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Kean Survives Ouster Vote Despite Christie Arm-Twisting

tom kean jr
Sen. Tom Kean (R-Union), chief sponsor of the Opportunity Scholarship Act.

Only in Chris Christie’s New Jersey would a Republican Senate minority leader face ouster for trying to elect enough Republican senators to take control of the Senate back from the Democrats.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean (R-Union) kept his leadership post by a 10-6 vote yesterday, despite arm-twisting by Christie on behalf of Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Essex) and against Kean at the behest of Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who was angry that Kean tried to engineer his defeat.

It was a rare defeat for the “Uni-Government,” as The Record's columnist Charlie Stile dubbed the bipartisan alliance of Christie, Sweeney, South Jersey powerbroker George Norcross, and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo that has run New Jersey for the past four years. Rarer still, it marked the first time that Republican legislators have stood up to Christie.

“This is Bizarro World,” Patrick Murray, the Monmouth University political scientist, said with amazement. “Sweeney’s perspective is, ‘Christie, you kept these Republicans in lockstep for four years. How did you let this one off his leash?’ Christie doesn’t need Kean making his life more difficult by causing aggravation with Sweeney and Norcross."

“So here you have a Republican governor tacitly backing the Democratic Senate president in his choice for Republican leadership. It’s just weird. The fact that Kean won is indicative that at least some Republicans realize there’s going to have to be life after Christie, and if they don’t start to do something, they’re going to have a Democratic governor and a Democratic Legislature in 2017,” he said.

The coup attempt against Kean came on the same day that Assembly Democrats unanimously approved Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) to replace Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex), ratifying a deal that Norcross cut with Sen. Nicholas Sacco (D-Hudson) more than a month ago, Democratic sources said. Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-Camden), a Norcross ally, remains in the No. 2 spot, and Sweeney and his leadership team were unanimously reelected to head up the Senate.

Christie’s ham-fisted attempt to try to replace Kean with O’Toole came about because Christie and Sweeney were furious that Kean ignored Christie’s orders not to try to win seats south of Route 195. South Jersey is Sweeney-Norcross country, seven districts spanning seven counties where Democrats hold 18 out of 21 Senate and Assembly seats and effectively control the Legislature by voting as a bloc -- which is fine with Christie.

After all, the Sweeney-Norcross “Christie-crats” provided the muscle Christie needed in the Democratic-controlled Legislature to overhaul pensions and health benefits, cap government spending, and merge the state’s medical schools into Rutgers and Rowan universities -- the bipartisanship Christie cited in his victory speech Tuesday night as a promise of hope for “a dispirited America” tired of Washington gridlock.

And Christie will need their cooperation over the next two years if he wants to add to his record of accomplishment as he prepares to run for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination -- a quest that would take him out of Trenton and clear the way for Sweeney or another Democrat backed by Norcross’s South Jersey juggernaut to take back the governorship.

That’s fine for Christie and Sweeney, but it would most likely doom Republicans to eight years in the minority in both the Senate and the Assembly -- at least until a new legislative redistricting map is drawn in 2021. By that time, if current demographic and political trends continue, New Jersey could be such a “blue state” that no map could be drawn that would give the GOP a chance at winning back the Legislature.

Kean knew that 2013 was the best shot Republicans would have at winning the Senate, because Christie was at the top of the ticket on his way to a blowout reelection victory over Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), and it was definitely Kean’s best shot at becoming Senate president.

The Democratic legislative map chosen two years ago by the late Alan Rosenthal, the independent tie-breaker for the New Jersey Legislative Redistricting Commission, left only six districts that were even marginally competitive. The GOP, which held 16 seats in the 40-member Senate, needed to pick up five of those six seats -- and three of them were in South Jersey.

Christie was content to put some late money into trying to defeat Democratic Sen. Robert Gordon in Bergen County’s 38th District, Sen. Linda Greenstein in the 14th District’s Mercer and Middlesex County suburbs, and Assemblyman Peter Barnes, who was running for the 18th District Middlesex County seat vacated by Buono.

All three Democrats were reelected by margins ranging from 1,200 to 2,000 votes, and the governor’s strategists reasoned that the GOP might have picked up one or more of those seats if Kean had simply focused Republican Senate money in those races. Eliminating three liberal Democratic votes would have made it easier for Christie to pass his second-term legislative agenda.

But Kean needed five seats, not three seats, for a Republican Senate majority. Republicans could have tried to pick up Democratic defectors like Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson), the Union City mayor who endorsed Christie. That’s what Kean’s father, the future governor, did 40 years ago when he cut a deal with six Hudson County Democrats to gain the speakership. But that strategy was risky, especially considering how close Sweeney was to Christie.

“With or without defections, you can’t roll the dice on competing for just three seats,” Murray said. “You have to go for all of them.”

So while Christie’s South Jersey forays consisted of ribbon-cuttings at medical centers and colleges with Sweeney and Norcross, where they would lavish praise on one another for their bipartisan cooperation for the betterment of New Jersey, Kean was down south campaigning with Nikki Trunk, the lawyer he personally recruited to run against Sweeney.

Trunk, of course, was excluded from the Christie-Sweeney events, which were “governmental,” not “political.” But just as Christie’s joint appearance with Newark Mayor Cory Booker soon after Booker won his special election to the U.S. Senate undermined Buono, the fact that Christie was on stage with Sweeney -- not Trunk -- sent a political message to voters.

Kean also worked hard for Atlantic County Sheriff Frank Balles in his challenge to Sen. James Whelan (D-Atlantic), and also went after Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May), whose campaign ads lauding Christie’s cooperation in undoing the planned closure of the Vineland Developmental Center in his district could easily have been mistaken for Republican campaign ads.

Christie’s choice to replace Kean was O’Toole, an across-the-aisle ally of DiVincenzo, the Essex County executive, and Stack, who were the most important of more than 50 Democratic elected officials who publicly endorsed Christie. An O’Toole victory would have been a consolation prize for DiVincenzo’s loss of Oliver in the Assembly speaker’s chair.

O’Toole was backed most prominently by Sen. Joseph M. Kyrillos (R-Monmouth), a longtime Christie friend who cochaired his 2009 gubernatorial campaign and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2012.

Sources said O’Toole also had Sens. Michael Doherty (R-Warren) and Steve Oroho (R-Sussex) from the conservative “Mountain Man” northwest corner of the state, and Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Somerset). Christie personally called Sens. Diane Allen and Dawn Addiego (both R-Burlington) into his office to lobby them to support O’Toole. Addiego did, but Allen refused.

But Republican senators who spoke up for Kean in the caucus argued loudly that it was Christie’s refusal to campaign hard for Republican Senate candidates in South Jersey that kept the GOP from making those races as close as the battles in the 14th, 18thand 38th -- three districts where the popular governor did campaign.

The powerful Republican delegations in Ocean County and Christie’s home county of Morris, two of the strongest GOP bastions in the state, stood firm with Kean, as did all three GOP senators in Bergen, the state’s most populous county.

Kean issued a brief three-sentence statement after the vote. “I’m honored to lead the Republican Caucus in the Senate and I thank my colleagues for their overwhelming support. The responsibility to my caucus and all New Jerseyans is one I hold with great respect. I look forward to working with Gov. Christie, Steve, Vincent, and Jon,” he said, referring to Sweeney, new Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), and reelected Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union).

Sweeney, who is still bitter and has not forgiven Kean, was running an ad on politickernj.com yesterday showing himself holding up a newspaper titled Republican Fantasy News with the headline “Kean Jr. Wins Senate Presidency” -- a play on the famous photo of Harry Truman holding up a photo of a Chicago Tribune front page announcing Thomas Dewey’s victory.

Sweeney was caustic in his official comment. “New Jersey voters returned all 24 Democratic senators because they know we will continue to fight for middleclass families,” Sweeney stated.

“That's not what Tom Kean Jr. or the Republican senate minority caucus represents, which was made clear today," Sweeney continued. "I could ask for no better minority leader than the one whose own strategy cemented their place as the minority party in this state.”

The question for Christie is whether Senate Republicans who have now stood up to him once will get a taste for independent action. Only two Republicans have voted to override a Christie veto in almost four years in office. Bateman and Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) each did so once. Now that they have bucked Christie on the Kean-O-Toole leadership vote, will some Republicans oppose him when the gay marriage bill comes up for a veto override, knowing that most New Jerseyans support the measure?

“Ever since Christie got elected, whenever Christie said, ‘Jump,’ Republicans asked, ‘How high?’” Murray noted. “Republicans were so unused to having a real party boss giving orders that they fell into line like sheep. Christie was welcomed with open arms by the party when he ran for governor, and he showed he had real potential as a party leader."

“Not all the Republicans in the Legislature realized this, but Christie’s really the leader of the Christie Party,” Murray said. “It’s purely a transactional relationship.”

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