EWING – The verdict is in: for Democrats in New Jersey, Mercer County — and specifically the Club House at the Mountain View Golf Course — was the place to be tonight.
There was certainly no shortage of political interest in the room, as local politickers, friends, family members and Democratic operatives from around the state co-mingled over plates of h’ordeurves and the sound of a jazz guitar playing softly in the corner. Local pols were in attendance, such as Ewing Mayor Bert Steinmann, Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson, and chairwoman of the Mercer County Democrats, Elizabeth Muoio, who emceed the event.
But there were others, like Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, who floated in and out of various social circles trading greetings with colleagues and stealing much of the spotlight.
Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) was there, too, as was Assemblyman John Wisniewski, smiling widely while making his rounds.”I’m friends with almost everyone in the room,” Wiz said when asked what brought him to Mercer County from his neighboring haunts in Middlesex. “I’m someone for whom old habits die hard.”
Technically, the annual fundraiser, hosted by the Mercer County Democrats and organized by county executive Brian Hughes, was held in honor of outgoing U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-12), the scientist-turned-politician who announced his retirement from the congressional seat earlier this year. And honor him it did — bumper stickers and pins featuring Holt’s trademark jingle, “My congressman is a Rocket Scientist!”, were free for the taking, and Holt and his wife sat smiling throughout most of the night as one speaker after another got up to the podium to shower praise on “one of those people that is the conscience of our country,” according to Booker, or the “man who … let everybody know what he believed and stuck by those beliefs no matter what,” according Wisniewski.
“If there’s one thing about Rush Holt, it’s that he was never there sticking his finger up to feel which way the wind was blowing,” said Booker during a lengthy speech crammed with literary flourishes and Biblical allegories about Moses – or was it Holt? — crossing the red sea that had Wisniewski struggling to keep a grin from cracking across his face in the back of the room. “He went to congress with a moral compass that only pointed in two directions — north, true north, and to New Jersey.”
“He may be one of the smartest congressman to ever pass through the hallowed halls of congress, but he was one of the finest gentlemen that congress ever had,” said Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-15), also one of the event’s stars as she begins her fall campaign, backed by Booker, to replace Holt in November. “I can’t fill his shoes, but I’ll try and carry on his legacy.”
But with a guest list emblazoned with the names of some of New Jersey’s most powerful players, and with growing discussion over who will run to succeed presidential frontrunner Gov. Chris Christie in 2017, Holt’s wasn’t the only political career under examination — and no one better expressed what undoubtedly many in the room were thinking when he finally took his place at the podium than the congressman himself.
“We’ve got all the gubernatorial candidates in the room tonight,” Holt ragged as the crowd erupted in laughter and applause and Fulop, Wiz, Sweeney and Booker stood shoulder-to-shoulder behind him.
“It’s a little bit like sitting at a wedding,” Holt added. “It makes me think of a little girl who didn’t quite have her political terminology in place and said she heard that Rush Holt was a ‘dead duck’.”
Indeed, the only potential 2016 candidate not in attendance was former U.S. ambassador to Germany and Goldman Sachs alum Phil Murphy, who couldn’t make the event but who, according to Hughes, “significantly underwrit” the program.
“We’ll be carpooling going forward,” Fulop, before making his way out the door after the event, joked when asked about the surprise showing of gubernatorial prospects and whether to expect the same turnout at future party fundraisers. “It’s safer for the environment.”
But as much as the fundraiser was about waxing and waning political careers, it was also about Mercer County’s apparent renaissance as a political place-of-interest following the primary battle between Watson Coleman and Linda Greenstein (D-14), who was also at the event. That race, it seems, put Mercer — “a powerhouse once again,” according to Sweeney — back on the map.
“This county — think about this — this county was all Republican at one time,” Sweeney said. “But they did something many people can’t — they dug out.”
Others echoed the sentiment, with Wisniewski heralding the county as a “powerful Democratic organization that … stands strong in the state of New Jersey,” and Holt remarking that the event’s turnout “sure lookes good for Mercer County.”