It’s too early to fret over who might replace Chris Christie as New Jersey’s next Governor. But we’re political junkies so what are we waiting for?!
(Cherry Hill, NJ) — New Jersey voters will chose a new Governor in November 2017. That’s five months after a (June ’17) primary election when Democrats and Republicans decide their party’s candidate for November’s ultimate showdown. We’ll dissect the GOP bench later and focus on the Democrats vying to replace Chris Christie. Likely candidates include Senator Steve Sweeney, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, former ambassador Phil Murphy, and Senator Ray Lesniak (currently the only confirmed candidate on the list.)
I don’t know who’s gonna win that primary some 19 months away. But it won’t be Steve Sweeney.
8) Location (Location Location!) Senator Sweeney’s hails from the Garden State’s sparsest nether bits. The three counties he represents in Trenton (Gloucester, Cumberland, and Salem) comprise just 5.7% of New Jersey’s 8.9 million residents. That’s a thin population base upon which to build (and win) a statewide campaign.
7) Silo Mentality. It’s not uncommon when politicians are surrounded with “yes men,” but Sweeney takes the practice to a higher level. When you’re constantly ratified by a self-selected coterie of obsequious glad-handlers, you’re not getting good advice. And judging from his campaign style so far, Steve Sweeney’s bunker-mates aren’t telling him what he needs to hear to improve.
6) BlueJersey.com. So they’re not as cutting edge as before, but who is?! A statewide Democratic Primary involving Steve Sweeney would be like shooting adrenaline into the heart of New Jersey’s liberal online activist community. Our last statewide democratic primary (Launtenberg v. Andrews for US Senate in ’08) saw BlueJersey at the height of its powers in terms of traffic, influence, and relevance. It doesn’t matter which democrats square off to replace Chris Christie, BlueJersey will be there as a hive of online intra-party activity. Doubly so if Sweeney’s in the mix. Because no one fuels Blue Jersey’s “hate fire” quite like Steve Sweeney.
5) Poor Communicator. What’s his message? What does he stand for? Rhetorical questions for the purpose of this column, of course. But Steve Sweeney needs good answers if he wants to connect with a statewide audience. Provided he sorts that out, there’s still the question of delivery. Most successful pols possess a better-than-average ability to connect, either to a crowd or one-on-one. I’ve seen Sweeney make speeches at large events like the state party convention or labor rallies. He’s ok. Not great but ok. More intimate settings like house parties or phone banks — both staples on any campaign — highlight Sweeney’s lack of common touch. Instead of mingling with volunteers or voters, Sweeney cocoons itself among staffers and follow politicians. There’s no handshaking or baby kissing with Steve Sweeney because he’s too busy mingling with his own kind. Which is pretty ironic given Sweeney’s own proletarian backstory.
4) Poor (Online) Communicator. Sweeney’s social media liabilities are well-chronicled on this siteand elsewhere. And although he’s improved a bit, he’s not yet fluent in the language/art/science of online communications. If doesn’t help to be surrounded by gifted communicators like Cory Booker or Chris Christie whose rhetorical gifts cast long shadows. But that’s no excuse to be this bad. Take a peek at Sweeney’s Twitter page and you’ll see three things: 1) a bizarre cover shot featuring Sweeney and colleagues wearing pensive expressions and staring off at different angles, 2) a paltry number of followers and 3) travels around the state posing for pictures with his colleagues.
3) Wide. But not Deep. If I got a dollar every time someone said “I have to support Steve Sweeney publicly…. but I wouldn’t vote for him!” I’d start my own SuperPAC. As a creature of South Jersey machine politics, Sweeney’s never felt obliged to know the public’s pulse. If he were more in tune, he’d know about the anti-Sweeney sentiment within his own palace.
2) His Allies. Steve Sweeney’s biggest allies are the building trades (who are currently clamoring for more gas pipelines) and the South Jersey Democratic machine (which clamours for more patronage.) For Democratic primary voters, gas lines and patronage are huge liabilities. Which should embolden the resolve of Sweeney’s increasingly committed opposition. And besides, the much vaunted South Jersey machine doesn’t have much experience winning elections that aren’t pre-ordained.
1) Issues. No one’s suggesting Sweeney’s bad on core democratic principles, but he’ll be repeatedly outflanked by one (if not all) of his rivals. Consider the issues that animate core democratic primary voters: civil rights, income equality, and the environment to name a few. The LGBT community may have forgiven Sweeney for ducking a vote on gay marriage in 2009 — we’ve all evolved, right? — but there are others in the field whose commitment to gay rights spans longer than a 1/2 dozen years. Likewise, Sweeney’s penchant for fossil fuel infrastructure development (even in the Pine Barrens!!) makes him public enemy #1 for environmentalists. And they don’t even hate him the most! That’s the public unions who loathe Sweeney for playing footsies with Christie on their pensions and benefits. If “remember in November” is still a thing, Steve Sweeney won’t stand a chance in a Democratic Primary.
For good measure let’s advance a few reasons why Steve Sweeney WILL win.
3) If this becomes a two-, three-, or even a four-way race, Sweeney’s geographic and demographic weaknesses are ameliorated somewhat. He better hope it’s a crowded field.
2) Steve Sweeney has powerful rich friends with a vested interest getting him into Drumthwacket. Sweeney’s friends don’t often not get their way. That’s a fact Sweeney’s would-be rival must surely be aware of.
Jay Lassiter is New Jersey’s original State House blogger. Best known for his work reforming our Nation’s marijuana laws. Jay’s latest adventure was a trip to Ireland to campaign for the (winning) Marriage Equality referendum. He’s on Twitter @Jay_Lass