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Maybe its due to the fact that I am a New Jersey resident but there are times that I have to scratch my head and admire the blatant disdain my state’s Democratic Party has for each other. With the possible exception of Louisiana (well from the Long family to the reign of Edwin Edwards) and Illinois, it’s harder to find a state that is riddled with more party infighting and “color” than New Jersey.
Describing the infighting in New Jersey in a succinct manner is something that I am grossly incapable of. I’m not talented nor intelligent enough to give an apt summary and it might be just as hard to simply scratch the surface. However, I will do my absolute best to introduce you to some of the movers & shakers in New Jersey politics as well as some of the major bankrollers.
First things first, I will try to explain the state geographically using the biggest cliches I can possibly incorporate. If you ask any New Jersey resident where they are from, they will likely say “North Jersey” or “South Jersey”; which represent two different worlds.
I’m a “South Jersey” resident for example. The line usually is somewhere around Trenton and the more northern you go, the more “industrial” it gets to speak. South Jersey is, surprisingly to those people whose only exposure to the state is Jersey Shore, more rural once you get past the area surrounding Trenton, Camden and Burlington. Most of us are Philadelphia sports fans who love Wawa and Acme.
When you climb through Central Jersey (basically Hunterdon and Monmouth Counties), that’s where you see some of your “Jersey Boy/Girl” stereotypes and also the “rich” people of the state. If there had to be a section of New Jersey that would quantify as “elitist” its Central Jersey and its home to Princeton, Lawrenceville, Toms River, Yankee fans and plenty of White Castles.
But then after the brief foray into Central Jersey, you head off into North Jersey which is the “industrial” section of New Jersey (though it has its own fair share of rurality in the Northwest tip of the state) where you see the home of the true population centers of the state. Cities, actual cities, such as Newark, Jersey City, Hoboken and Hackensack are up there too.
There are also stereotypes amongst the people between the state as North Jersey is considered “dirty” while South Jersey is considered “redneck”, both of which are of course gross myths but they have stuck for awhile.
But enough about cultural geography and let’s get into how this all ties into the New Jersey Democratic Party. Here’s the “new” story that brought about the idea to compose this post. The New Jersey Democratic Party is looking for a new chairman and considering New Jersey holds its elections in off-years (HINT: this year to be precise) to lead the party to electoral success.
As most probably know, New Jersey Democrats have settled (and voted on the matter) on state Sen. Barbara Buono as their gubernatorial nominee and the person who will head their ticket. It should be noted that Buono was the only politician to make the leap to take on one of the most popular Governors in the nation and that should be commended. A slew of more higher-profile candidates such as Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Rep. Bill Pascrell, former interim Governor Richard Codey and State Senate President Stephen Sweeney all demurred.
What’s also noteworthy in Barbara Buono is that she represents Middlesex County and the township of Edison; which for intents and purposes is in the Central/North Jersey section of the state. Also, something that should be noted before we continue on is that usually the gubernatorial nominee has a say in the matter of who gets to be picked party chairman and Buono chose Hudson County Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell.
O’Donnell, though, for those who actually follow New Jersey politics might be best known for being part of a so-called “coup” to try and oust Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver from her position in the state’s General Assembly and supplant her with then-Majority Leader Joe Cryan. Oliver, who is the first female African-American Speaker in New Jersey history, was elected alongside Sweeney and their election was aided by a deal between Essex County leader Joe DiVincenzo and South Democratic leader George Norcross. Those two names are really critical to get a better grasp at the current landscape of New Jersey politics.
Essex County is in the very Northeastern part of the state and also encompasses Newark. Yet the two power-brokers in DiVincenzo and Norcross have had their moments before, such as the case in the Democratic primary of 2008 between then-incumbent Sen. Frank Lautenberg and Rep. Rob Andrews. Lautenberg had the advantages of the incumbency and the endorsements of most of the notable politicians in the state (including Cory Booker and Codey) but Andrews (who represents Gloucester County in the southern portion of the state) had the backing of Norcross, who is one of the wealthiest Democratic fundraisers in the state.
Still the relationship between Essex County and South Jersey is on display again in the fight for the chairmanship. It should be noted that O’Donnell is considered likely to prevail but partly thanks to “machine politics” and mostly due to personal vendettas (thanks to said machines), plenty of powerful politicians in the country will not go down without a fight. Sweeney, and a bevy of South Jersey and Essex County leaders (including Oliver, Andrews, Essex County Democratic Chairman Phil Thigpen and Donald Norcross, brother of George) all have rallied behind state Sen. Ray Lesniak who was formerly party chairman from 1992-1994.
Now it cannot be a surprise that George Norcross has come out in favor of Lesniak nor should it be a surprise that so many politicians have also lined up behind him. You cannot get elected in South Jersey without the backing of Norcross and I doubt you could be elected in Essex County without the support of DiVincenzo. These two men are the two most powerful bosses in the state and they (as well as their sponsored politicians) can be considered “Chris Christie Democrats” or for short, “Christiecrats” who have made Christie’s job fairly easier in passing legislation that normal Democrats would be against. For more on “Christiecrats”, this piece by Steve Kornacki is a must-read.
Though it’s hard to believe, given the two’s power, but the two have been outwitted before by Richard Codey, the former Governor and Senate President. Codey, who founded himself on the wrong side of Norcross and DiVincenzo by endorsing DiVincenzo’s rival when he was running for Essex County Executive, successfully was the highest non-machine politician in the state until he was taken down in 2009 by the duo.
In September of last year, Codey had this to say in regards to the Democratic Party of New Jersey.
We’ve got to stop letting party bosses dictate our agenda and enabling Mr. Christie, when he’s wrong, to succeed.
That is probably one of the most truest words to be spoken in regards to New Jersey politics. When you are beholden to the party bosses, who are particularly chummy with the Governor, then you are effectively a one-party state and voters lack a second option. That’s partly why you didn’t see a first-tier challenger go after Christie, all the top nominees are either machine-backed and dependent on Christie OR are like Codey and wouldn’t gain any of the big money and organizational support of Norcross and DiVincenzo.
This is what makes the probable election of O’Donnell fascinating. He will likely get it even though a considerable chunk of the Assembly will be against him, and if they are against him, the power brokers will certainly be. But to get more Democratic-friendly legislation in the state, you might have to look at getting someone that is not connected to the powerful machines of the state to have a shot.
Even then though that might be a pipe dream as you would need the Governor’s Mansion but you can’t deny that New Jersey is at least an ultra fascinating political state with the various names and regions.