It’s getting to be crowded when it comes to the 2017 Democratic gubernatorial field. Thanks to Gov. Chris Christie’s extremely low approval ratings and New Jersey’s long history of not giving the same party control of the governor’s office for more than two consecutive terms, Democrats are confident the state’s next chief executive will come from their own ranks.
One of the latest Democrats to express interest in running is Tom Byrne, a Princeton financial professional and former chairman of the state Democratic Party who currently leads the New Jersey State Investment Council. Byrne is also the son of former Gov. Brendan Byrne, the state’s last two-term Democrat.
But while much of the 2017 Democratic primary field is expected to court the left wing of the party in a bid to win the nomination, Tom Byrne’s path to victory would seem to be a more moderate one given his ties to Christie and general appeal among Republicans and independents.
Byrne serves on the investment council, the panel that sets policy for the state’s $72 billion public-employee pension system, as a Christie appointee. He is also a member of a bipartisan commission of financial experts that Christie formed in 2014 to study the affordability of public-employee benefits. That group ultimately recommended making a series of sweeping benefits changes that public-worker unions have since strongly opposed.
But Byrne also just won praise from union officials who serve on the investment council for helping to broker a compromise that will see the pension system significantly scale back stakes in hedge funds as it looks to cut down on the fees paid to outside money managers.
Reports of Byrne’s interest in running for governor first came out of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last month. Asked about that possibility more recently, Byrne confirmed that he is seriously considering seeking the office once held by his father.
“I’ve had enough people say to me, and encourage me, to think about it seriously, and I will,” Byrne said. “I’m in no rush to make a decision, there’s plenty of time for that.”
Byrne is a graduate of Princeton University and Fordham Law School. He’s served as a securities and commodities lawyer in New York, was a trader at the former Lehman Brothers firm, and was also a member of a special commission that reported to President Ronald Reagan on the 1987 stock-market crash. He now serves as managing director of Byrne Asset Management.
Byrne was also chair of the state Democratic Party from 1994 to 1997, and he considered running for U.S. Senate in 2000 and 2008. Campaign-finance records show he still has roughly $1.2 million sitting in his federal campaign account.
Right now, the Democratic gubernatorial primary field includes only one declared candidate, former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy of Middletown. But several other high-profile elected officials are expected to join the race, in particular Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop. Other candidates said to be interested include Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union), Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Passaic), and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo.
On the Republican side, no one has officially declared their candidacy, though Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno joined forces with a new think tank earlier this year, a move many viewed as a precursor to a formal run. Other potential GOP candidates include Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union), Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union), and Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-Somerset).
Still, many believe that with Christie’s approval rating registering at only 26 percent as he winds down his second term in office, the real contest for governor in 2017 will play out during the Democratic primary in June. New Jersey voters also have a record that stretches back nearly 50 years of not giving the same political party the governor’s office for more than two consecutive terms.
Asked about Byrne’s chances in the upcoming Democratic primary, Ben Dworkin, a Rider University political science professor, said the big field that’s shaping up helps a candidate like Byrne who doesn’t come into the race with the organizational support of Sweeney’s base in South Jersey or Fulop’s in Hudson County.
“The more people that get in, the less (votes) you need to get a plurality,” said Dworkin, who is also the director of Rider’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey politics.
Dworkin said Byrne also has a chance to “shape the debate” given his knowledge of the state’s deep financial problems, including the pension system’s massive unfunded liability.
“Tom Byrne will have a strong appeal to those who want to boil down the management of the state to management practices, to people who are looking at the problems New Jersey is facing not as political ones but as management ones,” Dworkin said. “Byrne brings a lot to the table.”
Still, Byrne is unlikely to get the coveted party line from most county Democratic organizations, and he’s also not expected to get much support from public-worker unions given his work with Christie’s benefits commission.
In 2015, the commission recommended freezing the current pension system in favor of a new retirement plan with some features of a 401(k). It also proposed cutting employee healthcare benefits to free up cash to pay off the current system’s debt. Earlier this year, the panel strongly opposed a proposed constitutional amendment that unions wanted to put before voters this fall to help shore up the pension system by requiring a series of increased state contributions.
Sweeney, meanwhile, made the unions angry earlier this week by deciding to delay a vote on the proposed amendment for at least a year because of the state’s ongoing political impasse over renewing the Transportation Trust Fund.
Wendell Steinhauer, president of the New Jersey Education Association, refused yesterday to rule anyone out as a candidate for the NJEA’s endorsement. Byrne, Sweeney, and all of the other candidates from both parties will eventually be invited to speak with the NJEA about their views on a host of issues, including pension funding, health benefits, and collective bargaining, Steinhauer said.
“We have a process, a criteria of at least a dozen things,” he said. “I haven’t met the perfect candidate that has agreed with us on everything. You go for the highest percent you can, over all.”