Several players within the wider circles of Trenton power politics are nibbling somewhat urgently on the ear of Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop.
The speakership is in question for the next two years with Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-34) a walking question mark and Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-32) and Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36) going through political gladiatorial warm-up exercises to replace her.
“If she wants it, it’s hers,” the line fervently repeated by operatives around Oliver is routinely just as forcefully contradicted by Democratic caucus members who wearily say she’s done.
Oliver out suggests a weakened Essex County, where the powerful Essex County executive may have to give up the adjective accompanying his title, though he has seemingly staked the next four years on picking up the phone to call Gov. Chris Christie directly rather than have to wade through the agonizing taffy pull of caucus politics.
Less than cozy with South Jersey at the moment, DiVincenzo is also prepared to play on close ties to Hudson County, attempting a display of proximity as power.
An early backer of Fulop for Mayor in this year’s mayoral contest, the executive wants to strengthen the relationship.
Fulop dined with DiVincenzo last night, sources said, not an uncommon occurrence but one that underscores the close ties the two players are keeping as Essex appears – coincidentally or not – more and more wobbly with the possibility of losing the lower house leadership seat.
A man close to DiVincenzo who was once considered a top tier possibility among Oliver successors, Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-29) resigned his seat last week to answer to corruption charges.
If Oliver can’t (or won’t) gain traction to return to power, the Essex County executive is limited as to his home county choices – not to mention a chill on the landscape elsewhere – which accounts in part for his deepened alliance with state Sen. Nick Sacco (D-32) and Fulop.
Massaged by South Jersey Power boss George Norcross III, Sacco is the power broker behind Prieto, who seems like the logical establishment alternative to Oliver largely on the basis of statewide balance and the concentration of organized power in the south.
Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) of South Jersey wants to run for the leadership seat again, necessitating a North Jersey brand on the other side of the seesaw, in this case Secaucus’ Prieto.
The added benefit for Sweeney if South Jersey contributes to a Prieto speakership is the fact that Prieto serves as the chairman of the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO), and would be a key ally in a Democratic Primary for governor.
Sweeney has gubernatorial ambitions.
So does Fulop, incidentally, now in his first term as mayor of Jersey City.
Prieto was among those luminaries brightly in attendance at Fulop’s fundraiser this week, but the mayor won’t yet declare his support for the assemblyman as speaker.
“The speaker today is Sheila Oliver and nobody knows what the Assembly will look like post November,” Fulop said.
“Furthermore, nobody knows if Sheila or Vinny even wants the position so I think anyone speaking about it is just trying to create chaos,” he added. “I am 100 percent sure the Democratic Party leadership will sort it out post November.”
His decision not to throw in yet with a candidate has propelled others across the Hackensack River to seek his counsel.
Bergen County Democratic Committee Chairman Lou Stellato wants Schaer as speaker, sources say.
The two men have a longstanding alliance, and Stellato doesn’t forget the Passaic assemblyman’s decision to line up with Bergen in the 2012 bloodbath that was Pascrell versus Rothman.
Schaer also sat with Fulop in recent days, sources told PolitickerNJ.com, as he seeks power centers toward his own run at the speaker’s seat.
Sources close to the situation say Schaer hopes to coalesce North and Central Jersey support to break the grip South Jersey has been able to exert over the rest of the state – not that he wouldn’t be amenable to joining forces with South Jersey if he can land sufficient backing of his own.
Fulop doesn’t want to alienate Prieto.
He doesn’t want to unnecessarily irritate Stellato, who by virtue of backing Schaer over the South Jersey-favored Prieto is asserting a decided statement of North Jersey hegemony. But he can justify backing Prieto over Schaer on the basis of Hudson County coming first for the mayor of Jersey City.
Fulop also has his own close relationship with South Jersey, and may – if he does end up in a Democratic Primary for governor against Sweeney in the near future – want to delay that standoff and not use the speaker’s battle as a warm-up when not only South Jersey but Jersey City stands to gain by an augmented Hudson.
But it’s still in motion.