Middlesex sits in the slightly off-center region of the state, hinging on the back of New Jersey’s crooked neck: a sprawling post-industrial blitzkrieg of over-population, vertigo-inducing highways and Democratic Party politics.
It’s been operating at less than full strength for years now, the county party organization, whose members seemingly sleepwalk in the direction of coffee at the Pines Manor, ever since the 2006 meltdown of former Chairman John Lynch, an intimidating power broker who yielded to the much cuddlier – Jon Corzine once used that adjective to describe him – Joe Spicuzzo, shortly before Spicuzzo too went to jail.
Chris Christie beat Corzine in Middlesex in 2009, then buried home county candidate Barbara Buono here last year.
Following a party civil war in the county that left the main players bitterly crawling back to their dens of influence while trading octogenarian gate-keeper Peter Barnes for young comer Kevin McCabe, Middlesex – given developing statewide dynamics – now faces the prospect of becoming a player again if tomorrow it can forklift into office its first congressperson since 1993.
But this isn’t about Congress.
It seldom is in New Jersey, where it’s difficult to resist reading future Democratic Primary gubernatorial implications in everything that happens, and that includes the terrain of CD12 and how it pertains to Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop and former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Philip Murphy.
The biggest winner of that jockeying threesome on May 13th was Fulop, whose anti-establishment gamble in Essex paid off when Ras Baraka beat Shavar Jeffries, who had the support of South Jersey Democrats and Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo.
Now as Fulop recalibrates with a Hudson focus on tomorrow’s freeholder contests, Middlesex County Democratic Committee Chairman McCabe has a chance to make a statement.
If Sweeney has South Jersey on lockdown and seeks to parlay legislative leadership relationships into North Jersey support, Fulop sees his challenge as diminishing the senate president’s efforts up north in an attempt to consolidate Hudson, Bergen, Passaic and Essex.
Right in the middle of that conflagration stands McCabe, who tomorrow faces his first major test as party chairman as he seeks to push Middlesex’s own state Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-14) into a congressional seat currently occupied by a Mercer Democrat.
If McCabe does that in a pick ‘em election, he will have strengthened his hand statewide and put himself in a Cardinal-like, ring-kissing posture wherein others will have to drive to him in order to pay tribute.
Some say it’s too easy to overplay the importance of a congressional election, and especially in CD12, which claims portions of four counties.
“This is an important election. For a chairman, every election is important,” said Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-18). “But it by no means should define him.”
But look for Fulop and Sweeney to increasingly trip over themselves in a race south and northward respectively to land the best power projection platform on that massive, slowly wheeling float at every Woodbridge parade from now until 2017 if Middlesex prevails.
While both sides already claim to hold persuasive sway with him – he’s a Carpenter, and South Jersey all but owns the Building Trades; while his mentor, former Gov. James McGreevey serves in the Fulop Administration – McCabe can play it coy.
Surfacing on-the-record perhaps not accidentally right around the time that Fulop took his champagne-doused victory lap in Newark with Baraka, Murphy has a political umbilical cord that runs straight back to Julie Roginsky, McCabe’s behind-the-scenes go-to person and high-powered gunslinger.
PolitickerNJ over the weekend asked a Middlesex player who he/she likes for governor in 2017.
“Murphy,” was the grunted reply.
Pressed, the source said, “We need someone to fix the economy,” falling back on the Goldman Sachs portion of Murphy’s resume.
Asked about the Jon Corzine echoes around Murphy, the source conceded he might not be the best choice.
“But Fulop’s too green,” the source complained, referring to the Jersey City politician who won his first crack at mayor just last year, “and Sweeney can’t win a Democratic Primary. Fair or not, he’s perceived as being too close to Christie – and George [Norcross III].”
Maybe Murphy simply ultimately turns into a greater leveraging device for McCabe, or the wealthy ambassador rises up over Sweeney and Fulop on the strength of his Middlesex political engine room.
Either way, McCabe stands in a position to capitalize.
But he has to get through tomorrow first to build buzz.
He has to get Greenstein elected first.
While operatives close to Sweeney are involved on behalf of Greenstein, the Carpenters are aligned with her chief rival in tomorrow’s contest, Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-15).
Given Greenstein’s closeness to the legislative party establishment – Sweeney’s money helped her through several critical scraps going back at least to 2010 – it might make sense for Fulop to surface on the side of Greenstein’s Democratic Primary antagonist.
He’s trying to absorb that jilted Buono wing of the party, and Watson Coleman did, after all, serve as Buono’s 2013 campaign chair.
Watson Coleman backed incumbent Jersey City Mayor Jerry Healy last year – it would show too much of a soft streak for Fulop to turn around a year later to back the assemblywoman, or so feebly argued a source close to the mayor.
Fulop, of course, this year backed Bayonne Mark Smith, who went all in against him.
Fulop’s calculation to stay out of CD12 is more fundamental.
More strategically political.
His ally, Baraka, endorsed Watson Coleman, giving him a toehold in that camp if the assemblywoman wins.
But personally staying out of CD12 means more to Fulop, whose consolidation of North Jersey off the Baraka win could prove irresistible to Middlesex, or so hope his allies.
With North and South colliding, he can’t go against McCabe.