The state of the guv race: key Dem organizations still in a holding pattern

Dick Codey’s formal exit from the gubernatorial contest did not create an immediate avalanche of organizational support for state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-18), the only declared candidate for governor among Democratic Party elected officials.

Team Buono made a play for the party to back her.

“Every day without a clear Democratic nominee is a day wasted,” said state Sen. Bob Smith (D-17). “Barbara’s the fighter New Jersey Democrats need to go toe-to-toe with Governor Christie. …Barbara can draw sharp contrasts with this Governor’s failed record and misguided priorities.”

Still, there was a trigger delay among key party organizations.

Behind the scenes, Democrats considered a terrain in which neither state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) nor U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9) has absolutely ruled out a gubernatorial run this year.

They gamed the candidacies of both men.

Essex County – at least that part of it dominated by the forces of Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo – waited for Sweeney.

The powerful county executive has a relationship with Sweeney built on legislative leadership balance and didn’t want to endorse Buono ahead of a formal declaration of intent by the Senate president, which Sweeney says he will make by the end of the month.

Sources close to Sweeney have consistently noted his current power as Senate president and described an organizational reluctance to let go of him in that role and thereby risk weakening through negotiation what is now South Jersey’s dominant party position.  Those same sources are convinced of the strength of the Democratic Party legislative map, even if Gov. Chris Christie has a strong top of the ticket showing.

But polls show a Christie landslide, and “There’s a limit to the foolproof nature of the map – like 25-point Christie coattails,” said Patrick Murray, professor of political science at Monmouth University.

So Sweeney is taking a hard look at the situation, say sources, alert to the fact that Christie already chopped off a piece of labor last month when LIUNA supported his re-election.

Democratic Party sources say a Sweeney candidacy would turn the party primary into a bloodbath: an out in the open airing of all the pent-up torments that dogged the backrooms of power during the controversial pension and benefits overhaul that Sweeney supported and Buono opposed.

They talked about Pascrell.

On the North Jersey end, sources have consistently said the congressman loves his current job and does not want to leave Washington, D.C. But that does not mean Pascrell’s fellow Democrats in Passaic County don’t continue to urge him to run.

North Jersey has a problem if the nominee is South Jersey brand name Sweeney. Sources close to Lou Stellato in Bergen County and John Currie in Passaic County don’t think they can sell Sweeney.

They like Pascrell.  

The congressman was a hero up there last year and Currie, worried about a down-ballot repeat of 2009 when Dems lost three freeholders and a clerk, sees the congressman as his best general election candidate.

In neighboring Bergen, sources say Stellato was ready to issue an endorsement of Buono, possibly as early as today, but Currie wanted to do one last gutcheck with Pascrell. Recognizing the regional bond they have, Stellato wanted to give Currie the courtesy of being given the room to lean on the congressman one last time, so he held up on the Buono endorsement, at least until the Democratic chairmen received a formal word from Pascrell.

Two weeks ago, Pascrell all but killed the gubernatorial talk in a talk with PolitickerNJ.com but he hasn’t issued a formal statement saying he’s absolutely out of the running. Pursued but not pursuing, he said.

A Democratic Party source told PolitickerNJ.com that Stellato and Currie would give the congressman through the weekend. Another source late Friday said Pascrell won’t run.

In Hudson County on Friday, Party Chairman Mark Smith was in a bind.

Like Currie and Stellato, he has a good history with Codey and was not going to make a formal move until Codey publicly announced he was out of the gubernatorial contest.

But Smith could not endorse Buono right away because the most powerful man in the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) wanted him to hold back, a source told PolitickerNJ.com.

A renewed 2011 player in the legislative leadership negotiations with South Jersey Democrats, state Sen. Nick Sacco (D-32) didn’t want to lock Hudson into Buono until he could see what Hudson can get in exchange for a gubernatorial endorsement, a source said.

In the meantime, Team Buono was formalizing an endorsement by the Ocean County Democrats.

Friday afternoon, Sussex County Democratic Committee Chairman Mike Busche called for the party to unite behind Barbara Buono’s candidacy for Governor. 

“Following today’s announcement by Senator Codey, it makes sense to me that all New Jersey Democrats should unite behind Barbara Buono for governor,” said the chairman from the disproportionately GOP county. “She’s a strong candidate, she has strong grassroots support, and no one will fight harder for New Jersey’s middle class and working poor than she.”

"The governor still has to come to bat."
—Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson, on Atlantic City.