NEWARK – It’s less than four months until Election Day and the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Il) still does not have a New Jersey state director.
"It’s not a problem," Gov. Jon Corzine insisted today in the Ironbound, a sentiment echoed by Obama backers who point out that there are nine paid staffers operating in New Jersey right now, and that fewer than six states are equipped with directors at this point.
"I’ve been in contact with the Obama campaign," the governor told PolitickerNJ.com. "They can make up their minds and come to their decision. Until (last) Friday they hadn’t talked to the people (candidates)."
The favorites for the New Jersey job remain Bob Decheine, chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9); and Patricia A. Mueller, chief of staff for the New Jersey Regional Council of Carpenters, whose interfacing entrenchments unavoidably suggest that old political divide between north and south Jersey.
Other names have been kicked around the power circles in the last week as possible compromise choices, including labor brain Robert Garrison and Pablo Fonseca, chief of staff to Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Bill Matsikoudis, corporation counsel for Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy, also remains in that pack of urban operators likely to emerge with some kind of Obama campaign moniker even if it’s not state director.
Although sources close to both Decheine and Mueller insist there’s no real geographic antagonism – just a friendly search for the best candidate – it’s hard not to detect the bitter outlines of the recent past in their Obama rivalry.
It was the north country Rothman, after all, who personally helped diffuse south Jersey’s U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews’s shot at the organizational line in Bergen County during Andrews’s failed U.S. Senate bid against U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ).
Already in an advantageous position as he straddles pieces of two of the most important Democratic Party counties – Bergen and Hudson in his 9th Congressional District, Rothman can potentially tighten his own statewide grip with Decheine at the controls of the Obama campaign.
But there’s at least one powerful Democratic Party apparatus that nurses no particular affection for Rothman, especially now – and that’s the SJDO.
Andrews was that outfit’s star until his demolition in the primary. Coming out of a South Jersey stable of decided underdogs as he made his improbable 2008 run for U.S. Senate, Andrews would have had a better shot in the northern part of the state had Bergen County boss Joseph Ferreiro given him the line.
Rothman helped ensure that didn’t happen.
Now launching into the state director’s fray on the heels of that senate primary, Mueller’s close ties to the SJDO. – she’s a personal friend of South Jersey boss George Norcross and a Camden County insider – make her presence in the contest an obvious counterweight to Rothman and his team.
It’s tough not to call it a grudge match, yet even as Decheine v. Mueller heads into at least its second week, Democrats insist their candidates’ competition has nothing to do with state factionalism.
"There’s only one fiefdom we’re concerned with and which is going to be intact at the end," said State Party Chairman Joseph Cryan. "And that’s New Jersey."
A source close to the Obama campaign said as much in another conversation with PolitickerNJ.com.
"This is not about New Jersey, retaliations and political knee-cappings and the rest of it," said the source. "The Obama campaign doesn’t care about South Jersey revenge for Andrews.
"This is about the Obama campaign really trying to run a different kind of campaign. They want to pick the best person. They want to choose the right person in a slow, deliberate and mid-western way."
Both candidates – Mueller and Decheine – bring particular experience. In Mueller’s case, she can claim a been-there-done-that edge as a former statewide New Jersey coordinator for the Democrats.
Decheine is not from New Jersey. But his early political formation occurred on the road and in the grassroots boiler rooms of future U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, in Decheine’s native Wisconsin. Feingold, an aggressive organizer and liberal reformer who voted against the War in Iraq, the Patriot Act and most of the Bush agenda, is known for keeping an exhausting pace that still includes his famed statewide listening tours.
That grassroots character is important to the Obama people. Making sure that those operations fit coherently into the existing party machinery will be one of the particular challenges of a state director – and of Cryan.
Combining new and old, reform and establishment Democrats, "is a win-win for us," said Cryan, the organization Democrat and former Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) supporter.
Today, Corzine said the absence of a state director doesn’t mean Cryan’s not already focused.
"We have an extraordinary state chairman," said the governor. "There are people who want to make this a problem. It’s not. We’re going to have someone soon."
Rasmussen released results of a poll this week that shows Obama with just a 44% to 39% lead over presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in New Jersey.
But on the same day that Obama would later join Clinton for what Democrats envisioned as a dynamic duo fund-raiser at the Hyatt in Manhattan, Corzine looked confident as he considered his presidential candidate’s chances here in the general election.