JERSEY CITY – The fundraiser held for state Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-33) at the Liberty House restaurant in Jersey City on Wednesday night was ostensibly about his reelection in November. But in Hudson County, politics always has lots of layers.
“This is the real coming out party for this guy. He’s going to be the next mayor,” murmured a Hudson County Democratic operative on the way to the upstairs ballroom, where 350 guests feted Mukherji, who some see as the next Jersey City mayor, assuming current Mayor Steve Fulop actually runs for governor in 2017 and wins.
“He’s from one of the fastest rising demographic groups in the state,” added the operative before getting a seven and seven at the open bar, a reference to Mukherji’s Indian ancestry. “He’s a great fundraiser. He’ll be like Jimmy Stewart goes to Jersey City.”
Mukherji’s fundraiser was no joke: according to his aides, he raised more than $170,000 at Wednesday night’s event. The people present were also impressive: six Democratic county chairs were in attendance, including New Jersey Democratic State Committee (NJDSC) and Passaic County Democratic Chair John Currie and Hudson County Democratic Chair and State Assembly Speaker Vinny Prieto (D-32), who both praised Mukherji from the podium.
The past week in Hudson County politics, however, less resembled the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington than The Last Hurrah.
A report emerged on Friday that the Justice Department is preparing to bring criminal corruption charges against U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), a son of Union City.
On Monday, a raid by officials from the state Attorney General’s Office on North Bergen Town Hall for reasons yet to be determined cast a shadow on the administration of another Hudson power broker, North Bergen Mayor and state Senator Nick Sacco (D-32).
Both Menendez and Sacco responded to events defiantly, indicating that they weren’t going anywhere. But for young Hudson Democratic politicians such as Mukherji, the question could become: does the reputation of Hudson County political corruption keep the next generation from going anywhere?
Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise was elected in 2002 in the wake of the downfall of his predecessor Bobby Janiszewski, who did time for taking bribes. DeGise addressed the crowd, talking about how “rough we play up here” in Hudson County.
“There’s a responsibility for the elders within the party to develop a bench and the talent that’s coming up behind you so that we leave this place, hopefully, a little better than we found it,” DeGise said.
When the speeches were done, DeGise folded his support for Mukherji into the currently uncertain Hudson political scene.
“It’s no fun to have a week like we had. It’s not no big deal, and it hurts,” DeGise said. “But I think each generation has its own resiliency. I’m a believer that you make your way through the woods. They’ll either be successful or fail on their own efforts and talents. You cut your own path.”
One of the Democratic county chairs in the room assessed Mukherji’s political future by sizing up the fundraiser.
“Look who’s in the room. The speaker, the state Democratic chair, former Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy,” said Monmouth County Democratic Chair Vin Gopal. “What’s remarkable about the Hudson County Democratic leadership is that they recognize that. They don’t hold him back. They’re pushing him out there. Whatever Raj does in the next five years, he’s only going up.”
Fulop was not in the room, reportedly because of a dinner meeting, although allies such as Jersey City Democratic Chair Shawn Thomas-Sullivan and Fulop operatives such as Tom Bertoli and Jason Solowsky were at the Mukherji fundraiser.
Mukherji planted himself firmly in the Hudson County Democratic firmament going forward.
“The only federal crime I’ve read anything about is someone leaking confidential grand jury information to a media outlet,” Mukherji, 30, of Jersey City, told PolitickerNJ, alluding to the Menendez situation. “There are old dogs and new dogs in the power structure of Hudson County right now. Whatever is in the past that gave us a bad reputation, I don’t think that’s something that concerns the fresh blood today.”