TRENTON — Seeing the future of one of his own members in jeopardy, the chairman of the state’s legislative black caucus today lashed out at the political maneuverings of an upwardly-mobile Steve Fulop in North Jersey’s 31st legislative district, where Assemblyman Charles Mainor (D-31), apparently facing a challenge by Jersey City Councilwoman-at-large Joyce Watterman, will fight for his seat in November’s general election.
“I’m with [Mainor]. I support all the members of the legislative black caucus and others down here doing their jobs,” said state Senator Ron Rice (D-28).
As PolitickerNJ first reported, the situation in L31 is primed to explode into an all-out Assembly battle after Fulop, just a year into his tenure as mayor of Jersey City, ditched Mainor for Watterman as the candidate of his choice in this year’s election. Unspoken etiquette in LD31 dictates that the mayors of the district’s two biggest cities — Bayonne and Jersey City — are given control of filling one Assembly slot each, and Fulop this year has apparently chosen to go with Watterman, a close political ally.
But Mainor upon hearing the news has refused to step down, opting instead to mount an off-the-line challenge against Watterman and Fulop’s. Last week, Mainor announced that he’ll host a fundraising breakfast at Mastori’s Diner in Bordentown — a move that could only be construed as the beginnings of a re-election campaign
The ongoing proxy clash between Mainor, respected by colleagues in the Assembly, and the Fulop-backed Watterman, has also reverberated throughout other parts of the district, including to Mainor’s runnning mates. While she has not outright announced her support for his candidacy, state Senator Sandra Cunningham told PolitickerNJ that she plans on attending Mainor’s fundraiser, fueling speculation as to whether she’ll oppose Fulop in November.
That, however, was no question for Rice, a veteran Newark politician and notorious rabble-rouser, who didn’t hesitate to jump behind Mainor and excoriate Fulop.
“What bothers me — because I’ve been the victim of this more than once — is everybody wants to choose the leadership,” Rice told PolitickerNJ. “The mayor should be trying to work with everybody, he’s a new mayor, and Charlie is doing his job down here.”
Part of Fulop’s reasoning for backing Watterman, observers note, is that Mainor has consistently sided against him, including supporting former Mayor Jerramiah Healy in the 2013 Jersey City mayoral election. In New Jersey politics — and especially Hudson County politics — it’s not unusual for the mayor of a large and politically-important city like Fulop’s to want to replace those who snubbed him with stronger allies.
But Rice argued that Fulop, a potential 2017 gubernatorial contender, might be getting too eager to play the role of power broker and falling victim to his own political ambitions. He said the Goldman Sachs alum-turned-mayor of the state’s second largest city is “becoming a Northern Norcross,” casting shade on the South Jersey Democratic boss George Norcross III.
“It’s the Joe D’s, the Steve Fulops, and George Norcross’ — its the political bosses I have a problem with,” Rice said, referring to the Essex County power broker Joe Divencenzo, who recently avoided a similar proxy clash in LD29.
Presented with the example of that situation in LD29, where a primary battle between incumbent Assemblywomen Eliana Pintor Marin (D-29) and Grace Spencer (D-29) and a set of candidates backed by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka initially seemed to be brewing, Rice stayed consistent in his allegiance, contending there’s no reason to throw out two elected officials out of office who’ve been doing good work in Trenton.
Tensions over that primary battle have since softened, and sources say Baraka and allies of Joe D — who was poised to support Marin and Spencer — have apparently made peace.
“Mayor Baraka came in and there was concerns about representation, but he’s indicated it doesn’t make any sense to be having fights when you should be trying to heal things,” said Rice, who like Fulop, is a key Baraka ally.
But Rice also said he sees an element of racism in a New Jersey political world dominated by county bosses and power brokers who meddle in the appointments and elections of public officials.
“They need to go see the movie ‘Selma,’ and read the Kern Commission report. We marched back in the sixties for voting rights. And we thought when we marched for voting rights, which people tried to take from us, that people determined who’s going to represent them, not the mayors,” he said.
“You don’t even have a black mayor in Hudson County. So now you’re telling us the white mayors will determine which black elected officials get elected or returned to office,” he added. “To me, there’s a real question mark with this plantation mentality.”
Rice, who claims he knows Fulop’s father, a longtime deli owner in Newark, said he’s reached out to the mayor to try to avert a potential LD31 battle. He said the issue could cause headaches for other political players in and around the district, including Assembly Speaker Vinnie Prieto (D-32), also of Hudson County.
Prieto has tried to mediate the situation, most recently meeting with Fulop and Cunningham in his role as Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) chairman.
“So I’m going to reach out, and I have reached out, and I’m going to sit down with the mayor, and ask him to be more reasonable about this, because I just think it’s wrong to have a fight with someone who is doing his job,” Rice said. “I’m down here with him, I know he’s doing his job.”
Contacted for comment, Fulop said, Rice “is a nice guy” and that he and his team “respect him tremendously and his opinion.”
“I don’t think he understands the nuances of Hudson and declaring who has the line is a long way off,” he added.