Pugnacious Maj. Leader Buono headed for demotion in Sweeney-dominant Dem caucus

Just as internally conflicted Democrats watched George Norcross III and organization allies put Assembly Majority Leader Joe Cryan (D-20) in a choke hold last week, upper chamber members anticipate a gangplank exit for recalcitrant Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-18).

Two sources told PolitickerNJ.com the votes are in place to jettison Buono, a likely 2013 candidate for governor who used her leadership platform in part as a vehicle to bludgeon Gov. Chris Christie on the issues.

She and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) also regularly clashed on strategy.

The deal is not cemented yet, and could be more complex than a simple ditching of Buono, according to a source close to the action. Depending on her receptivity to a watered-down role, Buono could end up sharing the majority leader position.

Sources close to Buono told PolitickerNJ.com they had no knowledge of a deal and said the senator is solely determinedly focused on getting re-elected.

According to establishment sources, as it stands, the Middlesex leader from Metuchen can either step aside in the face of a majority wielded by Norcross allies, or accept a partner in the second banana role. Whether a replacement or a partner, that person would most likely be state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37) of Bergen County.

Insiders reason the demotion of gubernatorial prospect Buono – a relentless critic of public worker pension and benefits cuts – dovetails perfectly in the interests of both Christie and Norcross-allied Democrats also eyeballing 2013.

Assuming she would reject leadership sharing – which sources say is likely – the majority leader’s removal from leadership benefits Christie because it conceivably deflates or splinters the name ID of a potential Democratic Party challenger, who over the past two years managed to coalesce chunks of progressive supporters outraged by Christie’s policies.

It also boosts Democrats allied with Norcross who might be angling for their own run against the Republican governor, names like Sweeney, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-19) and U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D-1) – all avid players in the Norcross bullpen.

The Machiavellian maneuver on Buono depends on the cooperation of Weinberg, an unsuccessful 2009 candidate for lieutenant governor (who outbid Buono for the job), and an almost mirror image of Buono on the issues. Like her Middlesex County colleague, Weinberg fulfills her caucus role as a progressive woman and staunch critic of Christie’s. Unlike Buono, she nurses no ambition at this point in her career to run for governor herself.

Her presence on the Sweeney team would blunt a discarded Buono’s potential argument in a Democratic gubernatorial primary that the conservative white male-wing of the party drop-kicked her solely out of self-interest, sources told PolitickerNJ.com.

Weinberg is, in fact, the only candidate capable of credibly tomahawking Buono who wouldn’t simultaneously give the Middlesex senator the opportunity to be a martyr and energize leftward-leaning troops on her behalf, said a source.

A lot of those would-be Blue-uniformed soldiers are just as loyal – if not more loyal – to progressive firebrand Weinberg.

As far as establishment allies are concerned, in the event that Buono doesn’t accept a co-chairmanship – which sources again say is likely – the division of Weinberg and Buono plays beneficially in a Democratic Primary by keeping progressives sufficiently cannibalized in civil war to give the moderate or establishment Democratic candidate a chance to divide and conquer for the nomination.

Throughout, Sweeney advocates insisted neither Norcross nor the Senate president have had to break any knuckles to sway caucus members away from backing another two-year majority leader term for Buono. They essentially argue that the senator fell victim to hubris in an effort to trampoline off majority leader to the governorship – and fatigued caucus members in the process.

PolitickerNJ.com probed sources on how Weinberg, the self-proclaimed feisty Jewish grandmother from 2009 – could back-door a supposed little sister ally like Buono.

“She’s ruthless,” said a source, pointing out that in 2009 Weinberg cut the deal with Norcross to back Sweeney for Senate president so she could land the chairmanship of the Senate Health Committee, and Weinberg’s 2002 rejection of Joe Doria for speaker after he thought he had the Bergen senator in his corner.

The backroom news prompted almost immediate criticism.

“It is patently offensive for the New Jersey Senate to contemplate halving the role of the first female Senate Majority Leader,” said lobbyist Caren Turner. “Women in the state, as well as the nation, are offended and shocked. With only 24 members of the New Jersey Senate Democratic Caucus, they are hardly in need of a co-leader. By comparison, the United States House of Representatives, House Majority Leader works with 242 members. So, what is really up with this? The women of the state would like to know. It’s not acceptable.”

"I don't think what he's doing tonight, the method by which he's doing it helps to build a trustful relationship."
—Gov. Chris Christie reacting to President Barack Obama's speech on immigration reform.