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Opinion: Sweeney Starts to Gather Strength for Possible Governor Bid

Senate president is already making the right moves to clear the field of other candidates, and his political allies are lending a hand

carl golden
Carl Golden

When Senate President Steve Sweeney took a victory lap in celebration of the Democrats’ maintaining their legislative majorities, it served also as the start of an effort to cast himself as a credible candidate for his party’s gubernatorial nomination in 2017 and to establish an inevitably environment -- otherwise known as “clearing the field.”

He received credit and praise for fending off Republican challenges and preserving the party’s 24-16 edge in the Senate, despite Gov. Chris Christie’s 22-point victory over state Sen. Barbra Buono.

He was one of the media’s most sought after legislators at the State League of Municipalities conference in Atlantic City last week, and the reception he sponsored during the conference was standing room only.

He followed that up with a visit to Hudson County, where he accompanied state Sen. Brian Stack on a turkey distribution sojourn in Union City.

In the same week, Sweeney’s political guidance counselor, South Jersey leader George Norcross -- without prompting -- announced he’s a firm supporter of Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, a warning to potential DiVincenzo primary opponents that they faced his formidable organizing and fund-raising capabilities should any of them move on the county executive next year.

It was also Norcross who engineered the selection of Hudson County Assemblyman Vincent Prieto as speaker of the Assembly, replacing (dumping, the more cynical might say) Essex County Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver.

The Norcross moves cement relations between his South Jersey powerbase and party leaders in heavily Democratic Essex and Hudson counties -- all to the benefit of Sweeney’s political ambition.

Some in the party continue to resent Stack and DiVincenzo for endorsing Christie and blame Sweeney for failing to go all out for Buono. Political grudges usually fade with time and, more often, in the interest of achieving election victories. Sweeney, while stopping short of a Christie endorsement, was nonetheless seen as one of the troika along with Stack and DiVincenzo who sabotaged Buono even though it was clear her campaign was doomed from the outset.

There may be some egos to be stroked and favors promised to smooth over any residual ill will, not only over Sweeney’s lack of enthusiasm for Buono but over his incessant appearances and compliments for Christie during the campaign. However, should he demonstrate sufficient strength and broad support across the state, all will be forgiven, though not fully forgotten

The alliances formed between Norcross and the Hudson/Essex party organizations constitute a formidable powerbase, capable of clearing the field and averting any serious primary election challenge to a Sweeney candidacy.

For the Senate president, though, history is not on his side.

Of the 11 governors elected since the adoption in 1947 of the state Constitution, none came directly from the Legislature. Several served in either house but left prior to their election while many sitting legislators failed in attempts to use their experience as a springboard.

Sweeney will preside over the Senate for the next four years, wielding the broad authority of his office to decide which bills will receive consideration, which will be consigned to a committee from which they’ll never emerge, and which nominations will be acted upon.

He must bear in mind that, as the leader of his party and of the Senate, he’ll be held responsible for its record, for what it approves or defeats, and for responding to crises. At the same time, the decisions he makes will be seen in the context of his gubernatorial ambitions and it will be critical for him to deal effectively with questions and criticisms of his motives

For instance, the governor has made clear he intends to aggressively pursue a tax cut in the new Legislature. Sweeney has been considerably more cautious, saying only that a reduction depends on the availability of sufficient resources to compensate for the revenue loss.

Recent reports, including from the Department of the Treasury, that income has thus far fallen short of budgeted estimates suggest that a tax cut could be problematic.

A cut is highly desired by Christie and Sweeney. For the governor, it would be an effective selling point in pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. For Sweeney -- who has openly and frequently boasted about his close working relationship with the governor -- it would position him as a tax-cutter to rebut the party’s reputation as free spenders.

Implicit in Sweeney’s quick start on a potential gubernatorial effort is speculation Christie will not serve his full term, choosing instead to step down at some point to enter national politics.

The timing is crucial, providing either for a special election to fill an unexpired term or for Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno to serve through the 2017 election.

It’s clear from Sweeney’s activities and from those working on his behalf that he wants to be in the strongest position as quickly as possible should a special election be required.

By locking up support early, building an organization, and establishing a fund-raising network, Sweeney can scare off potential rivals by a show of strength others cannot match. He’s made a strong start.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

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