The face of the New Jersey insider scrunched into absolute bewilderment when trying to process the name “Tim Kaine.”
“I know I’ve heard it but…”
“He’s the Democratic nominee for vice president; you know, Hillary Clinton’s running mate?”
“Oh, yeah, that guy,” came the reply.
Kaine was going to be in East Brunswick tonight for a Democratic Party fundraiser with less than six weeks to go in the presidential contest, and the insider had little idea who he was, or cared, as he brushed aside mention of the event to once again drill into the implications of Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop’s exit from the 2017 gubernatorial race.
Many insiders interpreted Fulop’s departure and simultaneous endorsement of former Goldman Sachs executive Phil Murphy as essentially the end of the primary, with Murphy positioned now to mathematically squeeze the life out of Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester).
Sweeney appeared ready to fight, at least by the sound of his closest backroom allies, who delighted in dancing on Fulop’s political grave. But the implosion of their longtime rival also meant the likelihood of Murphy seizing Passaic, Bergen, Hudson and Middlesex, while wielding a sizeable chunk of Essex. Sweeney’s allies objected to the Goldman vet having all that force short of him actually putting it on display. “It’s still so fluid,” one insisted.
But it looked grim for Sweeney early. His South Jersey strategy for victory statewide hinged on northern fracture, and Fulop out of the contest gave those northern counties humiliated by SWAT team southern organization in the face of northern political belly flab a chance finally to put together something close to unity. One South Jersey-aligned source shrugged that off, noting the presence of key allies up north still in the Sweeney column, including Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, state Senator Paul Sarlo and state Senator Sandra Cunningham, among others.
It didn’t add up.
Already encumbered in a Democratic Primary by his own wars with public sector unions, Sweeney would need more help, as a grinning Murphy stepped comfortably into northern boots once worn by the vaporized Fulop.
“All that’s left now is the dividing up of leadership spots,” one South Jersey Democrat glumly speculated.
If Murphy holds, most sources noted the likelihood of Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Paterson) nabbing the lieutenant governor’s slot in a nod of gratitude to State Party Chairman (and Passaic County Democratic Chairman) John Currie, who appeared this morning to break from Fulop in favor of Murphy, thereby triggering the dominoes away from the Jersey City mayor. If Bergen County Democratic Chairman Lou Stellato follows suit, Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) – who is close to both Stellato and Currie – could be speaker. Middlesex has been with Murphy from the beginning and appears positioned with two competing potential senate presidents: Senator Bob Smith of Piscataway or Senator Joe Vitale of Woodbridge; or a speaker (Assemblyman Craig Coughlin of Woodbridge).
Hudson might get the promise of the next open U.S. Senate seat, leaving a fractured, still apparently Sweeney-clinging Essex with its nose pressed up against the window pane in the cold. If Sweeney surrenders, the South might be able to land at least a speakership for Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-Voorhees), whose late mother was a dear friend of powerful South Jersey Democratic Powerhouse George Norcross III.
In any event, the immediate object was not some guy on Clinton’s national ticket but the myriad seats in play next year in a Murphy-dominant universe. The allies of U.S. Senator Cory Booker seemed relieved that they would be able to share the spotlight not with a young gun comer and rival like Fulop, but with another financial sector lifer; each of them reliving days of contrast glory when the young mayor of Newark crowded Jon Corzine off every public stage.
It was all 2017 in 2016.
As Democrats filed out of the Kaine event, which came and went, one insider texted PolitickerNJ with the observation that the “Secret Service was here to make sure no one died of boredom.”