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Fulop’s Dramatic Departure Reshapes Dynamics of 2017 Gubernatorial Race

One less potential Democratic hopeful throws differences among remaining contenders in sharp relief

steven fulop

Then there were two — or is it five?.

The surprising announcement yesterday by Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop that he would not be running for governor in 2017, after years of laying groundwork, was met with shock. The widely anticipated gubernatorial race has yet to really start but the withdrawal of Fulop, expected to be a frontrunner, has already changed its dynamics.

Stressing the need for unity among Democrats in the state, Fulop threw his support to his would-be competitor, former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy, at a morning press conference on the steps of his city hall. Notoriously private and politically calculating, Fulop kept the news — which caught many off guard — secret until yesterday.

The development effectively trims what had been shaping up to be a large field of Democratic candidates, dropping the potential roster from six to five and the list of presumed favorites — Murphy and Fulop were on it — from three to two. And it helps avoid what could have turned out to be a bitter, bloodier primary battle, a taste of which voters got last month.

The other frontrunner — if there can be such a thing with only one candidate (Murphy) officially in the race — is state Senate President Stephen Sweeney. Also thought to be considering a run are Tom Byrne, son of former governor Brendan Byrne, and former state Democratic chairman, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), and state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union)

Lesniak, taking to Twitter after yesterday’s development, said Fulop’s endorsement “Doesn't change my plans one iota. Makes me even more determined to fight for what's right.”

The exit of Fulop brings into clearer focus what the 2017 race will look like.

The differences between the candidates are stark, experts in the wake of yesterday’s developments note, ranging from personal style, to political orientation, to the kind of experience each brings to the table. “It completely reshapes the race,” Ben Dworkin, assistant professor and director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said of Fulop’s announcement. “It’s going to set up a fascinating intra-party fight among Democrats that is going to have several different competing story lines.”

On one side there’s Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and multimillionaire from Middletown. Murphy was the first to jump into the race in May with comparatively low name recognition, but has spent the better part of the past two years trying to rectify that, attending closed-door political events around the state and donating sizable chunks of money to local candidates. His resume is not completely devoid of politics: Murphy served as financial chair of the Democratic National Committee and foreign ambassador for the Obama administration earlier in his career. But he’s already branded himself a political outsider, determined to take on what he called yesterday the “dysfunctional and special interest politics” of Trenton.

Murphy is already campaigning, has a $10 million war chest, an impressive inventory of endorsements, and is gathering much of the liberal faction of the party behind him. (Lesniak, also a well-known progressive, will play a role there too.)

Sweeney, along with Tom Byrne, is more centrist. His philosophy is one of pragmatism and blue-collar labor. A former ironworker from South Jersey with deeps roots in private-sector labor, he’s probably one of the best-known figures mulling a run, having spent the last seven years presiding over lawmaking in Trenton. While he hasn’t yet officially declared, like Murphy he’s got a super PAC in his name with large contributions from building trades unions, and a powerful political patron in South Jersey powerbroker George Norcross, who is likely to provide heavy assistance in a statewide run.

The individual aspects of each man invariably give rise to different political expressions, said Matthew Hale, an associate professor at the department of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University.

“To the extent that Murphy can consolidate the progressive wing of the party, we now have a progressive-moderate race,” Hale said. “Murphy is clearly a progressive, clearly the liberal wing of the party. Everything he’s talked about and wants to do has been progressive. And Sweeney is much more centrist. He’s shown that through his willingness to take on the unions, and through his willingness to find compromise in different places.”

“What’s interesting is that the primary historically is where more liberal or progressives folks tend to win,” Hale added. “Oftentimes the more ideological candidate wins in the primary, and then has to move to the center and maybe struggle a little in the general.”

As Hale noted, Sweeney’s leadership in Trenton speaks to his potential casting as a centrist Democrat in the race, one that could appeal to a broad swath of voters and interests in a general election. The reputation began as early as 2011, when he helped broker the state’s historic pension and benefits reform with Gov. Chris Christie. That move cost him the support of groups like the New Jersey Education Association, a major progressive ally in the state, but affirmed his status as a bipartisan powerbroker willing to sacrifice ideology in the making of tough choices.

Most recently, Sweeney further angered the NJEA when, facing a Transportation Trust Fund impasse among lawmakers who couldn’t decide which taxes to pass to save the fund, he tabled a pension and benefits amendment that the NJEA had long sought, citing uncertainties stemming from the deadlock.

Murphy, by comparison, has assumed a more progressive stance. His biggest splash came last month, when he called for a sweeping revision of state economic policies during a major speech in Newark. Its main focus was the creation of a state bank, which he said would allow college students and small businesses to access loans at more equitable rates than those charged by commercial institutions.

Such identity politics and policies have not escaped Murphy and Sweeney, of course. Murphy, appearing with Fulop at yesterday’s press conference, said that he hopes to “unite our party across the state” and get “back to pushing against the sort of leadership we’ve seen,” suggesting he’s ready to take on Trenton’s politicians. Sweeney, for his part, slapped Murphy in a separate press conference in the statehouse following Fulop’s announcement, saying he’s “not surprised to see two former Goldman Sachs guys embracing.”

There are regional differences, too. While South Jersey, led by Norcross, is likely to coalesce behind Sweeney, Fulop was thought to be working toward garnering support among north Jersey powerbrokers for his bid. His endorsement of Murphy could shift that support behind the upstart candidate’s campaign, setting the stage for a regional battle between the north and the south.

“I think there are images that candidates are getting into the mind of voters, but I think those are going to be refined going forward,” Dworkin, who stressed that it’s still early in the race and that any dynamics currently at play may yet change as more candidates enter. “We should remember that there are other candidates out there, and they will all be competing for attention from Democratic voters.”

Hale suggested that it might be those regional politics, and not policy differences, that contributed to Fulop’s decision to back Murphy this week.

“Of course, that being said, it could have as much to do with the fact that Fulop and George Norcross hate each other,” Hale said. “It might have less to do with what the policy is than the fact that there is a clear personality clash between Norcross and Fulop.”

Chase Brush is a former PolitickerNJ reporter and NJ Spotlight editorial intern from North Jersey.

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