Race To Be Christie’s Successor Heating Up

Philadelphia Inquirer
By Andrew Seidman, Inquirer Trenton Bureau
November 22, 2015

ATLANTIC CITY – The 2017 gubernatorial race to succeed Gov. Christie was being waged amid the flashing lights of Borgata’s dance club, open bars at Caesars, and dozens of other private parties hosted by New Jersey’s political elite.

Nominally, last week’s annual conference of the State League of Municipalities here provided local officials opportunities to learn about economic development, public-records laws, affordable housing, and other issues such as the pros and cons of water privatization.

But for the leading contenders for each party’s nomination in 2017, the three-day rendezvous offered a chance to make a pitch and show they are serious about running.

Three leading contenders for the Democratic nomination each held his own party Tuesday night. Phil Murphy of Monmouth County, a former Goldman Sachs executive and ambassador to Germany, recalled the legacy of Bobby Kennedy in pushing for a “movement” to resurrect the middle class.

Lobbyist-types and elected officials lined up for some face time with Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop at the Irish Pub and a Borgata club. A prominent labor group lavished praise on Senate President Stephen Sweeney of Gloucester County and mounted a resolution on a restaurant wall at Caesars Hotel & Casino urging him to run for governor.

A possible Republican candidate, Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick of Union County, also hosted a party. Christie’s second-in-command, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, also is considering a run.

“With Christie completely fixated on Iowa and New Hampshire and the gears of government grinding to a halt, it seems both Republicans and Democrats are already casting their eyes to 2017,” said Joshua Henne, a Democratic consultant with White Horse Strategies who isn’t working for any of the prospective candidates.

Some political observers predict that the unofficial campaign’s pace, already somewhat frenetic on the Democratic side, will pick up after the new year.

With Christie’s popularity sliding at home as he seeks the GOP presidential nomination and Democrats beginning with a voter registration and fund-raising advantage, Democrats are confident that the primary, not the general election, will be the decisive race.

Presumptive front-runners are wasting no time raising their profiles and gaining favor with county party chairmen whose support is seen as crucial in a low-turnout primary. The county chairs and donors are assessing the field, though some observers believe key players will delay endorsements for some time, so they can maintain access to some of the state’s highest officeholders without rupturing relationships.

On Tuesday night, the New Jersey Building & Construction Trades Council hosted a cocktail reception for Sweeney, 56, vice president of an ironworkers union, at Nero’s Italian Steakhouse inside Caesars. The council’s resolution urging Sweeney to run cited his support for prevailing wage, a restructuring of higher education that created construction jobs, and paid family leave, among other issues.

At the Borgata, Murphy, 58, referenced the fall of the Berlin Wall, Arab Spring, and the civil rights movement, suggesting New Jersey could soon change history, too.

“If you’re in the middle class right now and you’re barely hanging on, and each day you wake up and you’re slipping further and further behind, as it relates to providing for your kids, to having that secure retirement, to getting your kids to go to college, and those dreams become more and more distant, then the movement we’re talking about is every bit as real to that family as it was to those families in 1966," he said to a room of supporters at Gypsy Bar.

Fulop and a couple of other North Jersey mayors hosted a party at a Borgata club, where hundreds danced to Fetty Wap and The Weeknd. Fulop stayed on the sidelines. Former Gov. Jim McGreevey, who runs Jersey City’s prisoner reentry program, mingled with guests.

“At the end of the day, a lot of these people make their decisions based on gut level, ‘I like this guy; I feel this guy’s going to give something back to us or me,’ and these parties help to foment those personal connections,” Patrick Murray, a pollster and political analyst at Monmouth University, said Tuesday night at the Borgata.

Some operatives are already anticipating an ugly Democratic primary, heavily influenced by outside money spent by largely unregulated super PACs that can raise unlimited cash.

Likely contrasts between the candidates include a generational divide (more experience, if you’re Sweeney or Murphy, or a fresh face, if you’re Fulop) and socioeconomic status, where Murphy is particularly vulnerable, given less-than- fond memories of former Gov. Jon S. Corzine, another former top Goldman executive who spent millions of his own dollars to fund his campaigns.

Murphy seems prepared for the attack: He rarely gives a speech or interview without saying he grew up middle class “on a good day.”

A shadow campaign for governor has been underway for months, if not immediately after Christie won reelection in 2013.

Evidence Sweeney’s leftward turn on gun control and an apparent effort to distance himself from Christie, who is deeply unpopular with the state’s Democratic base. Sweeney worked with Christie during the governor’s first term to overhaul the pension and health benefits systems for public workers.

Sweeney and other Senate Democrats are now focused on early childhood education, college affordability, and transportation, as part of their “New Jersey: Investing in You” campaign.

In September, Murphy launched a multimillion-dollar ad campaign paid for by his political action committee, New Way for New Jersey, which he said would promote a “middle-class-first” agenda. He stars in the TV spots, which blast Republicans like Christie and Donald J. Trump, evoke nostalgia for middle-class champions like Kennedy, and introduce Murphy’s family.

Fulop, 38, who once worked for Goldman Sachs and served in the Marines, attracted attention as a possible gubernatorial candidate almost immediately after he defeated the city’s longtime mayor in May 2013. His candidacy is likely to focus on Jersey City”s economic development and his enactment of progressive policies such as paid sick leave, supporters say.

Yet in a state that faces a substantial structural deficit, underfunded pension and health benefit plans, and a transportation-funding crisis, some political veterans are wondering who would even want the top job.

“I really wouldn’t want to have the responsibility to give the State of the State address in January,” former Gov. Jim Florio, a Democrat, said during a panel discussion Wednesday, “because the state of the state is deplorable.”