This year’s top 50 list of NJ elected officials comes in the aftermath of another legislative election cycle and relies heavily on those district-by-district outcomes for individual rankings.
This is obviously an inexact science, ultimately only prompting questions about the very nature of New Jersey power.
At the heart of those questions lies the difference between organizational power, where politicians work within a specific political structure to accomplish legislative or executive goals; versus individual power, where the right to exercise one’s First Amendment without care of organizational consequences, creates its own unique kind of influence.
By definition, New Jersey government renders those elected officials in the upper reaches of Trenton political circles best positioned to make an impact.
Look at key dominant regions. Look at organizational power connected from one region to another. Power concentrations north and south based on population and political organization take precedence. Those include mayoral and executive fiefdoms in charge of patronage.
But there are those on this list who by virtue of their own veteran status, name ID, or particular story can at times transcend those relationships and define power largely on their own terms.
Each has political value.
The most difficult part of this exercise involved the ranking of members of the U.S. House of Representatives, who obviously make many of their significant power moves in Washington, D.C. The federal elections next year will redefine those positions and create another opportunity for another set of rankings. For our purposes, the ranking of Congressmen on this list pertains to their regional New Jersey political power more than the committee assignments they occupy and jockey for in D.C.
Several insiders balked at their presence on this list.
“Why the %%$$ would I care about that?” one incredulous New Jersey boss told PolitickerNJ.com when questioned about Congressional power, and eagerly moved on to a conversation about Trenton politics.
Told about this list, a Trenton politician opined that congress-people shouldn’t be included.
“Why not?” PNJ asked.
“They don’t have any power,” was the answer.
1. Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey R
This needs no explanation. The office alone rates among the most powerful in the country. Christie’s style, execution and personality enhance his authority to appoint his own cabinet and appoint judges and county prosecutors.
2. Bob Menendez, U.S. Senator D
The Senior Senator chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, still holds considerable sway in his home base of Hudson County (where he served as mayor of Union City), has deep national fundraising contacts and occupies a pre-eminent place in the Latino community. Politically savvy, he rarely loses a political fistfight.
3. Cory Booker, U.S. Senator D
His Twitter following alone puts him in a special 21st Century category of power. The former Mayor of Newark this year in his first statewide run for office destroyed his GOP opponent in his home county of Essex, and proved his strong ties going back to his childhood in Bergen.
4. Steve Sweeney, Senate President D
Strong with the Building Trades, the former ironworker and former Gloucester County Freeholder Director occupies a key throne of state power and has proved adept at politics, securing his 24-body majority again this year as he builds toward a third term as Senate president. The LD3 senator is a strong future contender for governor.
5. Joe DiVincenzo, Essex County Executive D
The Democrat’s endorsement of Chris Christie apparently did nothing to weaken him in his home county, where a long stint as freeholder director and years of building ground-up relationships combine with core party organizational strength to keep him in a powerful position.
6. Ray Lesniak, Senator, 20th District D
There is no stronger, more effective lawmaker in the state. He also took the last two years to shore up his political base in Elizabeth, making it difficult for opponents to get traction for a run against him.
7. Nick Sacco, State Senator, 32nd District, North Bergen Mayor D
The North Hudson County senator had a strong year as he cut the deal with George Norcross III to make Sacco acolyte Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-32) Speaker of the General Assembly and extend his influence.
8. Loretta Weinberg, Senate Majority Leader D
Unbeatable in Bergen, the single most important county in the state, the LD37 senator from Teaneck remains the leading voice in New Jersey’s progressive movement.
9. Kim Guadagno, Lt. Governor R
She assumes the governorship when Christie’s gone, which will happen more frequently now as the governor takes on his new role as leader of the Republican Governor’s Association. Having spent sufficient time on the rubber chicken circuit to gain respect among GOP rank and file committee members, Guadagno is a possible future candidate for governor.
10. Kathe Donovan, Bergen County Executive R
Running for re-election next year, high-name ID Republican Donovan appears well on her way to overcoming divisions in her own party with an event next Tuesday co-hosted by nemesis Bergen County GOP Chairman Bob Yudin. As of right now, Democrats do not appear overly eager to oppose her.
11. Bill Pascrell, U.S. Congressman, 9th District D
His iconic 2012 Democratic Primary win over Steve Rothman put him in a special category among federal elected officials. He wields power in Passaic County going back to his days as mayor of Paterson, the largest city in Passaic; and now flexes his muscles into Bergen. He also has close political ties to sitting Democratic State Party Chairman John Currie.
12. Steve Fulop, Mayor of Jersey City D
The former Goldman Sachs worker bee stands on his own feet in politics, a rarity; runs the state’s second biggest city, and from a very convincing platform of North Jersey continues to make early moves toward a statewide run for office. An Iraq War veteran turned Hudson pol, he also has a unique story.
13. Brian P. Stack, 33rd District State Senator, Mayor of Union City D
Close to Gov. Christie and Senate President Sweeney, Stack does what he wants in Hudson County, where this year he fashioned an alliance with longtime North Hudson rival Sen. Nick Sacco to help strengthen Hudson.
14. Jim Whelan, Senator, LD2 D
Chair of the State Government Committee, the former mayor of Atlantic City has strong political moorings in his home county of Atlantic. He has now defeated three very different and formidable GOP opponents in Sonny McCullough, Vince Polistina, and Frank Balles.
15. Jeff Van Drew, Senator LD1 D
Chair of Community and Urban Affairs, the hands-on Cape May Senator, a dentist by trade, had the biggest win of his career this year despite the fact that Gov. Chris Christie headed the opposing GOP ticket.
16. Chris Bollwage, Mayor of Elizabeth D
The veteran mayor – possibly a future statewide candidate for governor – does – and says – whatever he wants. His last run for re-election in supposedly difficult political circumstances resulted in a lopsided Bollwage victory. Close to Lesniak.
17. Donald Payne, Jr., U.S. Congressman, 10th District D
The Payne name means a lot in Newark, where DiVincenzo will depend on his alliance with the incumbent Congressman in 2014 to secure victory in the Democratic Primary. The congressman also has close ties to Fulop in Jersey City, where he was an early supporter of the mayor’s.
18. Vinny Prieto, Speaker-elect D
The LD32 Assemblyman comes straight out of Sacco world in his ascent to the chairmanship of the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) and chair of power in the lower house, replacing departing Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-34).
19. M. Teresa Ruiz, State Senator, LD29 D
The Newark Senator chairs the Education Committee, has strong organizational ties to North Ward Leader Steve Adubato, works directly for DiVincenzo and has become the Legislature’s leading young voice on education reform.
20. Lou Greenwald, Assembly Majority Leader D
In any discussions of statewide runs for office, the well-prepared LD6 Assemblyman – a strong fundraiser – now emerges as the most credible South Jersey candidate after Sweeney.
21. John McCormac, Mayor of Woodbridge D
McCormac has little trouble at election time in what is right now the most politically powerful town in Middlesex County. The victory this year of Kevin McCabe as Middlesex County Democratic Chairman of Woodbridge enhanced the mayor’s power. He’s also close to state Sen. Joe Vitale (D-19), chair of the Senate Health Committee.
22. Paul Sarlo, 36th District Senator D
Chair of the Senate Budget Committee, Sarlo has stayed alive with guile in politically difficult Bergen County and stands poised to build on Trenton relationships to succeed Sweeney as Senate president.
23. Nick Scutari, Senator, 22nd Legislative District D
Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Scutari has shown a willingness to irritate the Christie Administration in one of the most powerful seats of power in Trenton.
24. Bob Smith, State Senator, LD17 D
Dinged in 2012, the veteran chairman of the Senate Environment Committee and power lawyer still occupies a strong political position in Middlesex County.
25. Tom Kean, Jr., Senate Minority Leader, 21st District R
He proved power in his own caucus right after the election when he defeated challenger Kevin O’Toole. The Kean name still means something in GOP circles – also statewide, but his bad relations with Sweeney put him in a less than robust – even tenuous – spot in the Statehouse right now.
26. Gary Schaer, LD36 Assemblyman D
The incoming chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee – one of the Legislature’s top fundraisers – has his hometown City of Passaic on lockdown owing to his longstanding alliance with political protégé Mayor Alex Blanco.
27. Sandy Cunningham, LD31 State Senator D
Fulop couldn’t have gotten where he is today the way he did without Cunningham staying out of the mayor’s race. Widow of former Mayor Glenn Cunningham, the senator has close ties to Christie.
28. Joe Kyrillos, LD13 State Senator R
Arguably Christie’s closest friend in the Legislature, a former contender for U.S. Senate, the GOP senator from Monmouth County excels at relationship building and has a veteran insider’s edge at the Statehouse.
29. Nia Gill, Senator, LD34 D
In a contest where she was supposed to be tested, Gill leveraged political relationships to handle with ease the 2013 Democratic Primary challenge of formidable Mark Alexander, a seasoned Seton Hall University Law Professor and former Obama State Director.
30. John Wisniewski, LD 19 Assemblyman D
The chairman of the powerful Assembly Transportation Committee is a former State Party Chairman who was too politically savvy for his intra-party enemies to get rid of this year, as he attempts to gain political traction, possibly for statewide office, or as the successor to Pallone.
31. John Burzichelli, LD3 Assemblyman D
The highly regarded Paulsboro lawmaker, a former mayor, is always in any conversation about leadership when insiders discuss those pols most likely to move up the chain. Very close to district-mate Sweeney.
32. Donald Norcross, LD5 Senator D
Many insiders see Norcross, younger brother of Democratic Party Power Broker George Norcross III, as the most credible successor in the Senate President’s chair to Sweeney if the seat stays in South Jersey. He doubles as chairman (along with fellow Senator Jim Beach) as chair of the Camden County Democratic Party.
33. Dick Codey, former Governor, 27th District Senator D
Codey has slid far from where he was just a handful of years ago, but he still knows how to work the media and has the name ID to cause trouble to the same party establishment that dethroned him.
34. Ron Rice, LD28 Senator D
He doesn’t have a political boss and doesn’t care if people don’t like what he has to say, making him the ultimate Essex County cowboy.
35. Frank Pallone, U.S. Congressman, 6th District D
He failed in his bid to become U.S. Senator this year, but the veteran Congressman can fundraise and has deep and close ties to New Jersey’s progressive community.
36. Jon Bramnick, Assembly Minority Leader R
The smart LD 21 Assemblyman excels at relationships, and gets along with almost everyone, starting with Gov. Chris Christie.
37. Fred Madden, LD4 Senator D
No one bothers Madden, a former state cop turned chair of the Senate Labor Committee, in a district that should be Republican.
38. Diane Allen, LD7 Senator R
A former television news personality, the senator has enough name ID and a sufficiently dedicated following to do almost whatever she wants in Burlington with impunity.
39. Rodney Frelinghuysen, Congressman, CD11 R
The name of Frelinghuysen is one of the oldest and most established in the State of New Jersey, and the name alone remains too strong for anyone to oppose him in Morris.
40. Jerry Green, LD22 Assemblyman D
Chairman of the Union County Democratic Party, Green has worked these past three years to strengthen his power base in his hometown of Plainfield and now has greater power countywide.
41. Kevin O’Toole, LD40 Senator R
Close to Gov. Christie, O’Toole failed this year in his bid to oust Tom Kean. Jr. from the Senate Minority Leader seat, but should not be counted out as long as Christie is in power.
42. Troy Singleton, LD7 Assemblyman D
The protégé of former Speaker Joe Roberts has strong professional and political ties to the Carpenters and South Jersey and a 24/7 political temperament.
43. Leonard Lance, CD7 Congressman R
He has had to shape shift in his district to prevent flanking movements from the right, but the veteran Congressman has statewide relationships and considerable family name ID in western New Jersey.
44. Rush Holt, CD12 Congressman D
Arguably the smartest man on the list couldn’t translate that into a U.S. Senate Primary win this year, but has been sharpened by tough campaigns into a strong Central Jersey brand name.
45. Albio Sires, Congressman, CD8 D
The North Hudson County Congressman was in trouble in the aftermath of Jersey City Mayor Jerry Healy’s loss this year, but carefully constructed ties to both Sacco and Stack keep him in good standing.
46. Chris Smith, Congressman, CD4 R
Based in politically advantageous Hamilton, international Affairs expert Smith is the dean of the New Jersey delegation and a leader in Congress of the Right to Life movement.
47. Tom DeGise, Hudson County Executive D
In rebuilding mode after ally Healy’s mayoral loss in Jersey City, DeGise will face his ultimate test in 2015 when he seeks re-election, possibly against Freeholder Bill O’Dea.
48. Frank LoBiondo, Congressman CD2 R
The South Jersey Congressman has a good relationship with Gov. Christie and strong GOP organizational ties.
49. Scott Garrett, CD5 Congressman R
The North Jersey congressman defines himself as the most conservative member of New Jersey’s Congressional delegation, has a strong fundraising history and will run with Donovan next year against a ticket headed by Booker.
50. Rob Andrews, CD1 Congressman D
Dinged by investigations into his use of leadership PAC funds, Andrews is likely done as a statewide brand but continues to be a South Jersey political presence with relationships forged going back to his 1987 election to the Camden County Freeholder Board.