By Patrick Murray | February 24th, 2014 - 2:10am
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It appears that I have unilaterally announced the gubernatorial candidacies of both Senate President Steve Sweeney and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop.  Well, somebody had to do it...

But seriously, an explanation may be in order.

This “revelation” stemmed from an interview with the Star-Ledger’s Matt Friedman on Sweeney’s elevated profile in recent months.  As I said to Matt, you can’t talk about whether Sweeney is “in campaign mode” without considering Fulop’s recent activities as well.  Both Democrats are positioning themselves for a run at Drumthwacket.

In fact, the next gubernatorial campaign kicked off almost immediately after Chris Christie’s re-election in November.  Two weeks later to be precise.

At the annual League of Municipalities Convention in Atlantic City, Sweeney hosted a well-attended reception.  That’s not unusual for a legislative leader.  The incoming Assembly Speaker, Vincent Prieto, held another well-attended event that week.

What was unusual was the high profile reception hosted by the brand new mayor of Jersey City the next evening.  The 5th floor of the Chelsea Hotel was jam-packed with Democratic movers and shakers jockeying to rub shoulders with a rising star.  Fulop made an unmistakable statement that night – he fully intends to be a major player in state politics.

I do not doubt that Sweeney’s interest in statewide issues, such as the Sandy Victim’s Bill of Rights, is genuinely part of his role as New Jersey’s legislative leader.  I also believe that Fulop’s active participation in the Newark mayor’s race is to help foster a united front on urban issues.

You cannot ignore, though, that these moves are equally about shoring up support, and supporters, in counties that will be crucial in a contested Democratic priority.  While neither has actually declared his candidacy, both are engaging in behavior that can only be read as the intent to run if the opportunity presents itself.

I have never seen this level of activity four years ahead of a scheduled election.  The key word there being “scheduled.”  There’s a decent possibility that the next gubernatorial election will occur earlier than scheduled.

Back in November, some observers believed that Gov. Christie may end up resigning early in order to run for president; a resignation necessitated by federal campaign funding rules.  This would result in a special election one or even two years early.  While Christie’s presidential prospects may have dimmed, there are still some who believe the state may be facing an early election, albeit for distinctly different reasons.

The bottom line is that potential candidates for New Jersey’s next governor have to be prepared to run at any time.  They cannot count on a four year timeline to undertake the groundwork for launching a campaign.

Under normal circumstances, a mayor would not want to be seen as actively looking to move up the ladder after just a few months on the job.  If Fulop followed the normal course of a rising prospect by quietly building support, though, he could be on left out in the cold when it comes time to claim county lines in an early primary.

Thus, the mayor of Jersey City has decided to up the ante.  The Newark mayor’s race is as much about who will control the Essex County party during the next gubernatorial primary as it is about who will run Newark.  It also doesn’t escape notice that the candidate Fulop is hoping to defeat could be another gubernatorial contender with urban credentials to rival Fulop’s if he won.

If he wants to position himself for the governorship, Steve Fulop cannot afford to cede the field to Steve Sweeney.  But this also means that the Senate President has been forced to up his game as well.

One danger in an overly protracted campaign is that either or both candidates could flame out.  It’s also possible that either or both candidates may choose not to run when the time comes.  But with an uncertain horizon for the next election, both need to be ready.

Some may see Steve Sweeney’s current statewide tour as a gubernatorial gavotte, but in this case it takes two to tango.

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"Go to Mayor [Cory] Booker and ask him if he thinks in the years that he was mayor if I ignored Newark. The fact is I've spent as much time in Newark as anyone else." - Gov. Chris Christie

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