Below is this year’s PolitickerNJ list of the 50 most powerful elected officials in the State of New Jersey.
As always, this is obviously an inexact science, ultimately only prompting questions about the very nature of 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.
This year, the consequences of Bridgegate, mayor’s races in Paterson and Newark, Atlantic City mayhem, legislative successes, and the ongoing jockeying toward governor 2017 all factor into the narrative…
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. That said, the post-Bridgegate governor is wounded and, by every indication, going into a polling nosedive as he heads toward a 2016 presidential run.
- 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), occupies suburban residency in Bergen County, has deep national fundraising contacts and occupies a pre-eminent place in the Latino community. Politically savvy, he rarely loses a political fistfight.
- Cory Booker, U.S. Senator D
His Twitter following alone puts him in a special 21st Century category of power. In his matchup with Republican long-shot gold standard champion, the former Mayor of Newark next week looks to secure his first six-year term as New Jersey’s junior senator.
- 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 as he navigates in search of a strengthened statewide foothold. The LD3 senator is a strong future contender for governor.
- Nick Sacco, State Senator, 32nd District, North Bergen Mayor D
The power behind Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-32), this veteran North Hudson County senator continued to extend his influence this year, projecting Hudson strength both with his charge Prieto and by helping to position for a statewide gubernatorial bid.
- Ray Lesniak, Senator, 20th District D
There is no stronger, more effective Trenton-based lawmaker in the state. He was on the winning side in the Newark and Bayonne mayors’ contests. He also took the last three years to shore up his political base in Elizabeth, making it difficult for opponents to get traction for a run against him. Next week, Team Lesniak – along with ally Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage – will attempt to wrest control of the school board away from rivals Rafael Fajardo and Tony Monteiro.
- 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. She had a very big 2013-2014 – arguably the most effective of her legislative career – exposing the bad government practices of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and serving as the leading senate voice on the joint legislative committee looking into the Bridgegate scandal.
- Joe DiVincenzo, Essex County Executive D
Although he will coast to re-election victory next week against token opposition and controls the biggest patronage government network outside of Trenton, the powerful county executive dropped a few points this year based on his candidate sustaining a loss in the Newark mayor’s race and Christie’s diminishment. While technically more powerful than Lesniak or Weinberg from a pure patronage standpoint, the senators’ efforts – on a range of issues, everything from marriage equality to Bridgegate to campaigns and elections – trumped Joe D’s in terms of influence.
- Brian P. Stack, 33rd District State Senator, Mayor of Union City D
Close to Gov. Christie, Senate President Sweeney, and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, Stack does what he wants in Hudson County, providing a North Hudson one-two punch along with Sacco.
10. 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. His alliance with Ras Baraka in Newark this year jumps him up the list from 12 last year. Watch what happens in Burlington County next week. Fulop’s played hard there, and will claim a victory if Democrats win one of two seats at stake and turn control of the county away from the GOP. A Bergen win by Democratic challenger James Tedesco would also enhance his standing.
11. Kathe Donovan, Bergen County Executive R
Running for re-election this year, high-name ID Republican Donovan is in a dogfight down the final stretch with Democratic challenger Tedesco, a Bergen County freeholder. If Donovan loses next week, it will be the shock of the campaign cycle and send a jolt of hurt all the way up the governor’s office.
12. 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. Granted, his candidate lost the Paterson mayor’s race this year, but that did little to damage the districtwide reputation of New Jersey’s honorary “third senator.”
13. Donald Norcross, LD5 Senator D
The younger brother of Democratic Party Power Broker George Norcross III displaces Rob Andrews from this list as he looks next week to land the First Congressional District seat and take the potent Norcross brand name to D.C.
14. 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).
15. 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, the mayor backs a ticket in next week’s closely watched Board of Education election, where two out of three wins will flip control of the council away from the mayor’s longtime critics.
16. John Wisniewski, LD 19 Assemblyman D
Up from 30 in 2013, he’s here on this list because of the niche he carved out as the legislature’s lead investigator into the George Washington Bridge scandal. Even his detractors found themselves forced to admit Wisniewski’s thoroughness, persistence, and legal sure-footedness. The chairman of the powerful Assembly Transportation Committee and co-chair (with Weinberg) of the Committee looking into Bridgegate is a former State Party Chairman who was too politically savvy for his intra-party enemies to get rid of last year, as he attempts to gain political traction, possibly for statewide office, or as the successor to Pallone.
17. 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 in 2013 despite the fact that Gov. Chris Christie headed the opposing GOP ticket.
18. Ras Baraka, Mayor of Newark D
The good news he is the chief executive of New Jersey’s biggest city, having run the most exciting mayoral campaign of the year and beaten a party machinery with tentacles that stretched all the way to South Jersey. The bad news is he has to run every move he makes up the state’s flag pole in a city beset with budget woes. Still, Baraka’s presence in Newark somewhat weakens the full-blown control DiVincenzo previously exerted.
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. 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. On the legislative side, he’s the most natural successor to John Lynch – the politician most capable of showing up at an event with busloads of supporters.
21. Lou Greenwald, Assembly Majority Leader LD6 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.
22. Jose Joey Torres, Mayor of Paterson D
The veteran mayor beat the Passaic County Democratic Party when he defeated Sixth Ward Councilman Andre Sayegh in May and catapulted himself back into City Hall. Close to Fulop and Baraka and powerful Ocean County GOP Chairman George Gilmore.
23. 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. He’s in a very solid position in the 2017 gubernatorial sweepstakes as players on all sides court his attentions.
24. 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.
25. Bonnie Watson Coleman, LD15 Assemblywoman, D
We know what you’re thinking. She’s going to be a congresswoman (yes, she still has to get past Alieta Eck next week). How is going to Washington these days a step up in terms of power? The fact is that Watson Coleman has always been powerful in Mercer and had built a path upward to the speakership before getting big-footed by power-brokers in the North and South. Her concussive victory in this year’s CD12 Democratic Primary proved that she can actually back up the sharp-elbowed, progressive hell-raiser style she’s honed all these years.
26. 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. Close to Lesniak.
27. Gary Schaer, LD36 Assemblyman D
The 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.
28. 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. He elevates – up from 34 last year – based on Baraka’s victory in the Newark mayor’s race.
29. Jim Whelan, Senator, LD2 D
Chair of the Senate Gaming Committee, the former mayor of Atlantic City has strong political moorings in his home county of Atlantic and defeated three very different and formidable GOP opponents in Sonny McCullough, Vince Polistina, and Frank Balles. But the veteran took a drop this year, down from 14, owing to the closings of casinos, and – in what is possibly his last term in office – is looking to reverse the fortunes of his beloved home town.
30. 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.
31. Joe Cryan, LD20 Assemblyman D
It took Cryan’s proposed departure from the assembly – he’s running for sheriff of Union County – to bounce him onto this list after an absence. Longer term, Cryan is looking to build Union into a political force to be reckoned with in the Democratic Party and will have that countywide organizational fortification as sheriff.
32. 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 last 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.
33. Donald Payne, Jr., U.S. Congressman, 10th District D
The Payne name means a lot in Newark, where DiVincenzo depends on his alliance with the incumbent Congressman. But Payne’s down this year from 17, the consequence of a loss in his home South Ward, having backed the losing campaign of Shavar Jeffries in the Newark Mayor’s election.
34. Tom Kean, Jr., Senate Minority Leader, 21st District R
He proved power in his own caucus last year right after the election when he defeated challenger Kevin O’Toole. The Kean name still means something in GOP circles – also statewide. There’s Central Jersey GOP talk about Kean succeeding U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-70 someday.
35. Wayne DeAngelo, LD14 Assemblyman, D
The newly empowered chairman of the Telecommunications and Utilities Committee is routinely the top vote-getter in LD14, and has strong ties to Sweeney and labor (he’s an IBEW labor leader).
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. He’s also put in considerable work developing his own statewide apparatus and appears – along with Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno – to be poised for a 2017 gubernatorial run.
37. 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.
38. Kim Guadagno, Lt. Governor R
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 who continues to struggle for attention under the Chris Christie circus tent.
39. 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 and – if she wants it – is a possible future candidate for mayor of Jersey City.
40. Nia Gill, Senator, LD34 D
At any moment she can go off on an eviscerating riff that makes whoever is on the butt end of that rant feel like he or she wants to assume the fetal position for the next week. She’s arguably the best cross-examiner in the state senate.
41. 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.
42. Frank Pallone, U.S. Congressman, 6th District D
He failed in his bid to become U.S. Senator last year, but the veteran Congressman can fundraise and has deep and close ties to New Jersey’s progressive community. A senior Dem on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the ranking member on the Subcommittee on Health.
43. 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.
44. Ralph Caputo, LD28 Assemblyman D
His veteran status serves him well as he undertakes – along with Whelan on the senate side – a statewide overhaul of gaming in
the ever-beleaguered State of New Jersey. The consummate political survivor.
45. Jerry Green, LD22 Assemblyman D
Chairman of the Union County Democratic Party, Green has become Union’s assemblyman emeritus and has instantaneous lockdown overlord ability in his hometown of Plainfield.
46. Kevin O’Toole, LD40 Senator R
Close to Gov. Christie, O’Toole failed last 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 and Essex County Executive Joe Divincenzo are in power.
47. Tom DeGise, Hudson County Executive D
In rebuilding mode after ally Jerry Healy’s mayoral loss in Jersey City, DeGise looks to have already passed what would have been his ultimate test in 2015 when he seeks re-election. After DeGise locked up the support of Stack and Sacco, he sent his potential challengers scurrying.
48. Don Guardian, Atlantic City Mayor R
The Republican who came out of nowhere in 2013 to upend Lorenzo Langford sits in the command chair at a critical time of his city’s history. You can argue that like other mayors – Dana Redd in Camden and Ras Baraka in Newark, for example – he doesn’t wield any real power, dependent as he is on the state. But the world has already taken notice of the low-key and eminently likeable Guardian.
49. Dana Redd, Mayor of Camden D
Again, like Baraka and Guardian, Redd leads a city that when it’s all said and done, takes its orders from Trenton. But Redd has won praise for shepherding the city through key reforms to the police and education departments.
50. Dick Codey, Senator LD27, D
The former acting governor earlier this year came in first in a 2017 poll of Democrats, but has not been as publicly aggressive as others on this list (Fulop, Sweeney and Wisniewski) in terms of transmitting unequivocal interest in running for the job. He was on the winning side in the Newark mayor’s race as a backer of Baraka.
State Sen. Mike Doherty (R-23); Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-26); Essex County Clerk Chris Durkin; Assemblyman Herb Conaway (chairman of the Assembly Health Committee); state Sen. Robert Singer (R-30); state Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-11); Assemblyman Tom Giblin (D-34); Hope Mayor Timothy McDonough; state Sen. Joe Vitale (D-19) (chairman of the Senate Health Committee); Evesham Mayor Randy Brown; East Orange Mayor Lester Taylor; Essex Freeholder Brendan Gill (Campaign Manager for U.S. Sen. Cory Booker); and Passaic City Mayor Alex Blanco; Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon (R-13); and Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-35).
To see last year’s list, click here.