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Kean Survives Ouster Vote Despite Christie Arm-Twisting

Senate minority leader targeted for trying to defeat Christie-crats in South Jersey

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.

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