Op-Ed: Handicapping the 2013 NJ Gubernatorial Race

One of the great parlor games in New Jersey politics has always been “Who’s Running For Governor?” Forget that no one uses the word “parlor” anymore. The game is still on.

Speculation on who the Democratic nominee will be in 2013 already finds its way into the columns and comments on the state’s political websites. Here’s another stab.

Let’s assume for our purposes that current New Jersey Governor Chris Christie runs for re-election that year. I know Ross Douthat, a Republican columnist for The New York Times, recently urged our Governor to get into the 2012 presidential sweepstakes. But with every passing day, that gets more unlikely. And why trust a columnist whose very name is “Doubt That.”

I’ve spoken to half a dozen Democratic insiders in the past few days. Here is what I’ve come up with.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (Photo courtesy of Stephen Sweeney)

Steve Sweeney, Senate President

Likelihood: Would like to run.

Strengths: An Everyman appeal like Chris Christie; has a good personal story to tell; tough and street smart; would have the trade unions’ support; decent name recognition.

Weaknesses: Public unions hate him; gays, gun-owners, and environmentalists right behind them ( remember “fast-track” legislation?); possibly too conservative for the Democratic base; lacks a college education, if anybody cares; too many things can be blamed on a senate president; cut too many deals with Christie.

Bottom line: A contender, certainly, but if Christie looks unbeatable or George Norcross backs Cory Booker, Sweeney gives it up or waits ‘til 2017.

Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (Photo courtesy of Barbara Buono)

Barbara Buono, Senate Majority Leader

Likelihood: Running.

Strengths: Articulate, attractive, a woman in a state in which Christie polls poorly among women; has support of teachers and other public unions; appeals to the left; has cultivated strong anti-Christie stands and tough anti-Christie rhetoric; gives a good speech and has consistently risen up the ranks from Assembly back bench.

Weaknesses: Has no county party leader/boss/organization support; ended up on wrong side of her own Middlesex County party chairman fight, so can’t even guarantee her own county; a hard name to get right (it’s not “Bono”); only moderate name recognition.

Bottom line: A top-flight candidate in need of a godfather.

Mayor Cory Booker (Photo courtesy of Cory Booker)

Cory Booker, Newark Mayor

Likelihood: “It’s his if he wants it.” Strengths: rock-star charisma, high name recognition, large network of boosters, access to capital, popular with African-Americans and upscale suburbanites, especially women, capable of soaring rhetoric; projects optimism, which plays well off the more sarcastic Christie.

Weaknesses: “What’s he done for Newark?” “He’s never in Newark.” “If he can’t govern Newark,….”; has yet to take on Christie over anything; too close to Christie on education issues; has disappointed some insiders; battling a perception he’s all talk and ideas.

Bottom line: Norcross and the Essex machine could crown him king (and get him out of Newark so a new team could take over City Hall), but Booker might have to start antagonizing Christie a little bit. He might prefer to run for a US Senate seat in 2014.

Senator Dick Codey (Photo courtesy of NJ Senate Majority Office)

Dick Codey, state senator and former Governor

Likelihood: Looking at it. Strengths: enormously popular in his 2005 year of glory; smart politically; popular with both public and trade unions; highest favorability rating of any Democrat in the state; matches up well against Christie; can get organizational support, can dish out the anti-Christie rhetoric when he wants to.

Weaknesses: “Last year’s model;” a name that’s fading over time; terrible relationships with powerbrokers Norcross and DiVincenzo; a 38-year tie to the Statehouse and every ill there; opponents may try to muddy him up over his insurance business; could he raise the money?

Bottom line: In a Christie-Codey election, Norcross and Joe D. might actually support Christie, so can an old lion run anyway? This one, at least, has the luxury of being able to wait longer than most before jumping in.

Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Lou Greenwald (Photo courtesy of Lou Greenwald)

Lou Greenwald, Assembly Budget Committee Chairman

Likelihood: The aspiration is there.

Strengths: Well-spoken, young, attractive, knowledgeable on the issues from his decade as budget chair; has carved out a few anti-Christie stands; fire in belly; perceived as substantive.

Weaknesses: Some think the pin-striped suit and slick-backed hair belong on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire; not much statewide name recognition; easily tied to Trenton establishment; not as outspoken against Christie as others.

Bottom line: Only one South Jerseyan will run. If Sweeney’s in, that trumps Lou. If Norcross backs Booker, that trumps Lou.

Congressman Rob Andrews (Photo courtesy of Rob Andrews)

Rob Andrews, Congressman

Likelihood: Unlikely.

Strengths: Very articulate, polished, a pro; doesn’t have the Statehouse ties others do; on a good day can out-talk even Christie; a conservative Democrat with centrist appeal; more acceptable to the left than Sweeney.

Weaknesses: Has run statewide twice before and lost both primaries (’97 and ’08); fellow congressional democrats still hate him for “betraying” Frank Lautenberg in ’08 primary; can be seen as a “creation” of Norcross, like Sweeney and Greenwald; wife’s holding his place on ’08 congressional ballot still rankles some.

Bottom line: Again, only one South Jerseyan will run, and “0-for-2 Andrews” might just be the best contrast with Chris Christie.

Congressman Frank Pallone (Photo courtesy of Frank Pallone)

Frank Pallone, Congressman

Likelihood: Depends on redistricting.

Strengths: Comes out of Monmouth-Ocean region and could neutralize Christie strength there; good fund-raiser, has $4 million in the bank; good retail politician; good environmental and labor records; decent name recognition after nearly three decades in office; decent contrast with Christie; acceptable to the left; expert on health care reform.

Weaknesses: Not a fiery speaker, a bit aloof according to some; hasn’t done state issues in two decades; “Christie has him for lunch in a debate.”

Bottom line: If he gets screwed in redistricting (his biggest fear), he could have nowhere else to go, but would much prefer to be a US Senator.

State Democratic Chairman John Wisniewski (Photo courtesy of John Wisniewski)

John Wisniewski, State Democratic Chairman and Assembly Transportation Chairman

Likelihood: Why not.

Strengths: Has cultivated an anti-Christie portfolio and continues to co-write the playbook; knowledgeable on state issues, especially transportation; well-spoken, quick on his feet; showed deftness during 2011 legislative reapportionment, thoughtful legislator, good on public policy.

Weaknesses: No one has parlayed a state chairmanship into a statewide office (not even Bob Franks); would split Middlesex County with Buono if they both ran (and another tough name to pronounce right consistently); couldn’t even deliver Sayreville to Jon Corzine in ’09; alienated both state senators in his county during re-apportionment (Buono and Vitale) with one trial-balloon map; Democratic Mayor John McCormac of Woodbridge, the county’s largest town, a bigger fan of Christie than of “Wiz”; better inside player than practitioner of the outside game.

Bottom line: Not a top tier candidate going in but a comer who’s honing his skills.

Assembly Majority Leader Joe Cryan (Photo courtesy of the New Jersey Assembly Majority Office)

Joe Cryan, Assembly Majority Leader

Likelihood: Little.

Strengths: A passionate Democrat, loved by some on the left; among Christie’s sharpest critics; a reputation for effectiveness; good debater.

Weaknesses: Old conflicts with a lobbyist and a local Union Twp. gadfly could constitute baggage; name recognition; said to be at deep odds with South Jersey and Essex Democrats.

Bottom line: Joe can help make a governor, but he is less likely to become one.

Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo (Photo courtesy of The County of Essex)

Joe DiVincenzo, Essex County Executive

Likelihood: Only as Christie’s running mate.

Strengths: Powerful ties to the sitting governor; a good record after nine years as county exec; great caretaker of his county’s park system; has worked the Essex vineyards like a pro.

Weaknesses: No contrast with Christie; seen as tied to the hip of old Newark ward leader Steve Adubato, Sr; as an orator, no threat to Barack Obama; that pension he’s collecting for the job he’s performing.

Bottom line: An earthquake will hit Virginia before Joe D. ever takes on his lov-guv. (It hit as I was writing this.)

Mayor Chris Bollwage (Photo courtesy of Chris Bollwage)

Chris Bollwage, Mayor of Elizabeth

Likelihood: Unlikely.

Strengths: Smart, capable mayor, very tough on Christie.

Weaknesses: Chris who?

Bottom line: It was Senator Ray Lesniak who kicked this idea off after Bollwage verbally sparred with Christie in a press release in late August when Christie visited Trinitas Hospital. It sounds like a joke or a throwaway line until you think about. “It was only half-kidding,” says Lesniak, who’s thought about it. On the other hand, Bollwage couldn’t even deliver Elizabeth for Lesniak in last June’s 20th district primary.

Former Goldman Sachs Executive Philip Murphy (Photo courtesy of Philip Murphy)

Philip Murphy, former Goldman Sachs executive

Likelihood: Maybe.

Strengths: A self-funder at a time when raising money is difficult for Democrats; smart, dynamic, and likeable; led the pension and benefits task force under Dick Codey that laid some of the groundwork for this year’s reforms; another Monmouth guy like Pallone who could cut into Christie’s strength there; a true Outsider.

Weaknesses: A Wall Street guy; a Goldman Sachs guy, a novice—“we’ve seen that movie.”

Bottom line: An intriguing prospect gaining currency in the parlor but who knows what’s being said in Murphy’s den.

So there you have it. A dozen Democrats, one of them likely to be the nominee for governor two years from now. Notice that no one appears to be jockeying to be Lieutenant Governor. That job hasn’t evolved yet into something people go to bed dreaming about. But it will. Especially if Kim Guadagno becomes Governor because Chris Christie leaves early, if not for the White House then for Fox News or a big law firm or some other life. But that’s a column for another day.


Michael Aron is a contributor at NJTV. He has been a journalist since 1970, and has interviewed every New Jersey governor, state supreme court chief justice and legislative leader, plus a number of presidential candidates. He has covered national political conventions, trade missions abroad and all the major political issues of the state.

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