The Democrats’ War Within the War for 2017


There’s a presidential election going on, but in New Jersey you really wouldn’t know it, where a candidate for governor boldly stepped up and declared his own 2017 aspirations three weeks before a presidential primary.

Breaking it down in real time, the more one studies the implications of Essex County next year within the context of a gubernatorial election, it becomes increasingly difficult to discount the likelihood of a civil war in the Democrats’ biggest stronghold; a war such as we have not seen for years in this state. That conflict, of course, extends into other parts of the region and specifically relates to what happens in Bergen, for example, among other important Northern counties.

Right now there are arguably three main, airtime-gobbling candidates in the Democratic Primary: Senate President Steve Sweeney, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop and former U.S. Ambassador to Germany and Goldman Sachs chief Phil Murphy.

Sweeney has close ties to powerful Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, who – through the political power of his office – wields the most influence over the coveted Essex County line, a big leg up in a Democratic Primary. Fulop has a committed ally in Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who’s not controlled by anybody and lives or dies politically according to the rules of a May nonpartisan election, which exists outside the framework of the partisan election cycle. Then there’s Murphy. So far the only candidate officially in the contest, Murphy appears most solidly connected to Senator (and former Governor) Dick Codey of Roseland, who has deep roots in the Oranges. Codey is a longtime ally of state Senator Ronald L. Rice of Newark of western Newark.

If Sweeney at this moment has the best chance of securing the line by virtue of his and South Jersey Democratic boss George Norcross III’s close ties to DiVincenzo, that leaves Fulop and Murphy to scrap for pockets of Essex support elsewhere to offset Sweeney’s line advantage.

Those pockets may prove key in a close election, just as the pockets opportunistically grabbed in Bergen may prove essential.

Stellato has a little bit in common with Baraka.

Baraka beat a candidate backed by Norcross and DiVincenzo in 2014, the same year that Stellato – without the help of South Jersey – pushed Jim Tedesco past Republican Kathe Donovan to secure the Bergen County Executive’s throne.

Stellato has a chip on his shoulder now. He figures he put his imprint on the chairmanship his way and built himself into a legitimate player. The party under his leadership took control of the freeholder board, then deposed the seemingly unbeatable Donovan. Stellato can stomp around Bergen County in seven league boots and play – to the hilt if he chooses – the part of eccentric party big shot if that’s what he wants.

He earned it.

His rivals, namely those naysayers in South Jersey and members of DiVincenzo’s retinue – see him as egotistical and chimerical, a man who enjoyed some good luck with the implosion of Governor Chris Christie and the demise of the Republican Party in addition to no one among his own timid ranks wanting a thankless job in succeeding the racketeering rap-doomed Party Chairman Joe Ferriero. They cat call at close quarters while considering Stellato’s heartbreaking 2012 Democratic Primary when the smallish but intimidating Passaic County beat up the bigger Bergen, the equivalent of Dennis Rodman riding roughshod over Dikembe Mutumbo back in the day.

But Stellato’s allies note that post 2012 humiliation the chairman had the political chops, including humility, to make his conqueror – Passaic County Democratic Chairman John Currie – a rather ferocious supporter. They note how Stellato brought in  U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9) and helped weld the popular Paterson congressman onto impressive South Bergen numbers for Tedesco in 2014.

In any case, he wants to be a kingmaker and stands atop a county whose Democratic population – in addition to his own string of victories – give him the right to beat his chest.

However, it’s complicated, he knows that.

If he leans heavily in the direction of a Fulop candidacy, he has others in his midst who are obstinately opposed.

Popular and progressive Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37) appears devoted to Sweeney. She routinely does press conferences with the senate prez, goes on the attack when the occasion demands, as she did when Fulop looked to be in backroom mode on the North Jersey casinos question behind Prieto, and generally seems to enjoy the stagecraft of an ex-ironworker and feisty Jewish grandmother welded together to create a wholly fitting New Jersey alliance.

If Stellato can’t bring her in, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to picture Weinberg running off the line under Sweeney’s gubernatorial banner. She’s been off the line before and succeeded. She can do it again. Disbelieve it? Then why did Bergen Record columnist Charlie Stile write a piece noting South Jersey Democrats’ push to displace Hudson’s Vincent Prieto with Assemblywoman Valerie Vainireri Huttle? Huttle’s Weinberg’s slate mate. Amid the growing clamor of a civil war, tf South Jersey empowers Huttle now with a speakership in exchange for Bergen’s complicity in their statewide designs, they don’t have to worry about her headlining her own senate slate on the line with Fulop and the affirmation of Stellato.

Again, this is all speculation.

Then there’s state Senator Paul Sarlo (D-36), that other Bergen senator who has a great relationship with Sweeney and is consequently not a Fulop fan.

A little less than ten years ago, Sarlo was a fiercely jockeying rival to Sweeney’s ascent. In support of Codey, then the senate president, the Bergen brand name tried to snag the senate majority position against a South Jersey play led by Norcross in support of Sweeney.

Sweeney beat Sarlo to become the senate majority leader, using that position as a platform to eventually depose Codey and take the senate throne two years later in a bloody 2009 backroom contest. By that point, Sweeney had stripped Sarlo away from Codey, empowering him with the senate judiciary chairmanship and later giving him more clout as budget chieftain.

Now Sarlo hopes to secure the senate presidency he’s long craved.

South Jersey and Team Sweeney can dangle that prize not only in front of Sarlo but Stellato, too. The trouble for Sarlo is that Stellato has a better relationship with Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36), who’s more inclined to back Fulop instead of Sweeney for governor, and give a Bergen a power player for the speakership.

Speaker Gary Schaer.

That’s the more likely option for Stellato than Senate President Paul Sarlo.

The question is whether Sarlo will settle for that for the sake of remaining on the line and reluctantly back the chairman and Fulop or whether he – as presumably Weinberg could – goes rogue on an off-the -like Sweeney crusade.

It might be a money question. Sarlo off the line and arguably encumbered by a South Jersey candidate is a big ask. Would he do it for a million dollar infusion? If the senate presidency is the payoff, the answer is maybe. Remember, Sarlo thought he was a step away from the chair of power back in 2007. Now it’s almost a decade on, will be next year, in fact.

Does he take a chance?

Sarlo’s detractors say no way. They anticipate him crawling back to Stellato at some point and kissing the ring, in terror of having to pin his political future on Sweeney in an off-the-line effort where the biggest prize in the end may have to go to Essex. But his allies argue that, for all the theatrics, Stellato is no Ferriero in the end and that the Bergen Democratic line is not the Essex Democratic line, after all, and that given his name ID, the likelihood that Schaer wouldn’t challenge him, and Sarlo’s own fundraising prowess, he could mow down a challenger – even off the line.

What Sarlo does relates back to Essex County, of course, where DiVincenzo wants to reassert himself as more critical to statewide operations that either Stellato or state Senator Nick Sacco of Hudson County (presumed to be with Fulop).



DiVincenzo felt humiliated by Sacco two plus years ago when Norcross stepped around him to cut the deal with Hudson for the speakership. Now the county executive has a chance to relegate Hudson to less than relevant status by showing Uncle George who the real power player is up north.

He also wants to put Stellato back on his heels.

Essex is annoyed by Stellato.

Sacco made a misplay by getting behind Fulop, DiVIncenzo’s allies argue, and so will Stellato.

DiVincenzo will be the winner this time, they insist.

They won’t allow Stellato to be the new Sacco.

The new Sacco will be the old DiVincenzo.

Essex. Bigger than Hudson. Bigger than Bergen. More votes. More Democratic Party votes.

Stellato generated a lot of headlines with his wins, the Tedesco victory, yada yada.

But that was all general election chatter and anyway, Bergen still isn’t Essex.

And Divincenzo in every public declaration refuses to miss an opportunity to remind people that his priority is “putting Essex first.”

Yes, yes, his candidate lost the 2014 mayor’s race in Newark but that was nonpartisan and local, not partisan and countywide. Yes, Norcross and company put a lot of money into that effort and the North Ward couldn’t finally deliver, but 2017 will give the powerhouse county a chance to rectify the situation, or so runs the political logic.

Look, bottom line, the county exec’s backers argue, is it wasn’t a primary.

They’ve proved how to win primaries.

Just look at 2012.

Stellato lost that Democratic Primary against Pascrell.

Quick, who won the 2012, Essex-based primary in the 10th District?

It was Donald Payne, Jr.

Who backed Donald Payne, Jr.


“That’s what we do here,” a source told PolitickerNJ. “We win primaries.”

His reputation hampered within the progressive wing of the party by his cozy friendship with Christie, the exec sees a chance with 2017 to be politically reborn as a Democrat.

As the northern Democratic kingmaker, in fact.

Still, there are complications and outstanding questions, and unresolved backroom conversations.

First – and this is a big one – insiders routinely grumble that Sweeney doesn’t present the most compelling and dynamic of candidates up north. He’s doggedly and dutifully worked the circuit, but offers no resounding trumpet note of assurance that he is anything other than a guy with a good working relationship with Joe D (and, yes, some unfortunate Christie proximity) and the muscular presence of the white-haired Norcross behind him.

Sweeney continues to work out the kinks, aided by an aggressive and politically savvy team of veterans, and a commanding occupation of the bully pulpit. But it’s still not completely on lock down. “It’s early yet,” one insider, practically breaking out into a cold sweat, tried to say.

DiVincenzo’s people have floated their boss’s name as an alternative to Sweeney.

“Cory Booker would clear the [gubernatorial] field,” is a line commonly attributed to Norcross.

But the senate president shows no signs of fatigue or give. He said a long time ago amid a lot of offline agitation about his onstage presence up north, “This will be a marathon, not a sprint.”

In other words, he didn’t see the need to go crazy.

Still, given the unresolved questions about whether his unexciting South Jersey presence will further complicate the county’s civil war footing, if Sweeney gets the line in Essex (and doesn’t in Bergen!) is the most Joe D country is supposed to hope for from South Jersey a lieutenant governor candidacy for DiVincenzo acolyte state Senator M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29)?

Admittedly, the considerable political personality of Christie has turned the LG position into something of an afterthought and hardly a political chit to be taken seriously, the way the speakership, senate presidency or a U.S. Senate seat, for example, are all taken seriously.

If Joe D. gets off that telephone with Norcross and walks back to Mcloone’s Boathouse having secured – in return for Essex’s awarding the line to Sweeney – the LG spot for Ruiz, he’ll get some hard inner circle stares in response.

“You mean Bergen gets the senate presidency, Middlesex lands the speakership… and we get the LG spot?”

DiVincenzo can presumably offer the heartbeat away from the king case, and, yes, Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-7) went to work on a bill last year that would expand the powers of the LG, apparently to avoid precisely that sensation of embarrassment the county exec might experience when he explained what he gained for the mighty Essex in exchange for devotion to Sweeney.

Oh, and Norcross’s little brother is in line for that U.S. Senate, too, whenever it becomes available.

That might push matters over the line.

Ruiz gets U.S. senator, at least, not LG, or so one can picture the backroom conversation and the push back from Joe D. henchmen. But then, would Norcross deny Donald, his own blood, in order to reinforce the run of Sweeney, a mere childhood chum?

It seems an outrageous exchange.

Still, based on Norcross and company derailing Speaker Prieto’s Atlantic City bill earlier this month, South Jersey and Sweeney have a new-found strut in their step.

They feel increasingly that Fulop has gambled away certain advantages, as when he took a stand against North Jersey casinos, and potentially chilled Stellato, who wants a casino in the Meadowlands. They argue that the mayor’s stance on casinos hardened their support among the Building Trades and threw the Democratic caucus into a tizzy.

They feel he’s gotten ahead of himself.

If Sweeney’s unexciting, Fulop is not likeable, they argue.

“He’s been here for two minutes,” an insider groused.

“He’s Peter Shapiro,” said someone else, dredging up the name of a young statewide candidate for governor who fizzled in the 1980s.

No one likes to be asked to lie down on the railroad tracks, is the running line applied to the sacrifice Fulop and Prieto expected to extract from their allies, whom Norcross eventually walked down and brought to heel.

If nothing else, the Atlantic City takeover fight proved the power edge of Norcross’s inside game.

Advantage Sweeney.

In a very public statement that he’s going to do it his way, regardless of what the state’s most powerful political boss says, Fulop countered by slapping insolently at Norcross.

Long viewed internally in some circles as an establishment alternative to Sweeney if Sweeney couldn’t get his act together in time to look credible for 2017, Murphy, for his part, was softer in his acknowledgement of a political reality. “Here’s what this campaign is not about – serving the political insiders, because I don’t owe the insiders anything,” the former U.S. Ambassador to Germany said in his kickoff ad last week.

Granted, he’s not stood in that headline-generating wheelhouse where Fulop and Sweeney trade publicly on everything from minimum wage to questions about Atlantic City’s takeover to North Jersey gaming.

Mention the name Murphy to insiders affiliated with either Sweeney or Fulop and the typical response is, “I don’t think he’ll have a single line.” If one pushes back, those same sources might acknowledge that he has a crack – based on a history of relationships – at Middlesex. But it’s still a heavy lift.

Yet if Bergen does not – at least on paper at this point – offer the self-described outsider organizational opportunities, what Murphy does appear to have, however – in addition to a personality and money – and what those same early antagonists don’t care to highlight, is the connection to Codey and Rice and the potential therein for a strong building block of support in a high turnout environment. Codey and Rice have both run and won off the line in Democratic primaries, the latter most recently in 2007. The pair will be motivated to hold onto their seats and will require a full slate in order to have a strong starting point in a war, and that includes a credible top of the totem fixture like Murphy. The irony is that Codey himself once looked like the Democratic Party’s best candidate for governor, until he was pushed unceremoniously aside by Jon Corzine, a Goldman Sachs self-funder and sharp-elbowed backroom rival. Now Codey again appears unlikely to run statewide, and yet may very likely have a Goldman Sachs self-funder on his ticket as a critical and aggressively retail politics-minded team member.

So Murphy will have Rice and Codey and probably incumbent Freeholder Brendan Gill – a campaign adviser – on his side; all durable ramparts in turbulent weather.

A critical question is what Speaker Emerita Sheila Oliver (D-34) of East Orange will do when faced with the prospect of running on the line with her old bitter rival Sweeney. Will Oliver – for the sake of peace in the DiVincenzo valley and on the strength of her longstanding good relations with ticket mate state Senator Nia Gill (D-34) – find a way to stand on a festive stage with Sweeney, or will the Codey faction pry her – and possibly her running mate Assemblyman Tom Giblin (D-34) to go with Murphy? Oliver’s a strong East Orange brand, a local legend, in fact, who would be strong off the line company in a Democratic Primary fistfight. But she also works for Essex County, run by DiVincenzo.

For its part, Fulop’s team continues to trust in the ties fashioned to Baraka’s local operation, a 6,000-employee strong, city hall-reinforced ground game, which it hopes to use to gnaw away at the frayed edges of DiVincenzo’s billion dollar patronage organization. Allies acknowledge it’s tough terrain, and untested. The mayor, after all, prevailed in a nonpartisan election to win that 2014 mayor’s race, while 2017 would pit him against the county at-large on partisan turf. A different animal.

Rice’s early salvo’s notwithstanding, Fulop will attempt to make grassroots gains countywide within the African-American community, starting with Baraka’s Brick City breadbasket.

The atmosphere is already intense, which may explain in part why Murphy jumped out when he did.

Certainly it explains why one Essex insider, bewildered by the hourglass in advance of 2017, felt compelled to tell PolitickerNJ that an open primary offered the only way out of a war, and the only way for long-time lawmakers to avoid the possibility of becoming roadkill in an atmosphere beyond their control. The insider just as quickly gloomily acknowledged that an open primary won’t happen.

Those with longer memories refer back to 1973, when Brendan Byrne won a three-way Democratic Primary. Without yet ceding the possibility of acquiring the line in New Jersey’s biggest Democratic county, the allies of Fulop note that Byrne accomplished his statewide feat without the line in Essex; while Fulop detractors point out that Byrne was from Essex, and so enjoyed a built-in advantage that the Jersey City mayor will lack.

In any case, they say, 1973 was a war, and they already expect nothing less from 2017.

The war within the war on the way there contains all the root drama of machines looking to assert themselves, with the biggest Northern one in Essex captained by DiVincenzo trying to ice everyone around them for the right to play kingmaker.

  The Democrats’ War Within the War for 2017