State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-3), and Assemblywoman Celeste Riley (D-3) versus GOP attorney Mike Mulligan for Senate, GOP Assemblyman Domenick DiCicco for LD3 Assembly, and GOP Dr. Bob Villare for LD3 Assembly.
In Sweeney and Burzichelli the South Jersey Democrats possess two ambitious leaders who under the wide-armed auspices of George Norcross III are alpha male playmakers in their own right. An ironworkers labor leader with his own time-tested base and an N.J. film industry staple, Sweeney and Burzichelli respectively formed key pieces of their party’s takeover of the southern region of the state.
Republicans needed a legitimate champion to punch back and get an upper house toe-hold.
When GOP attorney Domenick DiCicco won an Assembly seat in 2009, Republicans quickly set about crafting the public platforms that would enable the Republican to stand eyeball-to-eyeball with South Jersey Democratic Party family members. As a resident of District 4, DiCicco appeared to be just the Victor Mature-lookalike the GOP was looking for to upend state Sen. Fred Madden (D-4). Sharing numerous stages with Gov. Chris Christie, debating Sweeney on Fox TV, or getting tough with the Delaware Bridge Commission, DiCicco was eminently publicly comfortable in the role of future senator.
By the time Madden, a former state cop, stared at a lit-up telephone in his home office as reporters sought five minutes of his time to grill him on what it felt like to back health and pension cuts for former public law enforcement officers, the unapologetically Republican DiCicco further honed his gravitas chops.
But the showdown everyone craved never happened as DiCicco fell victim to redistricting, yanked away from Madden and into another South Jersey district, all the turf pawing of his first term suddenly vaporized as he stared at new opposition, whose lieutenants were precisely those inner circle strategists who helped make their 3rd District to protect them.
Democrats brought in DiCicco’s hometown of Franklin, discarded Wenonah, and ditched the Republican towns from the Cumberland County portion of the district to happily compose a district with 43,046 registered Dem, 23,887 GOP, and 56,477 unaffiliated LD3.
Having spent a year and a half demonstrating his ability to sit at the tables and stand at at the lecterns of the state’s top political brass, DiCicco found himself rerouted and running with a tea party doctor named Bob Villare against proven winners Sweeney and Burzichelli, Democrats who not only backed but led on pension/benefits reform. They had been talking about it for years. The fact that teachers and cops and the AFL-CIO withheld endorsements from Sweeney ultimately meant little politically to Sweeney, who had his own political connections and the second biggest box of cash among all legislators.
DiCicco decided to run for Assembly again in the new district, his most avid allies sold on the idea that if Sweeney and Burzichelli were unbeatable, the emerging GOP leader might at least be able to pick off what Republicans see as the weak link down here: educator Assemblywoman Celeste Riley. Attorney Mike Mulligan ran in the top slot against Sweeney, bringing to the job a wide and reassuring grin that Dem observers dismissed as delusional.
Huddled in the Capitol, Republican leadership told DiCicco they’d protect him. Or at least try. They’d make him wake up the South Jersey Democrats. They looked for angles to stem DiCicco’s mood over the newfangled map. It’s not that bad, was the argument. Christie beat Corzine in Gloucester. Two Republican freeholder candidates beat the Democrats last year to drop the freeholder board down to just a 5-2 Dem lead. OK, said the wounded assemblyman. He was in – unhappily; but in.
At the top of an unorthodox GOP ticket, Mulligan immediately went on offense, firing a steady hum of emails to reporters that one-by-one made the case against the Senate president.
In return, he received very little coverage and no Big Three state money.
Republican leadership followed through on their promise to give some money to DiCicco, enabling him to blanket the district with six direct mail pieces. A source told Politicker.NJ.com he plans at least four more in the final weeks of the campaign.
Mulligan’s attacks had the impact of irritating the Democrats, who thought the redistricting commission had made it clear enough that the GOP really shouldn’t waste a lot of time here.
“When you attack Steve Sweeney you’d better have two loaded guns and a shotgun in the trunk,” grunted a Democrat.
After months of silence and enduring the constant buzz of the challenger, Sweeney finally awoke last weekend. Cuing the end theme from Dr. Strangelove, the Senate president dropped a cable TV-sized molotov on Mulligan.
“The guy’s unknown,” said a source close to Sweeney. “We had to define him for the voters.”
The ad touched on four negative points.
Team Mulligan couldn’t believe it. They gaped at a powerful incumbent’s gall to go shock and awe like that on a citizen challenger. The ad tried to demolish Mulligan with a suggestion that his professional record did not meet the standard of a senator.
Sweeney must be scared, was the optimistic conclusion.
“Why else would he go negative like that?” reasoned a GOP source.
Besides the fact that he doesn’t have the money to match Sweeney, Mulligan lacks the message to match Sweeney’s, which precisely matches Gov. Chris Christie’s on the GOP governor’s signature piece of reform. In short, Mulligan may be the only Tea Party-backed Senate candidate who didn’t support public sector health and pension benefits cuts. His parents were teachers.
“Did you see that speech at the Reagan Library where the governor talked about working with Democrats?” Burzichelli asked Mulligan at a chamber event.
As for Villare, his website still showed the doctor sounding off on issues from 2009, the last time he ran. There’s a picture of him with then-national GOP Chairman Michael Steele. It has the look and feel of a stale and outdated resource. A YouTube ad Villare people posted has the narrated accompaniment of Robbie the Robo-voter, inevitably bearing eccentric comparison to TV’s Lost in Space.
It added up badly for the GOP: a rising star redistricted into political heartbreak, a Senate candidate introduced to the voters by way of a neutron bomb who had $693 cash-on-hand compared to Sweeney’s $840,000, and a Tea Party YouTube campaign relying in part on the voice of an automaton.
And yet, the LD 3 GOP still looks at the climate. They cite the negativity and hopelessness of rank and file voters. They look at Burzichelli’s hometown of Paulsboro with downtown buildings boarded up and depressed. They cite a Monmouth University poll from August citing Cumberland as the number one county where residents complain about being unhappy. They look at Riley, weak, in their view, and from that part of the district most easily cut off from the source of power. They look at President Barack Obama, damaged. They look at Gov. Chris Christie’s numbers travelling in the right direction. They look at a freeholder board in Gloucester deprived now of the considerable presence of Sweeney where there is an opportunity to win more seats. A sweep this year would give the GOP control. They look at the Tea Party, more vigorous here arguably than in other regions of New Jersey. They delight in the implosion of former Cumberland County Dem Chairman Lou Maggazu. They consider the prospect of off-year, low voter turnout.
And despite their own internal challenges, overall lack of money and resources and the strength of the machine they’re up against, they individually nurse the possibility of pulling off an upset.
Everyone says it.
Sweeney wants another two-year term as Senate president. Maybe he runs for governor after that. Maybe he runs for the U.S. Senate.
“Steve shouldn’t say that,” a high-powered Dem source complained to PolitickerNJ. “He shouldn’t walk around telling people he wants to run for the U.S. Senate. He should tell people he wants governor, then take Senate as a consolation prize.”
It is but one example of buzz that constantly trails Sweeney.
“Sweeney is already reaching out to labor and asking for support – for governor,” comes another tip, presented a few weeks ago and with a total projection of authority, as if Sweeney is right now making his statewide executive move.
But none of it comes from him and ultimately none of it precedes what Sweeney wants to do first, which is to win convincingly in his home county and his home district – certainly convincingly enough to quiet the ongoing criticism that he couldn’t carry Corzine down here and couldn’t help incumbents win a freeholder race last year. He wants to walk into the caucus room strong. As for Burzichelli, the well-liked and respected legislator remains a short-list assembly-member to move up to speaker when Sweeney ends his tenure in the Senate president’s chair.
When they make the case for victory in this district, most Republicans still don’t sound completely convincing when it comes to winning the legislative races. But enough GOP insiders say they still have hope in helping to return DiCicco to the Capitol with a squeak-out win over Riley. Most insiders on both sides say it would be a stunning victory if he did it. Even with the tide up against incumbents, redistricting made the third safer for this group of powerful Democrats. Political observers say the South Jersey machine is too big and Sweeney’s and Burzichelli’s coattails too long.
Besides, and this from two sources – DiCicco’s house is up for sale, indicating he probably doesn’t believe he can win, or is at least substantially hedging.
A well-heeled insider told PolitickerNJ.com that Sweeney’s nuclear ad dropped solely to uplift the turf as a reminder to Dems to get out the vote in an off-year for the freeholder candidates more than anyone.
Leans Solid Democrat