L. Rice (D-28), the councilman does not appear to be close enough to the upper echelons of the party power structure to be the establishment choice, sources say.
Irvington Mayor Wayne Smith is considering a run, he told PolitickerNJ.com, and the name of Rick Thigpen, son of Essex County Executive Phil Thigpen, continues to circulate. Others include Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer (D-29) and former Newark City Councilman Donald Bradley.