Three of New Jersey’s northern counties share the heft of the political power in the state: Bergen, Hudson and Essex. While, by raw numbers alone, Essex County appears to come out on top, each of these areas contains cross-currents that break up the power among the three.
If the legislature ever settles on a casino ballot question, each of the three counties would presumably compete for a chance to claim one of two northern casinos, with Bergen pressing for the Meadowlands option, Essex seeking representation in Newark, and Hudson backing a Jersey City hot spot. The budding competition adds to the rivalry, as does the incipient 2017 gubernatorial contest, with at least five candidates jockeying to claim the organizational support of the party’s most potent political counties.
For now, at least, Essex, Hudson and Bergen all seem to share the similarity of Democratic control so PolitickerNJ decided to look at the power balance of the party in each of the three counties and determine where they stand, what they have to gain or lose in the coming elections and the dynamics they share with one another.
As far as registered Democrats go, Essex County has the numbers. Among the 490,887 registered voters, 221,388 (about 45%) were registered as Democrats in 2015. Comparably, Bergen County had 544,337 registered with 165,519 (about 30.4%) identifying as Democrats. Hudson had 313,691 registered, 156,358 (49%) Democrats (though more percentage-wise, the figure does not hold up in terms of raw amounts of voters). Additionally, Essex has just 43,094 registered Republicans (8.7%), a figure much less significant than the 107,633 found in Bergen (19.7%). In 2013, the strength of Essex’s numbers was evident during the election of U.S. Senator Cory Booker. The former Newark mayor managed to pull over 36,000 votes in the county in the August primary.
In addition to the numbers, Essex County also has a powerful county executive in Joe DiVincenzo. DiVincenzo is known to be politically connected and the boss of the powerful Democratic Party political machine in the county. He endorsed Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, for reelection in 2013, demonstrating that political brokerage capability. One thing DiVincenzo lacks, however, is a powerful and absolutely cemented political ally in Newark, the largest municipality in both his county and the state. He didn’t back Ras Baraka as he was pursuing election as Newark mayor in 2014, instead opting to support Baraka’s opponent, Shavar Jeffries. Baraka went on to win. While Joe D has since said that choice was a mistake and the two appear governmentally in sync, it is natural for the two to split on some issues.
Another powerful political player in Essex County Democratic Chairman Leroy Jones. However, what Jones lacks (especially when compared with Bergen County Chairman Lou Stellato) is high-profile victories.
While numbers and connections do favorably point to the power of Essex County in the northern part of the state, the Democratic Party there does have some flaws. The state Senate leadership is divided with veterans Ron Rice and Dick Codey often splitting with Joe D. The county also lacks any executive leadership in the legislature (the House Speaker hails from Hudson). This could change in the future, however, if state Senator Teresa Ruiz becomes Senate President (as some are saying she could). The county also is represented in Congress by Donald Payne, Jr.
This year, Democrats in Bergen County came out on top in all of the competitive districts in the county. Those wins can be tied back to one of the county party’s biggest strengths: Democratic Chairman Lou Stellato. He has become increasingly strong and managed to unite a party on the verge of collapse after his predecessor—Joe Ferriero—was indicted on corruption charges.
Like Essex, the county party also has significant weaknesses. While Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg hails from Bergen, she and fellow Berganite Senator Paul Sarlo (a deputy majority leader) often are split on some issues. This division, though not especially contentious, provides some trouble for Stellato as he attempts to unite the leadership.
Like Essex, Bergen County also lacks executive leadership. In addition to a lack of Senate President or House Speaker, the county is also without a congressperson that represents them, despite the strong ties they have to Congressman Bill Pascrell who hails from Passaic. This year, Dems are supposedly staging a coup in order to try and defeat their other congressional representative: Scott Garrett. Josh Gottheimer is pursuing the seat in CD5 currently occupied by Garrett, something that would help the state’s most populous county boost it’s power.
While Assemblyman Gary Schaer hails from Passaic County, he represents part of Bergen in his district. As a potential Speaker after Prieto, Schaer’s potential promotion could also boost the profile of the county, though not as much as if a speaker were to be selected from Bergen’s own ranks.
Though the smallest of the three counties, Hudson County is, perhaps, one of the most interesting politically speaking. While the county doesn’t have the sheer numbers that both Essex and Bergen have, it does have executive leadership in the legislature. Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto hails from Hudson County. As Prieto continues to gain attention for his position on the casino issue, the Speaker is defining his position. The county is also represented by Congressman Albio Sires and has two of the most popular state senators (who also happen to be mayors): Union City’s Brian Stack and North Bergen’s Nick Sacco.
Another high-profile individual who also happens to hail from Hudson County is Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, considered one of the frontrunners for the 2017 gubernatorial nomination. It is likely that the entire Democratic senate delegation in Hudson will go on to endorse Fulop as the Dems pick for governor (with, perhaps, the exception of state Senator Sandra Cunningham who has shown some inclination for Senate President Steve Sweeney in the lead up to the race). Fulop has also managed to expand his influence outside of the borders of his county. His strong relationship with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka is well documented and, recently, it was revealed the Senator Cory Booker’s close fundraiser Bari Mattes, formed a SuperPAC in order to boost Fulop’s 2017 gubernatorial run.