Chris Christie didn’t waste any time post-Sandy to announce that he is running for re-election, although he didn’t tell us (and nobody asked interestingly enough) whether he will be running as a Democrat or a Republican, and before the year is over, Cory Booker will make his big announcement that he is not going to run against Christie next year, choosing instead to serve out the remainder of his term as Mayor of Newark and then run for United States Senator in 2014. So as we wait for the Democratic gubernatorial field to come together or be cleared by the party bosses on behalf of Christie, political junkies have very few places to look for their fix of political drama.
Fortunately, the civil war that is brewing in the most corrupt country in the Garden State; the political cesspool known as Hudson County, should be interesting enough to keep us going until Chris Bollwage, Barbara Buono, Richard Codey, John Wisniewski, Christie, and the party bosses make the decisions that will shape the Democratic gubernatorial primary election next year. At the heart of this civil war are North Bergen Mayor Nick Sacco and Union City Mayor Brian Stack, who are also the two State Senators who continue to vie for the title of the county’s most corrupt, double-dipping elected official and biggest suckup to Christie and George Norcross, the two men who for all intents and purposes are running our wonderful state.
Following the recent brouhaha at the Newark City Council meeting, which saw the aforementioned Newark Mayor Booker cast a tie-breaking vote on behalf of his ally and North Ward boss Steve Adubato-ally, Shanique Speight, to fill the at-large Council seat vacated by recently elected Congressman Donald Payne Jr.. The battle lines that were drawn at this meeting between allies of Adubato, Booker, and Speight and their adversaries, former Newark Mayor Sharpe James, his son, John James, who opposed Speight for the vacant Council seat, State Senator Ronald L. Rice, and his son, South Ward Councilman Ron C. Rice, who ran against Payne Jr. for the Congressional seat that was vacated when Payne’s father passed away, are expected to play themselves out in the 2014 Mayor’s race, when Booker passes on running for re-election in favor of running for the U.S. Senate. However, next year’s state legislative primary elections could serve as a warmup match for the field operations that will elect Brick City’s next mayor and provide a foundation for the political machine that will control the city and possibly all of Essex County for the foreseeable future, which is usually until the next election cycle.
What makes all of this internecine warfare in the two most Democratic counties in the state so interesting is figuring out how it will overlay with the gubernatorial primary election that will develop between the party bosses’ sacrificial lamb candidate (or Christie if he decides to run for re-election as a Democrat), Bollwage or Wisniewski, and his insurgent opponent, Buono or Codey. One of the most important factors that determine the outcome of most primary elections in New Jersey is ballot position, which is primarily decided by the county party organizations through the awarding by a variety of methods of a place on the “party line”.
Starting with candidates receiving the county party organization endorsements for the highest elected office down to the lowest, the “party line” is usually enough to help most candidates win a primary election in New Jersey, primarily because of our state’s voters’ proclivity to vote for all of the candidates on it. However, when there is a contested primary election at the top of the line, it often creates opportunities for candidates further down the ballot who do not receive the county party organization’s endorsement to bracket with an opposition candidate and form a competing line. “Running off the line” as this practice is called is usually frowned upon by the party establishments and will often limit the opportunities that a candidate who “runs off the line” will have to “run on the party line” in the future. Although, politics in a machine state like New Jersey is unpredictable and someone who is an insider one day can be on the outside looking in shortly thereafter and then back inside not too long after that.
Thus, if there is a contested gubernatorial primary next year between the establishment candidate, Bollwage or Wisniewski (or Christie), and an insurgent opponent, Buono or Codey, it is very likely that opposition slates will be created in both Essex and Hudson, the two most Democratic primary voter-rich counties in the state. With respect to the construction of the “party line” and the opposition slate in these counties, Essex County is far more predictable than Hudson County. There are four legislative districts in the county, three of which contain large parts of Newark, and in each district there will be candidates vying for one State Senate seat and two State Assembly seats, who will be bracketed with a gubernatorial candidate as well as county and municipal candidates. The Essex County boss, Steve Adubato, will award the county party organization’s endorsement through his bought and paid for lackey, Essex County Democratic Chairman Philip Thigpen, who is part of the Payne family.
If Barbara Buono is the insurgent candidate, State Senator Richard Codey (D-27) and his Assemblymates, Mila Jasey and John McKeon, will most likely run for re-election off the line and bracket with her county and municipal slatemates. If Codey is the insurgent, then John McKeon will most likely run for State Senate on his line with Jasey and another Assembly candidate, most likely from Livingston, since County Freeholder Pat Sebold (D-Livingston) is the most likely choice to run for State Senate on the party line along with an Assembly candidate from Maplewood or South Orange and an Assembly candidate from West Orange as these are the most Democratic towns in the district.
Senator Rice (D-28) will most likely run for re-election off the line with Buono or Codey, while his Assemblymates, Ralph Caputo and Cleopatra Tucker will most likely run on the party line with Bollwage or Wisniewski (or Christie). It is possible that Caputo could be replaced on the party line with former Assemblyman Kevin Ryan, who was picked to replace Fred Scalera in the State Assembly when he resigned to take a private sector job, but did not run for re-election when redistricting placed him and Caputo in the same district, although it is unlikely that Adubato would want to give Caputo a reason to run for re-election off the line with Rice and another insurgent Assemblymate. It is also unlikely that either Caputo or Ryan would run against Rice for his Senate seat as Adubato would most likely want a Newarker to run against him. Tucker is a slight possibility, but as the wife of the late Assemblyman Donald Tucker, she is viewed as more of a legacy candidate with a well-respected name, but she is not nearly a strong enough candidate to defeat Rice. It is far more likely that a young, ambitious pol with nothing to lose and everything to gain would be recruited to run for Rice’s Senate seat. Councilman Rice would probably be the top choice to run for Assembly off the line with his father, but it is unclear if he would be willing to give up his Newark Council seat in favor of a State Assembly seat, although doing so would be one way to avoid what is expected to be a very ugly municipal election season in 2014.
State Senator Theresa Ruiz (D-29) and her Assemblymates, Albert Coutinho and Grace Spencer, are all Adubato acolytes and will definitely get the party line next year. That said, it is entirely possible that they could by opposed in some way, shape, or form by two of the legislators that they replaced when Adubato took control of the district, former Mayor and State Senator Sharpe James, his son, John, and former Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo, running off the line with either Buono or Codey. This would be without a doubt the most hotly contested legislative race of the four Essex County districts that be the truest test of Adubato’s power, which could be waning.
State Senator Nia Gill (D-34) also ran in this year’s congressional primary election against Payne, Rice, and others. Whether she ran as a serious candidate or as a spoiler, intended to steal suburban progressive votes from Rice will be revealed next year by whether she runs for re-election on the party line or off the line with the insurgents. She was able to win re-election to her State Senate seat in 2003, running off the line after she was thrown off of the party line by Adubato, following her decision to support her current Assemblymate, Tom Giblin when he ran for County Executive against Adubato lackey, Joseph DiVincenzo. However, since then, she has apparently made peace with Adubato and was a key supporter of the Adubato-backed takeover of the New Jersey Network and its transformation into New Jersey Television, run by former Assemblyman Steve Adubato Jr., which is why many believe that her failed congressional run this year was an Adubato-engineered manuever.
Mark Alexander, former New Jersey State Director of the Obama for America campaign has announced that he will be challenging Gill in next year’s primary election and has aligned himself with the party bosses in Passaic County, where Clifton, a key town in the district, is located. It remains to be seen if he will also have Adubato’s blessing. Complicating matters is the presence in the district of current Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, who is not expected to retain her leadership position when the legislative body reorganizes in January 2014. It is entirely possible that Oliver, another Adubato loyalist, could challenge Gill for her State Senate seat and be given the party line, forcing Alexander to choose between continuing his run for the same seat and running for Assembly with Oliver on the party line. It is unlikely that Alexander would run against both Gill an Oliver unless there was a third gubernatorial candidate in the field with whom he could bracket, which is highly unlikely. It is far more likely that he would choose to run for Assembly on the party line.
What is unclear is how this situation will impact Assemblyman Giblin, a prominent labor leader and former County Freeholder, County Surrogate, County Chairman and New Jersey Democratic State Committee Chairman. Prior to replacing former Assemblyman Peter Eagler on the party line, Giblin was an Adubato and DiVincenzo adversary, but has since been an ally. He has also been a close ally of Senator Codey’s. There is no doubt that there would be a place for Giblin on an insurgent slate with Gill. The question is whether or not he would take it if given the choice. It is more likely than not that he would not have a choice as Clifton has not been represented in the district since Giblin replaced Eagler, while Montclair has been represented by both Gill and Giblin, making it very likely that Giblin would be replaced on the party line by Eagler or more likely by Clifton Municipal Chairwoman Lauren Murphy with Oliver representing East Orange and Alexander representing Montclair. Gill and Giblin could be joined on the insurgent slate by someone from Clifton or East Orange. If Murphy is invited to run with Oliver and Alexander on the party line, Eagler would ironically be the insurgent slate’s best choice.
How the two opposing Hudson County slates will align with the Democratic establishment’s gubernatorial candidate is much harder to predict. Mayor/Senator Sacco (D-32) is aligned with Norcross, Mayor/Senator Stack (D-33) is aligned with Christie, and Senator Sandra Cunningham (D-31) is aligned with both Christie and Norcross. If Christie decides to run for re-election as a Democrat, Sacco and anyone else associated with the Hudson County Democratic Organization will probably have no choice but to realign themselves with Buono or Codey, technically giving them the party line for what its worth since two of the counties three incumbent legislative slates will be running off the line with Christie. However, if Christie decides to run for re-election as a Republican, Sacco, his Assemblymates, Anjelica Jimenez and Vincent Prieto, and the rest of the HCDO, which may or may not include Cunningham, will most likely be aligned with Bollwage or Wisniewski, forcing Stack to run off the line with Buono or Codey. If Cunningham runs for re-election off the line, her most likely opponent will be HCDO loyalist, Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, who ironically was the only Hudson County legislator to break with Sacco when he engineered the most recent leadership shuffle in Trenton, which saw Sacco’s Assemblymate, Prieto ascend to the Chairmanship of the legislative body’s Budget Committee. If O’Donnell runs against and defeats Cunningham next year, it will be interesting to see if he and Sacco remain allies or become adversaries, once again.
Filing deadlines are still several months away and there is much that can and will happen over the next month or two that will make all of this much less or more clear. The only thing that is certain is that what happens between now and the primary election next June will have a huge impact on politics in our state and nation for years to come.