Sources: Sweeney’s Road to Drumthwacket and the South Jersey Statehouse Stratagem

TRENTON – In addition to dependency on Building Trades muscle, Senate President Steve Sweeney’s (D-3) path to victory in a Democratic Primary consists of wringing support from Trenton leaders who also occupy leadership positions within key party committee structures.

Sweeney’s allies trust that politicians’ natural craving either to move up the totem pole – or secure what they have now – will catapult the iconic ironworker to Drumthwacket.

A South Jerseyan whose Democratic allies possess the biggest and strongest regional party alliance in the statehouse, Sweeney would have to rely on relationships with pols in North Jersey, whose Gold Dome careers would improve as a consequence of movement at the top of the legislature and a vacancy on its most powerful throne.

The moves are simple.

Based on the templates of past deals struck by South Jersey Democrats, some variation on the following would occur: state Senator Paul Sarlo (D-36) would get the senate presidency vacated by Sweeney in exchange for support by the state’s biggest county for Sweeney for Governor; Hudson would back Sweeney in order to keep Assembly Speaker (and Hudson Democratic Chairman) Vincent Prieto (D-32) in his chair of power; state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29) would secure the lieutenant governor position or head of the Department of Education; Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36) would follow the path of Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-6) from budget chair to assembly majority leader.

One could conceivably scramble those depending on who or which county is up or down at any given time.

Of course, there are some problems, or at least some unresolved questions.

Note first of all that in this structure, a Sweeney departure to the governor’s mansion does not require the usual legislative balance of power fulfilled by the north/south political seesaws of, for example, South Jersey’s Joe Roberts as speaker and North Jersey’s Dick Codey as senate president; of South Jersey’s Sweeney paired with North Jersey’s Sheila Oliver as speaker followed by North Jersey’s Prieto supplanting Oliver.

The South would have Sweeney in the executive’s chair, and require northern pull to get there, which would – or certainly could – wound certain South Jersey brand names who for years have carefully played the climbing game with the promise of the speakership increasingly near.

Take Greenwald.

He’s right there.

But his ascent does not aid Sweeney’s political endgame.

South Jersey’s contribution to this deal is Sweeney.

Given the South’s disadvantage in population and the importance of the North in a Democratic Primary, everything else has to tilt north.

Maybe a cabinet position?

Or maybe state Sen. Jim Beach (D-6) retires and Greenwald moves up to stand poised to take advantage of a Sarlo slip-up.

Then there’s Middlesex.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski’s (D-19) name hovers at the edge of the gubernatorial bullring. If he doesn’t get the speakership, would he run for governor? Of course, he won’t answer that question.

Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Kevin McCabe is a carpenter – that powerful outfit from the Building Trades – whose brass have already trumpeted statewide support for Sweeney. But the sprawling county needs something in return.

Would Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac return to a gubernatorial cabinet as part of a deal?

There are always cabinet positions – which would have to be a big part of the play of his gubernatorial adversaries to hook allies.

Would that be enough to appease Middlesex?

Then there’s Union County, where state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-20) is playing footsy with a run for governor.

Sweeney has a strong alliance with Union County Democratic Chairman Jerry Green, who’s also a legislator, whose power position would remain intact under the auspices of a Sweeney advance.

But – in an east-west bifurcated county – Lesniak wants something.

Would he settle for a position less important than senate president?

Sources close to the senate president remain confident of Sweeney’s ability to control the moves on this chess board, even as another gubernatorial hopeful, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, last week burnished the support of two other northern mayors: Newark’s Ras Baraka and Paterson’s Jose “Joey” Torres.

Politicians don’t care about the warm and fuzzy feeling they may experience as a result of proximity to the governor, a source argued. They want power themselves, or the belief of power, which is Sweeney’s key to statewide power.

"I’m an undertaker by trade, so when I bury somebody, they don’t come back."
—Bergen County Democratic Chairman Lou Stellato