Assemblyman John Wisniewski is one of the many Democrats considering entering New Jersey’s 2017 gubernatorial race. But if one thing sets Wisniewski apart from his competitors it is that he was the only elected official in the state of New Jersey to publicly back the presidential run of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Wisniewski even served as the state director for the Sanders campaign through the Democratic National Convention (DNC) last month.
According to Wisniewski, he is still taking a gubernatorial run into consideration and has no timeline in mind for making an announcement about whether he will officially join former Ambassador Phil Murphy as a declared candidate. The assemblyman said he does not believe his role with Sanders will impact those considerations.
“In terms of the Sanders campaign, well, the Sanders campaign has concluded,” Wisniewski told PolitickerNJ. “There is a Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and we are all working to support Secretary Clinton in her bid for the presidency. I got involved in the campaign at the beginning of 2016. The campaign ran through the convention. The campaign has now concluded.”
In June, Assemblyman Wisniewski was booted as a member of New Jersey’s delegation to the Democratic National Committee. That decision came at the hands of New Jersey Democratic State Committee (NJDSC) Chairman John Currie who decided not to re-up Wisniewski for his position following the July convention. However, the assemblyman sticks by earlier statements that it was Currie’s prerogative to choose members for the delegation and claimed that he holds no animosity over what occurred. Because Wisniewski was the only New Jersey elected official to back Sanders, initial news that he would no longer be in the delegation was tinged with accusations that his support of Sanders had been the impetus for his removal.
“That’s ancient history at that point in time. As I said then, I will say again now. It is the chairman’s prerogative to make those appointments,” Wisniewski said. “I certainly enjoyed my time being a member of the Democratic National Committee but it is time that we moved on.”
Larry Hamm is the Chairman for the New Jersey People’s Organization for Progress. He was a supporter of Sanders’ campaign and said that, because of Wisniewski’s ties to Sanders, the assemblyman will likely get increased consideration as a gubernatorial candidate from Sanders supporters.
“I think other Bernie Sanders supporters will look at him seriously, of course because he was a state elected official who did support Senator Sanders but also because he is very competent,” Hamm said. “He has a good track record. I don’t think people will look at him in a unidimensional way vis-a-vis his support for Senator Sanders but that will certainly be an important factor. I applaud him for taking that step and stepping out of the box because 99 percent of the other state elected officials in New Jersey, they fell in line with their party’s leadership.”
Hamm said that Wisniewski’s move to back Sanders took “courage” because the NJDSC had come out so strongly in support for Clinton. He also said that he, personally, felt Wisniewski was a strong candidate for governor.
However, not all Sanders supporters agree with Hamm that progressives will likely look to Wisniewski as a gubernatorial option. Failed congressional candidate Alex Law ran as a Bernie Sanders Democrat when he challenged incumbent CD1 Democrat Donald Norcross in the June primary. He said that Wisniewski’s management of the Sanders campaign has actually potentially hurt him among progressives who were all-in for Sanders.
“I think that Assemblyman Wisniewski did an exceptionally poor job managing and organizing the Bernie Sanders enthusiasm in New Jersey,” Law told PolitickerNJ. “I think that Senator Sanders’ underwhelming showing in New Jersey was a result of weak field operations from the top down even though there were a lot of really energetic people on the ground ready to be organized. I don’t know what the Sanders national organization would do to support him but I think it is very unlikely that rank and file will based on conversations I have had with local organizers around the state.”
According to Law, potential candidate Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop is best positioned to energize progressive voters in 2017.
Seton Hall University Associate Professor of Political Science Matt Hale said that Fulop, Murphy and Wisniewski are all vying for the same progressive base, something that might make it hard for any of them to become the dominant player among those voters. Hale said that he believes Fulop and Murphy have the best chance to secure the progressive vote but that, currently, that voter base looks to be skewing toward Murphy with Wisniewski coming in “fourth at best” overall.
“I certainly think there is a progressive part of New Jersey and Wisniewski is well-positioned for that but I don’t think it is, necessarily, a winning coalition right now,” Hale said. “I think there are a lot of people who are going to be trying to be the progressive candidate and he is just one of many.”
According to Hale, Senate President Steve Sweeney is the only probable candidate looking to the moderate Democratic vote in New Jersey.
“Sweeney is much more moderate and much more of a typical New Jersey Democrat which isn’t particularly progressive,” Hale said. “I think that he is going to go for that mainstream centrist Democrat and everyone else is going to fight over the progressives which makes it really difficult to get a coalition together to actually win the primary.”
In recent days, Wisniewski has been back in the headlines to once again comment on the Bridgegate trial that has been haunting New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Wisniewski was a Bridgegate investigative committee co-chair with state Senator Loretta Weinberg (D-37).
According to Hamm, with or without Sanders, Wisniewski’s work on the Bridgegate trial has built a profile for him among New Jerseyans.
“If he hadn’t supported Sanders, he already had a name. He served several terms on the legislature and he was the chair of the committee that investigated Bridgegate,” Hamm said. “So he had a name without Sanders but I think this has augmented his stature with progressives.”
Wisniewski said he doesn’t believe his Bridgegate role and the renewed interest in the case will have a significant impact on a race for governor.
“Bridgegate has been on and off in the news for three years and my involvement in it is not new,” Wisniewski said. “I don’t think these new revelations in Bridgegate change the landscape in any respect.”
Hale said that, while Wisniewski is a “smart politician” his path to the governorship looks rocky at best.
“I just think there are a lot of structural things that are stacked against him,” Hale said.
Other Democrats said to be weighing runs for governor in 2017 include state Senator Ray Lesniak (D-20), Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-35) and Montclair Councilman Bob Russo, among others.