NEWARK – Essex County Democrats have lived with the line “Putting Essex County First” for at least a decade plus, finally arguably anesthetized by their own choral exclamations the way the followers of Frank Hague must have felt whenever they heard those four familiar words: “I am the law.”
Everyone in the political world who visits Essex or who is from Essex and finds himself with a microphone in his hands at some point feels compelled to acknowledge the northern county’s power in the strata of New Jersey politics. In the simplest possible terms, if New Jersey is a Democratic state and Essex is the county with the most Democratic voters, then it stands to reason that Essex ordinarily plays a dominant role in the outcomes of Democratic Primaries.
Last week at Essex County Democratic Chairman Leroy Jones’s labor hall of fame breakfast, former Cory Booker Chief of Staff Mo Butler hung the latest oratorical floral wreath around the powers that be, noting that Essex County voters will determine the state’s next governor.
But heading into the 2017 Democratic Primary, the county Democratic organization faces the challenge of trying to keep the place from devolving into factionalism, with at least three candidates for the state’s highest office routinely hungrily devouring the political landscape in search of support and tugging at different nerve centers in hopes of projecting early strength.
Every Democrat who wants to be governor continues to try to lay claim to Essex.
On Tuesday night, former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy spoke at Orange Mayor Dwayne Warren’s victory party. Last night, while the North Ward Center welcomed Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) to talk about developmental disabilities, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop addressed African-American clergy members with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.
A year ahead of the primary, Sweeney has an edge with DiVincenzo by virtue of numerous interlacing factors. Sweeney’s chief backer, South Jersey Democratic boss George Norcross III, supported Joe D. for county executive in 2002 and the two have retained a strong – albeit somewhat bumpy going back to Sheila Oliver’s tenure as speaker – political connection ever since. As county executive, DiVincenzo has a strong hold on a billion dollar’s worth of patronage that includes the services of legislators employed by Essex. If he and Norcross get behind Sweeney, the senate president has a very strong chance to land the coveted Essex line. These two relationships alone put Sweeney in the prime position to obtain the support of the party organization.
But there are wrinkles.
First of all, sources continue to warble about whether the senate president – with his strong South Jersey regional ties – is actually the best statewide candidate, and the best candidate to appeal to Essex’s particular voting bloc; hence DiVincenzo allies floating the boss’s name for governor and Norcross regularly advancing the argument that if Essex’s own U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) entered the gubernatorial contest he would “clear the field.”
Sweeney’s Essex presence arguably instantly alienates state Senator Ronald L. Rice (D-28) and Senator Dick Codey (D-27), the county’s western dynamic duo, both of whom have run and won off the line in past civil wars. Unreconstructed rebel Rice is on record saying Norcross is “less than a man,” while Sweeney and Norcross tossed Codey out of the senate presidency in 2009, creating an enemy for life. Most sources in Essex County believe that if Leroy Jones awards the Essex line to Sweeney, Codey and Rice would run off the line and spark a countywide civil war.
Codey and Rice appear as close to Murphy as a gubernatorial candidate as DiVincenzo is to Sweeney. No one has endorsed anyone, but the two senators – the former a past acting governor – seem to be leaning toward the former U.S. Ambassador to Germany and Goldman Sachs chief. Part of their interest stems from simple self-preservation and the requirement of a strong, entirely filled out bracket of candidates with whom to run on a slate next year.
They also hear some of the internal organizational whispers about how Sweeney too often appears lethargic as a candidate and incapable of exciting people – a criticism that one couldn’t apply, incidentally, to his performance last night at the North Ward Center, where his personal story connected with the crowd.
Still, his allies continue to voice concerns.
The trouble for Murphy, however, may be the association too many players have of him with Codey, a detestable presence to DiVincenzo and Norcross. Unless the county executive can find a way mold Murphy in his own image, Codey’s vices in the eyes of Joe D. could nullify Murphy’s virtues.
Then there’s Fulop.
To the extent that DiVincenzo remains close to Norcross, the Jersey City mayor appears farthest of any of the candidates from receiving the endorsement of the pair of veteran operators. Just two weeks ago, Fulop publicly criticized Norcross, intensifying the chill between them and lessening his potential to ensnare the line in Essex as long as DiVincenzo plays a major hand in making that call. Just this past Saturday, Fulop huddled up with the county executive at that labor breakfast, prompting politics watchers to mutter comments about damage control.
Beyond merely simple regional proximity, the mayor has several strong assets in Essex, including Chairman Jones’s membership in the quad county alliance, an organization of Essex, Hudson, Passaic and Bergen counties that , at least publicly, is committed to backing the same gubernatorial candidate in the name of North Jersey unity. Jones has made statements regarding his commitment in that regard that Fulop allies have read as his commitment to northern solidarity.
But Jones’s joined-at-the-hip relationship with DiVincenzo appears to put the chairman in a bind.
In the event that Fulop cannot secure the line in Essex, he can still fall back on his relationship with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.
Jones, Norcross and DiVIncenzo all aligned to defeat Baraka in the 2014 mayoral election, while Fulop staunchly backed the South Ward anti-establishment candidate.
Questions remain about how much political influence Baraka can transfer from the nonpartisan cycle he’s always run in to a Democratic Primary election. But the mayor’s allies believe that it will count for something, especially if the county is split three ways. Because Fulop may have to make his strongest case to a grassroots African-American base, his opponents have sought at every turn to emphasize those perceived stumbles by the mayor to connect with the Black community, most lately howling behind the scenes as he confronts Jersey City’s revaluation. Fulop’s efforts to block Sweeney and Gov. Chris Christie on their state takeover of Atlantic City and preserve home rule for local elected officials in the embattled gaming town may offset the criticisms.
Fulop’s battalion may include the lines in Passaic, Hudson and Bergen, support in counties like Monmouth, Ocean, Somerset, Hunterdon and Mercer, and then guerilla warfare surplus in Newark with Baraka. Sweeney starts with South Jersey and – if the field consists of those candidates currently in the race and not a Booker or DiVincenzo – looks right now to have the best organizational shot in Essex.
Union and Middlesex are still question marks, with Murphy right now in the best position to secure at least the latter based on his relationships there, and maybe even Union too if chairmen Jerry Green and Kevin McCabe, respectively from Union and Middlesex, maintain close ties and, in the name of Central state relevance, endorse the same candidate. That won’t happen, however, as long as state Senator Ray Lesniak (D-20) of Elizabeth, a fourth candidate, remains in the race and makes a play for organizational support in his home county. A fifth candidate, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-19) will likely make a case for the backing of his party in Middlesex, but Murphy right now appears to have an edge.
Lest anyone underestimate Norcross’s ability to influence the direction of affairs in key counties, examine how legislators in Union, Middlesex and Essex all found a way to avoid the Statehouse the day Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-32) scheduled for a vote the Fulop-backed Atlantic City bill.
That South Jersey reach killed the bill. But at the edge of 2017, the dominating Essex, not yet unified by all appearances, remains the dominant Democratic Party conversation.