Perched in Bergen County, Democratic Party Chairman Lou Stellato gazes across his post apocalyptic Gears of War landscape – the swamps, the oblong brick boxes housing local labor outfits, the oversized, Kremlin-fangled county buildings minus the onion domes, packing crate after packing crate of overpopulated municipalities top heavy with white male payroll flab, and copland overlap as far as the eye can see.
If there’s a warlord of this strangely compelling neck of the unceremoniously felled woods here, it’s Stellato, who bootstrapped himself up to political relevance – and then real power – through the barstool belly laughs and giggles of so-called Democrats who had already cut their deals with Republican Governor Chris Christie and/or forces allied with seemingly unbeatable Bergen County Executive Kathe Donovan.
Hand over hand, Stellato persevered, the crown of his achievement as party chairman coming when he tapped Paramus Mayor (turned wet beyond the ears Freeholder) Jim Tedesco to run for county executive in 2014.
“He can’t win,” adjudged a Democrat of Tedesco, accepting Donovan’s reelection as a fait accompli, loyally aping the inevitability of those potent interests otherwise known as Conner Strong, the insurance brokerage firm headed by South Jersey Democratic leader George Norcross III, which had a contract with the Donovan Administration.
But in defiance of that backroom cackling, Tedesco stunningly beat Donovan with 54.2% of the vote (107,958), to Donovan’s 45.8% (91,299), accomplishing the feat [with an almost George Seurat-like pointillist campaign technique.
The individual sections didn’t look like much at the time, until you stood back and examined the overall canvas. The victory started with a motivated county police force – and their friends and family and their friends and families – looking to punish Donovan for past union sins. Then there was the fact that Tedesco hailed from Paramus, and was a popular mayor there, who volunteered on the fire department. That translated into a big Bergen town vote spike on Election Day. Then there was U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson) running strong on the ticket in South Bergen and Tedesco’s easy rapport with blue collar voters in south Bergen, and a very motivated CD5 Democratic candidacy to the north of the county by Roy Cho. Then Tedesco had some great ads, a negative one against Donovan attacking her supposed strength as a blameless and appalled witness to Democratic Party dissipation, and then another one – a tear-jerker – featuring Tedesco in turnout gear looking like a serviceable candidate for best supporting actor in a remake of Backdraft.
It all came together as one of those campaign masterpieces that would hang in a gallery somewhere if there were anything even close to permanence in politics.
Just as other North Jersey county chairs had settled into their mostly benign roles as power-sharing yardbirds in the Norcross aviary, Stellato soaked up Tedesco’s win as the achievement of a pair of unapologetic alpha males, who gleefully busted up the political power structure in the party and realigned Bergen Democrats as statewide players.
Stellato was a long way off from that public stage in the Barbara Buono campaign where he had stood in horror during one campaign event as the American Flag drooped to the floor. The retired military man refused to continue with the program amid catcalls until the crowd silenced, someone replanted the flag, and an atmosphere of respect abided.
But in an important way it’s really not too different.
Stellato still wants respect paid.
So as South Jersey Democrats and their stoutest allies appear to be lining up behind Senate President Steve Sweeney for governor in the coming 2017 contest and yet doing so with a certain air of misgiving, Stellato – without actually being on the record at this point – is leading the North Jersey lean in the direction of Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop.
Leading the former camp, Norcross detests Fulop, and it is said, favors anyone but the Jersey City mayor.
Stellato wants Fulop, sources say, and doesn’t appear in a mood to be peeled or prodded. Given the history with Norcross in Bergen County, he certainly doesn’t feel like empowering Sweeney, South Jersey’s unadulterated gladiator in these games.
Now given that standoff and the implications for the party, sources continue to buzz about a compromise to avoid the kind of fight that makes some reputations on the destruction of others.
The basic play operates under the assumption that if Norcross wants anybody but Fulop and Stellato wants anybody but Sweeney, the pair of bosses can pull the plug on a New Jersey reenactment of Gettysburg (with Norcross playing Robert E. Lee to Stellato’s George Meade), by simply coming together around former Goldman Sachs chief Phil Murphy.
Norcross and Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo are said to be wary of Murphy.
The millionaire is likeable – maybe too likeable, by their reckoning – but also uncontrollable, or at least unpredictable. These are bosses who are used to having people say, “How high?” when they tell people to jump. Murphy may act nice and malleable now, and then get into office and do the opposite of what he’s told. Can they really take that risk?
Or maybe it’s not quite that cynical.
Maybe they truly just don’t think Murphy has a sellable story. One hears it frequently at Democratic Party events in the wake of roadrunner appearances made by the relentlessly hand-shaking, smiling and back-slapping Murphy: he’s Corzine with a personality.
Maybe that’s enough, or at least more than they get with their current candidate, the senate president, who they like, but who has an undeniable target on his back (the way Donovan did) put there by the New Jersey Education Association and the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police, the bosses who back Sweeney now may surmise.
But if they can’t absolutely peel Stellato away from Fulop (and the one thing about Stellato is he doesn’t necessarily do what he’s told, he’s a funeral director without any public contracts, so he’s in no position to get pushed around), who’s to say a Goldman Sachs guy gives them more strength against Fulop than Sweeney?
Stellato’s the key to Fulop.
If Stellato walks away from the Jersey City mayor, it’s conceivable that Fulop’s candidacy falls apart.
Norcross and DiVincenzo know this.
Now, wary as they are of Murphy, they aren’t sold on a full-proof play to bring in Stellato, who, they may decide, simply requires too much coaxing and charming. Rather than playing that game, they may decide they simply want to beat him and beat him badly, and use Sweeney to administer the beating, and the closer the better (if that’s what it takes) so long as Stellato loses.
But there was some gum-flapping this week in establishment circles about a Brendan Byrne-like candidate, someone not well known now, whose story out of nowhere could connect with voters in a powerful way; someone with a scrappy, genuine public service record that can (even in New Jersey) stand the light of day.
“Maybe the person’s name isn’t out there yet,” a source told PolitickerNJ, hearkening to 1973, when Byrne, a former Essex County prosecutor, having lined up critical county to county support behind the scenes, resigned his judgeship and filed to run for governor just days before the deadline.
Now if Stellato’s the key to ending the coming war, and won’t budge from Fulop apparently unless something politically cataclysmic happens, consider the logic of the following:
Stellato won Bergen with a little-known candidate whom no one gave a chance to win but who proved to be the perfect candidate, a likeable, lovable regular guy whose popularity rating is transcendent in Bergen right now, whose turnout gear could easily be dusted of, in fact, for a statewide ad in a Democratic Primary. In short, might be Stellato be budgeable if the proud Bergenite can extract an even heavier dose of poetic justice and collective catharsis from – not Hudson’s Fulop, but from Bergen’s Tedesco?
Tedesco is the equivalent of Stellato’s masterwork, teased into a position of real prominence under the conditions of such a deal: wheeled out and unveiled on a statewide stage.
If one follows the reasoning of those sources seeking an alternative to those players on the field who brings the bosses under one fold, isn’t Tedesco the perfect consensus choice for governor?
He’s warm and fuzzy, unlike Fulop.
He’s cop-friendly, unlike Sweeney.
He’s a county executive from North Jersey who didn’t endorse Christie, unlike DiVincenzo.
He didn’t earn his keep over a lifetime at Goldman Sachs, unlike Murphy.
He’s from Bergen and so has Stellato’s fingerprints all over him, but he’s sufficiently publicly grounded surely to be malleable, or so one could assume.
He won without Norcross, and now Norcross, in heat-seeking anybody but Fulop mode, arguably has a play in turning to Stellato, not with an entreaty to rally around a Goldman Sachs alum, but in solidarity with a mayor/public service firefighter volunteer turned county executive from Bergen, in effect promoting to governor the guy who – while others cut deals with Christie – stood in there with blue collar scrappiness as a Democratic party mayor and willing (successful) challenger to Republican power.
No way, people are saying already – no way would Norcross swallow his pride like that to bolster a rival like Stellato.
But Norcross wouldn’t simply give Stellato a governor without a very specific extraction, which he wants and needs – more than simply sidelining bitter political enemy Fulop. In exchange for supporting Tedesco for governor and ending an otherwise likely Democratic Party civil war, Norcross could secure Stellato’s backing for his little brother, U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-Camden), for U.S. Senate the next time an open seat occurs.
Anyway, it’s politically volatile in Jersey.