Union County has always struggled not to appear like a miniaturized version of Essex County.
It’s no accident that it derives from Essex, lopped off like a side of smoked sausage in 1857.
If you read the works of Philip Roth, much of Union is that classic Petri dish of so-called 1950’s suburban respectability, where people work themselves to death to maintain scrunched-together painted shoeboxes fronted by painted mailboxes. It’s a shame that this narrative exists as the prevailing sociopolitical statement about the county (for starters, of course, it’s outdated), but it speaks to that undercurrent among a generation of Union residents who spilled southward out of Newark.
And it sticks.
In politics, Essex and South Jersey produce machine-forged politicians who occupy the positions of boss-access power by virtue of numbers and not necessarily any other considerations. Union has the same party machine structures, but in the larger context of statewide political machinations they don’t have the heft – not enough population – so the pressure exists to offer something different: a touch of the organic.
This might manifest itself in some quality that doesn’t always get prioritized in New Jersey politics – like intellect, for example – which happens to be one of the most obvious attributes in the case of factory town state Senator Nicolas Scutari (D-Linden).
Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Scutari is perhaps best known as the state senate’s lead dog on marijuana legalization, a bill he dropped in 2014. But he’s spent the bulk of a senate career launched in the upper house when he was in his early thirties working on reforming New Jersey’s courts. For seven years, he has chaired judiciary, a stint that included some well publicized jousts with the Christie Administration and at least one epic backroom shouting match. An ornery attorney at his core, Scutari captained the Democrats’ eject button of Christie Supreme Court nominees Bruce Harris and Philip Kwon.
Christie was apparently furious when Scutari up and sat on 17 of his most coveted judicial nominations.
The governor apparently never thought he would follow through on the threat.
But he did.
Politically, as some of his colleagues have lost control of the party leadership of their home towns, the senator’s assumed a more aggressive role, in one instance removing a local party chair to assume the job himself when he perceived too much in-fighting with the newly elected mayor.
Now 47, Scutari wants more.
He wants the senate presidency.
With sitting Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) presumably vacating the throne of power in order to run for governor next year, the Union County senator sees an opportunity, has a story to tell, and feels as qualified as anyone to do the job, but at the moment appears overshadowed – as usual – by Essex. If Sweeney – who’s from South Jersey – runs for governor in the 2017 Democratic Primary, most insiders see state Senator M. Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark) as the most apparent heir. Sweeney gets the line in massive votes-generating Essex, and in exchange Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo gets to install his acolyte, Ruiz, in Sweeney’s place.
Ruiz leads all contenders.
Making it harder for Scutari is the fact that at least two other colleagues are jockeying hard for the right to succeed Sweeney, and similarly using gubernatorial politics as the enticement to advance. They are state Senator Joe Vitale (D-Woodbridge) and state Senator Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge).
Now Middlesex and Union have a history of presenting a united front in order to build a greater share of power, an alliance opportunity complicated for Scutari by the fact that Middlesex is not only bigger than Union and on its own more potent (at least on paper), but driven apparently by its ambition to catapult native son Vitale to the senate presidency.
Middlesex is playing it coy in hopes of lassoing the right choice in the governor’s contest in exchange for that payoff.
For his part, Sarlo not only faces the challenge within the Democratic establishment of a politically better connected Essex (if one sees the link of South Jersey and Essex as the backbone of the establishment), but of his own apparent differing political agenda from Bergen County Democratic Chairman Lou Stellato. Sarlo leans Sweeney for governor. Stellato leans Fulop.
Scutari is in low-key, casual on the outside, intense on the inside deal-making mode, and using Union’s shape-shifting status to his advantage.
The county has had its troubles.
The late Senator John T. Gregorio: convicted for failing to disclose his interest in a pair of go-go bars.
The late Senator Joe Suliga: disgraced, prior to getting killed when the back end of his car got smashed outside a go-go bar.
Assemblyman Neil Cohen: psych warded after eating a child porn indictment.
Through it all, and on the heels of the mop up, there was at least the reproving presence of Assemblywoman Linda Stender, who bore the air of an affronted school marm, peering over horn rimmed glasses at the preposterously unethical antics of her male counterparts. That is until she got slapped with allegations of abusing Hurricane Sandy funds to rebuild a recreational shore house.
Stender: bounced out of the Assembly.
Having replaced Suliga, Scutari has sturdily stood in there above reproach, often leaving less prepared players tongue tied and frustrated when they rile him, thinking twice before again crossing him. He came up in part under the political tutelage of state Senator Ray Lesniak (D-Elizabeth), but he’s never been bossed in the sense of looking like someone in a constant sweat over who might suddenly call his cellphone from a restricted number.
Not to say that Scutari can’t work with the team, but compared to more plugged-in senators from bigger counties, that independent streak may work against him in the end – at least with the establishment as defined above.
There’s also the matter of Union looking a little schizophrenic at the moment.
Lesniak says he’s running for governor, and while no one seems to think he’ll actually end up running, he keeps the Democratic County line in Union bottled up as long as he’s still out there talking about how he’s New Jersey’s fiercest champion of the African bush elephant. The county party chairman, Assemblyman Jerry Green (D-Plainfield), doesn’t control the party committee, council or mayor in his hometown, and there are signs of fracture between Lesniak and the senator’s old slate mate, Assemblyman-turned-Union County Sheriff Joe Cryan.
Scutari’s allies are confident they’ll have unity in the end. They’ve beaten up Republicans so consistently for two decades that they’ve had the luxury of ongoing family spats. Christie beat Jon Corzine in Middlesex, not Union. Plus, Scutari has a good relationship with Cryan. If – motivated in part by old bad blood with Lesniak – the sheriff starts throwing tomahawks in a Union County civil war, Scutari trust that he can talk his way out of being a target.
If a Democratic Primary does put Union in a position of amplified division, Scutari also sees sufficient relationships everywhere – including beyond the borders of his home county – to be able to do something productively unpredictable.
His world is not Sweeney or bust.
To that end he’s had sit down sessions with the two other perceived first tier candidates in the gubernatorial contest: former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop.
He could shop for the best deal, which would be all of a piece with how he’s run judiciary; for one thing the Christie administration learned early from Scutari, which is why they have a better relationship with him now than before the senator blockaded the governor’s nominations – is that he will – suddenly – walk away from a deal if he must.
Essex and South Jersey have deeply politicized bureaucracies that make them forces to be reckoned with unavoidably.
But the seasoned Scutari prides himself on a wildcard called savvy.