They have walked around Union and Elizabeth for years, like a pair of bowlegged gunfighters, going in and out of watering holes, union halls and mystic throwback dives and dance halls with the unstated idea that at some point, inevitably, they would end up face to face in a tumbleweed blown street with Ennio Morricone music in the background.
Sheriff Joe Cryan and state Senator Ray Lesniak started out well. The latter was a mentor for the former. But as with so many political relationships, their friendship went off the rails somewhere amid that classic nefarious combination of low boil frayed egos, fractured alliances and hurt feelings. Now they finally appear headed for the denouement, which will no doubt get resolved when one of the two of them gets dragged off that dusty street and placed in a political pine box. This story has some history and contains some real-time mystery related to events daily unfolding against the backdrop of 2017 gubernatorial politics.
The latest ugly chapter occurred when Lesniak, who for a year told people he intended to run for governor as an inveterate champion of progressive causes, earlier this fall aborted his statewide ambitions and set about prepping for a 2017 reelection bid. Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive, appeared to have secured unbeatable support from the Northern Democratic chairs to succeed Governor Chris Christie. It was annoying. Everyone rolling over for an unknown guy, like that, but the senator got it. No matter. Human bill dunking machine Lesniak could go back to the senate and gently school the state’s latest political neophyte. Just like he did with Jon Corzine.
It would be fun.
Then something happened.
Lesniak’s initial encounters with Murphy did not go well.
The two men didn’t hit it off.
Apparently Murphy was not amused by Lesniak’s hijinks.
Lesniak thought Murphy was light on policy, and a transparently polls-driven candidate.
Lesniak began to despise the idea of going back to the senate with Murphy as governor.
Now Union County Democratic Chairman Jerry Green had dutifully refrained form backing Murphy for months, even as Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Kevin McCabe and others tried to entice him onto the early Murphy train. It seemed everyone was going Murphy, but Green would be loyal. As tough as it was given Lesniak’s theatrics, the chairman – who doubles as an assemblyman from the 22nd district – stood sturdily with his veteran home county horse.
But it was tough.
Lesniak, according to those around him, was irritating and egotistical and almost unbearable. He was delusional, and not charmingly so, according to members of his own party who had sat, squirming, and tried to politely hear him out on how his liberal social media crusade would yield the governorship. “If I gave that to Ray as a blueprint for a statewide run, he’d laugh at me,” one senator, in misery, confessed to PolitickerNJ. Green heard the same strategic arguments from Lesniak. He endured them in the name of “doing the right thing.” Ray was from Union County, after all, and Green felt he owed him the courtesy. But, Jesus, it was hard. He stuck with him, even if at times the detail felt like a little like that scene in Bridge on the River Kwai when those wilting British soldiers stand in the sun in a Japanese prison camp.
Then Murphy folded over the rest of the party, leaving Lesniak little choice but to bow out of his statewide bid for governor. That mercifully freed up Green, who promptly went with Murphy.
It looked over.
Then came the Murphy-Lesniak phone calls, a curdling of bad blood, and Lesniak, in the aftermath, started telling people he actually intended to run for governor again. Go out big, he figured. Green had his head in his hands, bringing to mind any number of 16th Century Spanish wood etchings of Sancho Panza not knowing where to look as Don Quixote tilts at windmills. But actually it was worse. Green didn’t feel like playing the part of suffering enabler anymore, not with the My Favorite Year version of Peter O’Toole in the role of Quixote. Once the unmitigated boss of Union County, Lesniak’s world felt like it was shrinking some, with Green push back.
The two men got in a corner of a dinner party at the league and went at it, with state Senator Nick Scutari (D-Linden) present in the role of hard-edged peacekeeper.
So Lesniak, having been out as a gubernatorial prospect, was again in, with a vengeance, and if he was in that meant – apparently – that he wasn’t running for his senate seat, which meant that probably Cryan – all but carried out of the legislature in a body bag some years ago with his dog tags hanging on a wall somewhere in South Jersey – might go for the seat. There was backstory bad blood, for Cryan was reportedly irritated that Lesniak didn’t do more to help him in his fights with South Jersey, especially after the assemblyman had turned up the volume on his GOTV efforts in 2011 to help a double knee replacement surgery-hobbled Lesniak across the finish line.
Lesniak subsequently shored up his political machine and his people now feel confident in their home district.
This LD20 wrinkle relates to a bigger Murphy world story, and that’s whether the hard-charging Democratic candidate for governor decides to simply swallow whole South Jersey’s world domination map in the legislature, or whether he undertakes his own effort to prune some GN3 branded senators and fashion his own upper house majority behind a new senate president. With a scheduled endorsement forthcoming from South Jersey Democrats pending detail ironing, Murphy and George Norcross III got a pot of hot coffee between them in the last number of hours to hash out how they proceed.
It went better – by far – than Murphy’s talks with Lesniak. At the League of Municipalities Conference last week, the going story line was that Norcross’ ally, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), blown up by Murphy as a gubernatorial prospect in pre-season -would return to the upper house throne, his South Jersey power seesawed by Assemblyman Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) in Middlesex as an establishment bonbon for that county that held its delegation together and lined up early behind Murphy.
But still others insisted that Murphy should not – as Corzine did – trust Sweeney and Norcross to help him to be a successful governor, and desperately tried to convince those near Murphy that the candidate should dump money into primaries to rid the map of some longstanding Norcross-bots. There would be an opportunity, for example, in LD2, where state Senator Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic City) appeared done, and his ward, Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, hardly radiated a strong swimmer vibe. There might, too, be a chance to pick up a seat or too in the north. Might someone twist Murphy’s arm into seeing longtime Norcross pal state Senator Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) as a pick off opportunity in the name of building a purely Murphy-friendly majority in the senate? Then there was Lesniak. Can him, Phil, ran the political logic, particularly when heaped on the possibility that existed with the other seats. He could have his own senate president, and it might not take a ton of work. Assemblyman Gary Schaer for Sarlo, Cryan for Lesniak, a warm body for Mazzeo, etc.
Like Cryan, Senator (and former acting Governor) Dick Codey felt the sting of South Jersey when Sweeney deposed him from the senate presidency in 2009, and earlier this fall Codey – an early Murphy backer – hit the phones feeling out caucus members who might be open to another senate power shift. Codey liked the idea of promoting his old friend, state Senator Joe Vitale (D-Woodbridge). But sources say he came up short a handful of votes, at least. If they wanted to take down Sweeney they would need more bodies on the field.
Don’t do it, Phil, self-professed reasonable voices urged. Don’t let past civil wars cloud over your shot at Drumthwacket.
Yet for the most intrigue-minded insiders, the presence in a Democratic Primary of Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville) in the gubernatorial contest began to take on a new and exciting dimension as it relates to Murphy world. It was a favorite drunken barstool game at the league, in fact: what should Murphy do about Wiz? Annihilate him the way he got rid of Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, in one shocking backroom, staff-high-five-inducing meeting; or prop him up with a two-fold purpose: throwing-around money for Murphy’s consultants, who could incrementally chop down Wisniewski (and so it begins) in a pretend Dem Primary with, say, a series of ten fun and devastating ads and accompanying mail pieces for a price; and the simultaneous creation of a bogey man who could give Murphy and company one more target in their war to take the senate.
Nah, ran a lot of insider push-back against such an option. Look what happened to Fulop when he made an enemy of GN3. Better to make nice now, unite the party, as difficult and hurtful as it was for some old-timers to choke down, and if Sweeney causes trouble there’s always 2021 for a showdown, that is if Murphy doesn’t opt for a 2020 prez run, another circulating story line. Woodrow Wilson was three years up and out. Why not Murph? Better to sign on the dotted line to Sweeney as senate prez, Coughlin as speaker, sitting Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) as Department of Community Affairs Commish, maybe Wiz as Transportation chief, and Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-South Jersey) to a re-upped muscled up role as assembly majority leader. Embarrassed out of the process, Essex made a late play for Assemblywoman (and former speaker) Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange) as lieutenant governor in place of Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Paterson), the goddaughter of Democratic State Party Chairman John Currie. Norcross apparently liked that idea, too. Oliver instead of Sumter. That was volatile. But it basically amounted to a Norcross-affirmed universe, and if Murphy could at least keep the attorney general choice out of the hands of Codey and Norcross he might keep both sides (for the moment) happy.
The most obvious sign of potential trouble at the moment still emanated from Union, with Lesniak. Finally, it was more of a personal matter, and it boiled down to the senator and, in the words of one Union source, the senator’s ego, with Cryan in a secondary but no less forceful role if it came down to a showdown. If Murphy world couldn’t put Lesniak back in the bottle, they’d have – presumably – a willing and ready ally in Cryan. If he lacked the line (even though Lesniak insists he would never lack the line, if he chose to run, regardless of what Green wanted to do) the financially extremely well-connected veteran senator would have more than considerable resources to go into primary combat, either in the role of last-stand shogun at the top of a ticket or as a reelection prospect. Green may be too fed up with him at this point to see his way to giving him the line – in any capacity. “Jerry is tired of Ray’s antics, and I could see him denying Ray the line, if Ray keeps running around telling people he’s running for governor,” one source told PolitickerNJ. But Lesniak’s allies point out that Green doesn’t control the line in LD20. Lesniak and Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage do. Cryan, of course, also has a vote. Sources say Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-Roselle) would be very reluctant to run against the party, even if Lesniak found himself forced to run from that position; ditto Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Elizabeth).
That would pit Lesniak – if he dons the warpaint for an off the line reelection bid – against a come-backing Cryan in that same street that political dreams and nightmares are made of, in a tortured vacuum separate from the relatively pacific statewide game, which Murphy appears close to resolving, in the crevices of New Jersey primary politics.
But Lesniak insists this isn’t about him and Cryan.
The old rivalry be damned, he’s running for governor.
It’s him and Murphy.