They went into high gear all weekend: black SUV vehicles with tinted windows and government plates, racing across rainy Jersey swamplands in search of the undoing of a deal. Specifically, South Jersey Democratic boss George Norcross III and Governor Chris Christie sought to strip votes away from Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-32), who on Thursday was expected to post in the Assembly – at long last – his version of the Atlantic City state takeover bill.
Christie and Norcross don’t want that bill, and in the last 48 hours stepped up their combined efforts to deliver a kill shot.
“Picture that scene in The Usual Suspects when each guy of the guys is getting interrogated by NYPD,” a source cracked to PolitickerNJ.
By virtue of his membership in the Carpenters Union, Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Kevin McCabe was expected to be able – in a pinch – to cough up the Middlesex County delegation to join those 13 South Jersey Democratic loyalists who would be with Norcross and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3).
But the delegation – with a question mark still hovering over Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-19), who may be with the South – appeared to be holding with Prieto. That group included Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D-14) of Hamilton.
The presence of McCabe and DeAngelo in opposition to South Jersey created ripples of intrigue. In McCabe’s case, his delegation’s support for Prieto allowed insiders to conclude that Middlesex ewon’t simply give the line to Sweeney for governor in 2017. But while at least one South Jersey source seethed that this was proof positive that McCabe would be with Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, another cautioned that the Middlesex party chairman is close to Phil Murphy, the former U.S. Ambassador to Germany.
But there’s also this to consider: as much as everything that happens now relates to 2017, nuances do creep into the conversation. DeAngelo, for example, is a staunch Sweeney for governor backer. His backing of Prieto’s bill doesn’t alter his loyalty to fellow labor leader Sweeney. But it speaks to other loyalties in the case of this bill, including national AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka’s support for Prieto’s version on the grounds that it better protects collective bargaining rights for public sector workers. Moreover, the 14th is home to many public sector workers, a critical piece of DeAngelo’s base. Prieto allies worry that Sweeney’s bill gives too much power to this sitting Republican governor, a proven public sector worker antagonist.
It depends on whom you talk to, but given the urgency of late phone calls and meetings organized by the Norcross-Christie side of the equation, it appeared that Prieto – at least heading into the weekend – had enough votes to pass his bill. Sources say the speaker had 38 Democrats and six Republicans. But Christie – at a record low 26% approval rating and yet still a skillful persuader – was avidly working the phones in an attempt to walk back those Republican members organized by Assemblyman Chris Brown (R-2) in support of Prieto’s bill.
Those resistant on the Democratic side to the beseeching tag team of Norcross and Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald argued that the bill gives too much power to Christie, while the south at times held up the 2017 card and countered that support for Prieto as next year’s gubernatorial contest intensifies concedes an edge to Fulop, public enemy number one in Norcross world.
Then there were those assembly members who tried to keep their heads down amid all the meat cleaver and knuckle breaking talk, who quietly expressed their view that Christie would veto the bill anyway. They wanted to record their support for it as a pro public sector union measure while also covering themselves with the belief that Christie’s veto power ensured their votes wouldn’t do any real damage to Norcross. It’s already a train wreck with time ticking down on Atlantic City, they seemed to believe.
But the tag team intensification of South Jersey Democrats and Christie gave every indication that those power players believed stopping Prieto’s bill mattered – and mattered with a vengeance. By the time Sunday arrived, the phone calls had gotten too tough for some members and assorted leaders. There were questions about whether the perceived bullying had backfired and turned would-be South Jersey allies – among them McCabe ally Assemblyman Jerry Green (D-22), for example, into more bitter rivals.
The situation was volatile…