The Battle of Fort Sumter: Top-Tier Gubernatorial Candidates Share a Common LG Play

Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Paterson), with former Governor (and state Senator) Richard J. Codey.

Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Paterson), with former Governor (and state Senator) Richard J. Codey.

Even as the three top tier 2017 Democratic candidates for governor shred one another, they might, in a moment of reflection, consider their agreement on at least one point: the abiding virtues of Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Paterson), everyone’s favorite starting gate choice for lieutenant governor.

She comes from Paterson, that spill zone of North Jersey urban angst most generously reinterpreted and repackaged in local tourist pamphlets as “the Great Falls of the mighty Passaic.”  Beat up in the Christie era as one of those politically easy municipalities to deny education funding, Paterson this year faced a $45 million budget shortfall, resulting in multiple school district staffing cuts.  Even after the layoffs of over 150 Paterson teachers and administrators, a tripling of property taxes in the city (over the course of four years), and a state shortfall of up to 50 percent of Paterson’s current school aid, the school district faced the prospect at the start of this month of $2 million in courtesy busing cuts for up to 2,971 students.

If Sumter ends up on a statewide ticket – and right now she appears to be best positioned among the Democratic

Sumter and Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo.

Sumter and Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo.

contenders for at least the number two spot on a ticket – she will emphasize education – particularly urban education, and present a party funding plan in an attempt to undo the Christie epoch wreckage, in addition to a case for why the State of New Jersey should relinquish control back to the people of the Paterson and Newark school districts.

“These latest rounds of cuts to security, transportation and custodial services announced in August are, truthfully, obscene,” Sumter said at the start of the school year.

But it’s not simply the married mom and professional healthcare administrator’s stand on critical issues that makes Sumter politically viable in statewide politics as New Jersey heads toward next year’s gubernatorial primary.

Sumter and former Governor Jim Florio.

Sumter and former Governor Jim Florio.

A longtime member of St. Luke’s Baptist church in the tough 4th Ward, the assemblywoman is the goddaughter of Democratic State Party Chairman John Currie, who doubles as chairman of the Passaic County  Democratic Committee. Heading into a gubernatorial election year, Currie has angled his way into those close-quarters conversations about who gets what in the party’s ongoing backroom battles. Simultaneously, the assemblywoman continues to avidly make the rounds of political events, up-ticking her work rate going into and coming out of the Democratic National Convention this summer in Philadelphia.

Discerning her path forward and mulling a run for governor as possibly the best platform for a statewide discussion about those injustices she sees in New Jersey’s education system, Sumter has had discussions with everyone from former Governors Dick Codey, Christine Todd Whitman and Jim Florio; Congressman Donald Payne, Jr. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, and many others.

“I am meeting with as many of the party’s thinkers and leaders as I can,” Sumter told PolitickerNJ at the Renaissance Hotel in Philadelphia amid the comings and goings of breakfasting party committee members.

She may yet punch up a 2017 gubernatorial candidacy.

But whether she pursues an actual run for governor or not, Sumter remains at the outset the most likely Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor.

Here’s the logic:

The two main contenders are Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop.

On the lookout for county support for his candidacy, Sweeney has no senate presidency play in Fulop’s home county of Hudson, or in his home region of South Jersey, which gets his candidacy as a prize unto itself. Similarly, Fulop has no play in the south because the south is on lock down for Sweeney and sealed from him. Hudson gets the prize of his gubernatorial candidacy.

That puts Democratic Party building block counties Essex, Bergen, Passaic, Middlesex and Union in play for the following positions: senate president, speaker, and lieutenant governor.

The Democrats’ most potent county, Essex is in position to trade its powerful Democratic county line to a gubernatorial candidate in exchange for the promise of senate president. So are Bergen, Middlesex and Union. If Essex awards the line to Sweeney, for example, that means Essex gets Senate president. That puts Fulop in better position to extract a senate president from Bergen, Middlesex or Union, in exchange for the line.

Now, sources say Fulop’s two for one play for Bergen’s and Passaic’s support is to back Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) for speaker. Yes, Schaer’s from Passaic, but he’s very close to Bergen County Democratic Chairman Lou Stellato.

That gives him room to work for the line in Union and Middlesex with the dangled promise of his support for the senate president to come out of one of those counties.

Sources further assert that fellow labor brother Assemblywoman Wayne DeAngelo (D-Hamilton) as speaker is the Sweeney play for the line in Middlesex (and Mercer). Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Kevin McCabe can either take a deal of backing Sweeney for governor in exchange for making DeAngelo speaker, or insist on state Senator Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex) for senate president. That jams Sweeney, who needs Essex. If DeAngelo isn’t good enough for McCabe, then he can go to Fulop in exchange for making Vitale senate prez. A lot of hoops. Sources say the chairman would prefer to be spared all that drama by backing former ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy and getting other counties to likewise fall in line.

In any event, the back and forth power trades of speaker and senate president for gubernatorial support involve those bigger counties, mainly Essex and Middlesex; making the lieutenant governor play more likely the province of Mercer, Union or Passaic.

Notwithstanding his support for Schaer, Fulop can ensure that Passaic sticks with him (and Bergen and Hudson) by doubling down on his love for Currie with the awarding of the LG spot to Sumter.

Sweeney can make the same play: a ring kiss for Currie by running with Sumter.

And so can Murphy.

Now, that’s today, right now.

If Currie locks up behind Fulop, however, that means Sumter’s Fulop’s ticket mate, the sweetener on top of a Schaer speakership. That would give Sweeney the play for LG in either Union or (in a pinch, maybe) Mercer. Bergen’s unlikely for him, if Stellato digs in with Fulop and Currie sticks with Bergen (that likelihood, again, enhanced by Sumter as LG).

Sweeney and… Assemblyman Jamel Holley (Roselle)? Holley was at that Democratic Party establishment meeting last month that looked like a 2017 runway for Sweeney’s gubernatorial ambitions.

But the play by all candidates starts with keeping the door open on a Sumter LG candidacy out of respect and love for Currie.

Staying afloat in a politically fractured atmosphere is nothing new for Sumter, who in 2010 served as the campaign manager for Jeff Jones’s successful mayoral candidacy, then diplomatically juggled her local devotions to the anti-establishment Jones and Currie and U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson).

Ultimately, her presence on a statewide ticket will signify a calculated play for wholeness.

In the meantime, she’s listening, and if she doesn’t hear anyone talking with any kind of substance or gravity about equal educational opportunities for all and how to get there, the Patersonian may delay the LG play and jump in the guv race herself.

Sumter, with Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop (left).

Sumter, with Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop (left).