Is Monmouth County becoming NJ’s political center?

Asbury Park Press
By Mike Davis
January 23, 2017

TRENTON — For much of the last two centuries, the Governor’s Office has largely been a hot potato tossed between political power brokers in North Jersey and South Jersey.

But 150 years after Matawan native Joseph Bedle left office, Monmouth County already has two of the most prominent — and connected — candidates in next year’s gubernatorial election.

On the Democratic side is Phil Murphy, 59, a former U.S. Ambassador to Germany who has lived in Middletown since 2000. On the Republican side is Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, 57, who moved to Monmouth Beach in 1991. She twice ran alongside Gov. Chris Christie after serving as Monmouth County sheriff.

There is a long ways to go before either may lay claim to their party’s nomination, much less the Governor’s Office — the vote is in November. Nonetheless, they help put the spotlight on Monmouth.

Murphy has drawn comparisons to the unpopular term of former Gov. Jon Corzine due to their similar backgrounds as Goldman Sachs executives. But Murphy spent 2016 rising from an underdog to the leading candidate, securing endorsements from nearly every county Democratic organization and the two bigwigs — Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop — he dispatched along the way.

“Monmouth County is personal,” Murphy said at an Asbury Park town hall in September. “Monmouth County matters not just abstractly, because it’s a big important county, but because it’s where we sleep every night.”

Last week, Guadagno put an end to months of speculation and jumped into the race, pledging that New Jersey could do better than it has under Christie, her former political patron.

That relationship has apparently soured, with Guadagno publicly disavowing Christie’s gasoline tax hike and criticizing President Donald Trump during the campaign. The governor scheduled a media event in Newark during Guadagno’s announcement in Keansburg last week.

“Standing here in Keansburg just blocks from the heart of where Sandy hit us the hardest we have more to do,” Guadagno said. “And we can do better.”

“Monmouth County is personal,” Murphy said at an Asbury Park town hall in September. “Monmouth County matters not just abstractly, because it’s a big important county, but because it’s where we sleep every night.”

Both candidates are facing upstart campaigns from well-known legislators — Assemblymen John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, Sen. Ray Lesniak, D-Union, and Jack Ciattarelli, R-Somerset — and a handful of newcomers looking to take advantage of the pair’s relative obscurity.

In a Rutgers University-Eagleton poll from November, 64 percent of voters said they didn’t know who Murphy was while 55 percent didn’t know who Guadagno was. About 17 percent of voters knew Guadagno but had no opinion of her, while 18 percent said the same about Murphy.​

But if the race shapes out as an all-Monmouth derby, it will cement the county as one not to be taken lightly, said Benjamin Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.

“Monmouth County as a player in state politics — and a competitive area with competitive elections year in and year out — is something I think we can expect to see for a while,” Dworkin said. “It’s a growing county, it’s significant in size and Democrats and Republicans are running aggressive races against each other at all levels.

“In and of itself, the people in each party’s county political leadership are important players within the state political universe,” he said.

Don’t forget your roots

The last Monmouth County native to serve in the Governor’s Office was former state Sen. John Bennett, R-Monmouth, who spent 82 hours as acting governor in January 2002.

The last governors actually elected from Monmouth County were Millstone’s Joel Parker and Matawan’s Joseph Bedle, both longtime Freehold residents. Parker was elected governor while serving as Monmouth County prosecutor, Bedle as a justice on the state Supreme Court.

Both have been dead for over 100 years. They’re buried in the same Freehold Township cemetery.

Democratic strategist Joshua Henne said Monmouth candidates have plenty to talk about.

Everyone in Monmouth has these issues they’re drawn to – the environment, the racetrack, beach replenishment, the seasonal workers, the small businesses. It’s not just Sandy,” said Henne, owner of White Horse Strategies. “They care about the beach and oceans. They talk about Bruce Springsteen – these are things that transcend.”

When asked about having a Monmouth County resident in the Governor’s Office, the first issue mentioned by former Monmouth County Democratic Chairman Vin Gopal was the flailing Monmouth Park racetrack.

The track was left largely out of last year’s debate over casino expansion, specifically excluded due to a radius clause for any potential construction. South Jersey power brokers were concerned with protecting the remaining Atlantic City casinos and North Jersey leaders want to build them at the Meadowlands.

“It’s a big county in the middle of the state and a lot of our politics are unique to people because there’s really no great influence from the north or south,” said Gopal, who recently resigned to launch his campaign in the 11th Legislative District.

But is location alone enough to move an issue to the top of Murphy or Guadagno’s priority list? Not likely, Dworkin said.

“It’s certainly an honor for the county but we don’t’ think of Gov. Chris Christie only as ‘the governor from Mendham.’ We think of him as the governor of New Jersey,” Dworkin said. “It’s just one less conversation trying to convince them to do something.”

Purple county

The county’s political weight is largely due to its competitive nature, Dworkin said.

According to the state Division of Elections, Monmouth is home to 118,464 registered Democrats and 115,373 registered Republicans as of January.

Its Congressional representatives – U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-6th Dist., and U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-4th Dist. — are seemingly invincible despite representing parts of the same county.

Though the county freeholder board is all-Republican, it was under Democratic control until 2008.

Meanwhile, Democrats won both Assembly seats in the 11th District – home to both the urban city of Asbury Park and affluent suburb of Colts Neck — in 2015.

“They are aggressive, competitive races,” Dworkin said. “People on both sides are working hard to find the votes. That just makes the politics of the county more interesting.”

But it’s still too early to tell whether Murphy’s name carries enough weight for Democrats to win Senate seats in the 13th Legislative District – where Sen. Joseph Kyrillos is retiring – and the 11th Legislative District, where Henne expects an “interesting” race between Gopal and Sen. Jennifer Beck.

“Murphy’s from here and people actually know him. He announced [his campaign] in May, but he started making the rounds two and a half years ago,” Henne said. “He’ll have a strong showing but, conversely, so will Guadagno. They both have skin here in their home county and that will help both sides.”