Having resigned themselves to the yoke of Republican Gov. Chris Christie and the celebrity transcendence of U.S. Senate Party nominee Cory Booker, many in the party establishment have begun – over coffee and in the watering holes of Democratic Party burghs – to keenly look beyond the Christie era to consider the next governor.
Three names keep recurring within the power circles of Democratic Party chairs: Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-6) and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop.
The probability of a run for President by Gov. Chris Christie has hastened the move-making and evident chumminess observed between any one of those three men and those players at the top end of the Democratic Party organizational apparatus.
It’s the same apparatus notably that has been less than energetic in support of state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-18), who is running for governor this year and behind by as many as 30 points in some polls.
To those Democrats either terrified of Christie or fearful of the association of loss, Sweeney, Greenwald and Fulop present future options – and not distant future options either, if Christie’s presidential candidacy materializes as most believe it will.
“He’ll run for president and Kim (Guadagno) will become acting governor and there will be a special election for governor in 2016, the same year as the presidential election,” prophesied a North Jersey operative. “It’s not going to be 2017 as everyone keeps saying; it’s 2016, which really means 2015, when you consider the organizing, politicking, etc.”
Others said it's 2017, as scheduled - but the year won't matter - the game is already on.
Democratic Party sources say Sweeney may be the frontrunner by virtue of his longstanding status as the Senate president, deep labor ties, close alliance with South Jersey Democratic Power Boss George Norcross III and the maintenance of pleasant relations with many in the power structure. An ironworker by trade, Sweeney will likely have the support of the Building Trades if he decides to run.
But South Jersey, of course, will have to figure out who will carry the region’s mantle, as both Sweeney (Gloucester) and Greenwald (Camden) hail from the same back yard and depend on many of the same core alliances.
Many believe Greenwald as the second in command of the Assembly right now is on pace to become speaker, probably after Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-32) serves following the likely end of Speaker Sheila Oliver’s (D-34) term come 2014. Having labored for years in the South Jersey organization, Greenwald may ultimately be owed the speakership in exchange for supporting Sweeney for governor and temporarily standing down from his own earlier rather than later statewide designs on Drumthwacket.
He’s not the only future candidate for speaker from the same shop, either, as both Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-3) and Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-7) frequently circulate as Assembly power players in their own right.
But as the man among those lower house figures most often observed connecting with county party chairs statewide where he has built political capital, and carefully crafting positions to the left of Sweeney on key issues, Greenwald has positioned himself – at the very least - as the most likely successor to Joe Roberts as the next speaker from South Jersey.
Most sources believe South Jersey will resolve the showdown internally and that it’s Sweeney’s turn.
But that’s only part of the state, and removing the labor component for the moment - a smaller part of it considering the results of Tuesday’s election - the bulk of Democratic Party machine votes for Cory Booker (and granted, it’s Booker, and a special election) equaled over 95,000 (Essex, Hudson, Passaic, Bergen) compared to roughly 37,000 (Atlantic, Gloucester, Camden, Burlington, Salem, Cumberland).
Kicked around by GN3 and South Jersey, North Jersey sources have begun to discuss the necessity of recruiting a North Jersey brand name to begin grooming for the governorship.
“It’s an embarrassment,” one North Jersey operative moaned.
They want one of their own again.
The trouble, sources say, is that after years of oiling the machinery of power, they have well-oiled machine pieces who function in the service of a supplied vote to aid a political alliance, but present little comfort to those looking for a solid-standing gubernatorial candidate who can transmit even a hint of independence or independent critical thinking.
One person who might have translated into gubernatorial timber as the most powerful Democrat in the biggest Democratic Party county, Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo – sacrificed any statewide design on the altar of Republican Christie’s re-election, most Democrats believe.
So Fulop, newly elected mayor of Jersey City, a self-made man from Goldman Sachs who went to war in Iraq and showed guts when he went against the countywide political machine – but who also shows a willingness to work with the party establishment - has jumped to the head of the list in the northern part of the state.
There are those around him telling him he can’t run yet, he owes it to Jersey City to stay put and govern for two terms, but the timeline does not favor the outsized Fulop staying put for – conceivably – 12 years, or the remainder – if Buono loses - of Christie’s second term and then two successive terms.
Sources say the mayor has started talking seriously to party chairs.
The presence on his team of former Gov. Jim McGreevy also signifies statewide designs.
“Is Jim living vicariously through the young up and comer? Maybe.” A source said.
Sources also say that unlike DiVincenzo and state Sen. Brian P. Stack (D-32), Fulop won’t endorse Christie’s re-election and become one more Democratic Party enabler of the Christie mystique, despite the governor’s fervent efforts to put Fulop in front of the same podium where stood Stack and DiVincenzo.
It hasn’t been an easy resistance – but a necessary one. Greenwald and Sweeney – while it may hurt, given the bad blood with Buono - both have made a point of demonstrating their attentiveness to Buono despite polls showing her far behind Christie.
If they aren’t wearing Buono baseball caps and marching with Buono banners in the parades, they’ve held fundraisers and publicized them.
Fulop has taken to appearing with Buono in the last number of days.
The mayor, sources say, doesn’t want to be the candidate in a developing backroom Democratic Primary, encumbered by an outright endorsement of a Republican.
But he’s already listening attentively to those North Jersey allies who want a champion to reverse South Jersey’s decade of ascendancy, which shows no signs of slowing, especially given GN3’s proficiency at deal-making and the enduring import of county party lines.
Bergen County is split, but state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-36) has made no secret of his designs on the Senate presidency. He could be primed to cut the deal for a Sweeney gubernatorial candidacy in exchange for support toward the chamber’s top chair.
Chilled for the moment by Norcross, DiVincenzo could try to reanimate with a state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29) Senate presidency candidacy traded for county support for Sweeney conceivably in a Ruiz/Greenwald power share, for example.
Where Hudson would land with Fulop intent on governor is interesting in and of itself, particularly given Norcross’s and powerful state Sen. Nick Sacco’s (D-32) close relations right now; and could throw everything into play in an all out fight between Sweeney and Fulop for the Middlesexes, Monmouths and Mercers of the world.
Backed by Singleton and the Carpenters, Fulop has his own ties to the Southern hemisphere.
But Sweeney has the history.
Failure to secure a resolution to a civil war in such circumstances could prompt the party to want to enlist Booker to come out of the Senate in a bid for governor, but it’s hard to picture Sweeney allowing that to occur without a fight.
It’s also hard to picture the hard-driving Fulop, 36 now, and in his late 40s the next time he has a shot with a decade of Jersey City in him, standing down for South Jersey with the North whispering in his ear.
Regardless of what finally happens, the moves are going on right now.
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