Gubernatorial Gutcheck: Names on the Dems’ shortlist and their strengths and weaknesses

Steve Sweeney

Strengths: He has the bully pulpit as senate prez; he just picked up the endorsement of the Building Trades, and you can drop the guy in a roomful of 100 people all of whom want to nibble on his ear about something he probably doesn’t want to hear, and he has a graceful way of making them all feel like he’s listening. Sweeney also has a good reputation as a deal-maker, and has carefully cultivated relationships around the state with political players harnessed to umbilical cords leading straight back to Trenton. Union County Democratic Chair Jerry Green is a Sweeney friend. Middlesex’s Kevin McCabe has strong ties to the carpenters, members of that same building trades org that just backed Sweeney for governor. State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-36) – eager to jump onto the senate president’s throne when Sweeney leaves – is another key north county ally. Then there’s state Sen. Brian P. Stack (D-33), an instant 10,000 votes out of Hudson County in the event that Sweeney can’t persuade Hudson County Democratic Chairman Vincent Prieto to give him the line. Oh, by the way, Prieto is also the speaker of the General Assembly.

Weaknesses: He’s from South Jersey. Look at the results of that special U.S. Senate election last year. When the north performs, it miniaturizes the statewide impact of the South. There’s also the perception of his closeness to power broker George Norcross III. Sweeney could stage a public jujitsu match and floor Norcross and he still wouldn’t be able – fairly or not – to escape the shadow of GN3. Then there’s his closeness to Gov. Chris Christie. That looked great pre-Bridgegate and made an easy-to-trot-out-there narrative about bipartisanship working here as opposed to Washington, but juts inconveniently in a Democratic Primary. Dutifully trying to appear concerned on the pen-ben front, Sweeney put together a millionaires’ tax-reliant 2015 budget to catch the approving glances of public sector unions just before Christie had it bulldozed. Then there’s Atlantic City, which appears to be going belly-up in Sweeney’s backyard.

 

Steve Fulop

Strengths: He’s from the North, so there’s a built-in numbers advantage there for a Democrat. In a state full of decaying political infrastructure, he’s new – having just gotten elected mayor of Jersey City in 2013. He has a story: Edison kid, parents deli owners in Newark, worked on Wall Street, served in Iraq post 9/11 and challenged the political machine in Hudson, wearing it down gradually before beating incumbent Jerry Healy last year. Even his critics – most of them older and irritated that he’s making an early splash – acknowledge that he has good political instincts. His willingness to run into Newark and align himself with anti-establishment mayoral candidate Ras Baraka – who won – showed off his ability to successfully play territorial politics. His recent pilfering of the highly prized Mark Albiez from Stack’s office had a playful political quality of chewing a leg away from Stack, who is positioned to support Sweeney.

Weaknesses: It might be a virtue, but he’s really brand new. Even sympathizers routinely admit that, “well, he still has to govern.” He’s not Chris Bollwage from Elizabeth, for example. Discussions about Fulop routinely lead to Bollwage, in fact, and consideration of another big city mayor with a longstanding record of executive success. Like Sweeney, he’s haunted by some Christie connective tissue. While the senate president managed to at least stand very uncomfortably at the front of the room of some of the doomed 2013 Democratic gubernatorial candidate’s events last year, Fulop never actually uttered the words “Barbara Buono.” Sweeney will pounce on that in a 2017 primary. Notwithstanding Joe DiVincenzo’s belief that Christie will have to get jack-hammered out from behind his State of New Jersey podium, an early Christie departure for the fulltime presidential campaign trail could shorten Fulop’s runway and make him look that much greener in a showdown with Sweeney.

 

Philip Murphy

Strengths: Money. He’s got it. And that may be enough to do it. Legislator/mayors are a phenomenon of the past, eradicated by dual-office holding bans; creating public office collisions between the Sweeneys and Fulops of the world, who once might have been able to supersize themselves as lawmaker/mayor public service centaurs. Private self-funders are well positioned to seize on the divide. Democrats could use a financial boost since Christie ran multimillionaire Jon Corzine out of office in 2009. The party wants Corzine money, but they don’t want Corzine. The comparison in this case arises inevitably because, like Corzine, Murphy has a Goldman Sachs executive background. A self-funder, Murphy can exercise an advantage at a time when Democratic Party power brokers don’t want to expend resources on a gubernatorial candidate. They want to gorge legislative candidates on IE money, preserve legislative majorities, and leave the executive’s chair to someone who can pay his own way. A proven executive with his own piggy bank, Murphy can make quick friends with the argument that he won’t have to show up with hat in hand. Another early observable strength of Murphy’s is that he’s aggressively making the rounds. He’s talking to everyone, and making a favorable impression. PolitickerNJ has had about five different conversations with people about the former U.S. Ambassador to Germany – these are insiders not specifically tasked with making this point – and they all acknowledge that “well, he’s no Jon Corzine.”

Weaknesses: Only time will tell if Murphy can actually shake the Corzine Part II tag that his rivals crave sinking him with sooner rather than later. Sweeney can pound his chest as the barge brawling son of labor, and Fulop has a story with quick connecting points. But the narrative of a guy from Goldman Sachs who can come in from the outside to straighten out the state’s fiscal mess has a resonance alarmingly close to the one of a man last seen catapulted out of Drumthwacket by Christie.

 

Other names increasingly in the mix:

John Wisniewski: Bridgegate breathed new life into the assemblyman from Sayreville, putting on display the skills he’s developed as the longtime chairman of the Transportation Committee. If Murphy’s campaign solidifies, that could be tough for Wisniewski, who would find himself competing in his home county of Middlesex against the financially potent Murphy, who already has strong ties in the county.  

Lou Greenwald: The Assembly Majority Leader can’t run if Sweeney remains in the race. Two South Jersey candidates kill each other. But if Sweeney decides in the end not to run (highly unlikely), Greenwald could get that Batphone emergency call.

Benjie Wimberly: The Assemblyman from Paterson has political events that would make Stack jealous.

Vincent Prieto: People are starting to throw his name around more now that he’s established himself as speaker of the general assembly. Caught between Fulop and Sweeney, Prieto could conclude in a moment of statewide catharsis, “To heck with this, I’m running myself,” but as with the others on this list below the main troika, his pathway appears impaired.  

Chris Bollwage: He may finally grow tired of others attempting to ape the skill set he quietly put together over a two-decades long career in the City of Elizabeth.

Milly Silva: The SEIU leader caught statewide fever in 2013 as Buono’s ticketmate and might be unable to resist a second crack, this time in the driver’s seat of her own public sector worker friendly campaign.

"New Jersey hasn’t heard the last of Brian Goldberg. Or maybe New Jersey will be hearing about him for the first time."
—NJ Media Advance for NJ.com's "The Auditor," on the Essex Republican's new PAC