UPDATE BELOW: Sign on to Adam Green's pledge to find and support a progressive challenger for Steve SweeneyNJ State Sen. Dick Codey: He was the state's most popular pol when he served concurrently as acting governor and Senate president. How did he get, first, muscled out of running for governor, then pried out of the Senate presidency? It's a nasty story, with nasty consequences.by Ken
So in the final days of New Jersey's fiscal year Democratic legislators rediscovered a modicum of backbone, or perhaps of shame, and refused to give the state's Republithug governor everything he was demanding, to solidify the hold of the state's overprivileged elites. They passed a somewhat less inhumne budget, and the governor shortly thereafter announced
that he was using his statutory line-item veto power to strike out the things he doesn't like, having already gotten the things he wanted most.
Which brings us back to the story of how important elements of the state Democratic party rolled over and played dead for him (and maybe raises the question of whether increasing public attention to the seamy machinations of the state's Dem power brokers played a role). Last night, while writing about the governor
, Chris "The Stench of Corruption" Christie, I waded into the morass of some pretty stinky NJ Democratic power-brokering that goes a long way to explain some otherwise hardly scrutable developments in the politically always-swampy Garden State. I noted in particular two questions that have occupied Salon's Steve Kornakci in a pair of recent pieces, "Chris Christie's Democratic helpers
" (June 24) and "The rise of the Chris Christie Democrats
" (June 29). The wording that follows is mine, not his, but I don't think Steve will feel misrepresented:Question 1:
*Did Democratic State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (who engineered the breakaway of enough Senate Democrats to pass the savage-the-unions portion of the governor's budget plan) simply fold up like a cheap suitcase?Question 2:
What happened to Gov. Jon Corzine in his unsuccessful reelection bid?
Working backwards, I know we thought we knew the answer to the second question: that Corzine was understandably unpopular, between his own character, er, traits, his own blundering, the churn of the economic meltdown, and the presence of a vote-siphoning third candidate. It turns out, though, that there's a crucial element left unmentioned here: that the election of the right-wing Republican Christie suited quite well the growing power of two state "Democratic" (even though "Democratic" no longer means much, to the extent that it means anything
we kind of need to be using quotation marks when it comes to these fellows) political, er, operatives -- okay, bosses
, South Jersey's George Norcross III and Newark's Steve Adubato Sr. (Kornacki writes: "It's a widely held view by insiders from both parties in New Jersey "that Norcross and Adubato essentially left Governor Jon Corzine to wither on the vine in the '09 campaign, boosting Christie's prospects in the Democratic state.")
And so the answer to Question 2 turns out to have a heavy bearing on the answer to Question 1, which seems to be that -- with Corzine's reelection defeat and the ouster of widely popular Democratic Senate President Richard Codey (more about this in a moment) -- the new Senate president, Stephen Sweeney, became the state's highest-ranking Democratic official. (I would agree that NJ's two Democratic U.S. senators are higher-ranking officeholders
, but they're not state officials, and really don't seem to have much input into state government or politics, which may be one of the reasons Corzine gave up his Senate seat to run for governor in the first place.) And Sweeney is Norcross and Adubato's man in Trenton.
Which brings us to Question 3, one that Steven Kornacki asks explicitly:Question 3:
How did the Norcross and Adubato camps gain so much power within the Democratic Party?
And while some of the particulars are NJ-specific -- there really isn't any escaping the Tip O'Neill dictum that "all politics are local" -- a lot of it seems to me of a piece with the increasing replacement of whatever principles the Democratic Party might once have stood for with the single overarching one: "Hey, rich white dudes, we can be your bitches just as good as the Republicans, or almost." As I wrote last night:
Who is George Norcross III? No, he's not an elected official, and you man not have heard of him, but you've heard about some of the South Jersey Democratic boss's accomplishments, like helping get Republican Chris Christie elected governor and swinging a bloc of State Senate "Democrats" behind him.
Kornacki takes us back to that gubernatorial election cycle.
Christie, whose gubernatorial ambitions were well known years in advance his 2009 campaign, began cultivating friendly, symbiotic relationships with two key Democratic bosses well before he even became governor: South Jersey's George Norcross and Steve Adubato Sr. from Newark. . . .
In fact, Christie's first public appearance after his victory that fall was with Adubato [above] in the heart of his political/educational/social services empire in Newark's North Ward. On the public employee benefits and public television votes this past week, just about all of the Democratic defections can be linked to the Norcross and Adubato camps.
Here's one way of measuring the clout of the Norcross and Adubato factions:
[T]he president of the state Senate, Stephen Sweeney, is a Norcross loyalist, while the Speaker of the Assembly, Sheila Oliver, also holds an $83,000-a-year job working for Adubato's protege, Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo. But if either the Senate or the Assembly were run by non-Norcross/Adubato loyalists, the past week might have played out very differently -- and Christie's benefits overhaul might have been dead on arrival.
And it all goes back, says Kornacki, to "an only-in-Jersey backroom deal that was struck at the height of the 2009 campaign -- one that dethroned Richard J. Codey, the long-serving Democratic Senate president, in favor of Sweeney and set up Oliver to claim the Speaker's gavel." From here I think we should just let Kornacki tell the story his own way, from the June 29 piece.
When news of the deal broke that fall, it marked yet another embarrassment for the beleaguered Corzine, who was locked in a tight race with Christie and facing intense voter skepticism about his leadership skills. Corzine was pleading with voters that he was focused on rescuing the economy -- but here was his party in Trenton, preoccupied with who would have what title in the next legislative session.
The deal itself was years in the making, the culmination of the rise of Norcross [right] and his South Jersey operation. A wealthy insurance executive who counts Donald Trump among his friends, Norcross has mixed business and politics to slowly build a massive, lavishly-funded Democratic machine in South Jersey.
Over the last two decades, Norcross has built a stable of thoroughly loyal state senators and assemblymen, often using truly shocking sums of cash to win over Republican-held seats -- more than $4 million in one state Senate race in 2003. As Norcross assembled a turnout machine and amassed clout in Trenton, he became a kingmaker in state Democratic politics. For instance, when Senator Robert Torricelli, his poll numbers ruined by an ethics scandal, abruptly withdrew from his reelection bid five weeks before the 2002 election, Norcross was one of a select few Democratic leaders who huddled with then-Governor James McGreevey to choose a replacement candidate.
Ideologically, Norcross is all "New Democrat," uneasy with the party's close identification with minorities and public employee unions and committed to making it marketable to suburbanites. His critics on the left believe he is philosophically aligned with the Republican Party but that he saw an opening to amass more influence by seizing and building what had been a feeble South Jersey Democratic operation.
His goal had long been to move loyalists into the three plum spots in Trenton -- Speaker, Senate president, and governor. After the 2001 elections, he took his first step, working with Governor-Elect McGreevey to oust a North Jersey Democrat named Joe Doria as the party's Assembly leader. Norcross still didn't have the numbers to install his own choice as Speaker, but a compromise was struck: A backbencher from North Jersey named Albio Sires would take over as Speaker for a term or two, at which point it would be safe for Norcross' candidate -- Joe Roberts -- to take over. Sires played along, serving two terms, then stepping aside. He was rewarded with a congressional seat, which he still holds today. Roberts became the Speaker in January 2006.
Norcross' next goal, the Senate presidency, was tougher to come by, mainly because Codey, who first came to Trenton in the early '70s, was so entrenched and skilled at self-protection. To say that Norcross despises Codey would be putting it mildly. Throughout the 2000s, he made it clear that one of his chief missions in politics was to get rid of Codey. Norcross tried in 2003, but Codey outwitted him. Then came McGreevey's shocking resignation in August 2004, after which Codey was elevated to acting governor for 15 months -- a period of time in which New Jersey residents seemed to fall in love with the self-deprecating, youth basketball-coaching, accidental governor. Codey wanted to extend his interim term and to run for a full term in 2005, but he was forced to back down months into his stint when Norcross and the state's other Democratic bosses all lined up with Corzine (who plied virtually every county and municipal Democratic organization in the state with money). So Codey deferred to Corzine, racked up a year of enviable press, and left office as one of the state's most popular politicians.
He still had the Senate presidency, though (New Jersey didn't yet have a lieutenant governor), and with his sudden fame and popularity, he was impossible to dislodge. So Norcross bided his time and waited for the right moment -- which finally came in 2009.
By that point, Codey's celebrity had faded a bit, and so had his grip on his colleagues. And then there was the Adubato/DiVincenzo factor: Norcross had waded into Essex County (which encompasses Newark and the surrounding area) to support DiVincenzo in the Democratic primary for county executive. Codey and most of the Essex Democratic establishment backed DiVincenzo's rival. When DiVincenzo won, Norcross suddenly had a powerful and grateful ally in a key county -- an ally who came through for him seven years later, when Norcross made his run at Codey. 12 Senate votes were needed to oust Codey, and two of them ended up coming from Essex: Teresa Ruiz, who also works as DiVincenzo's deputy chief of staff; and Nia Gill, who does legal work for Essex County.
That two Essex senators would turn on Codey was shocking, given that Codey is from Essex. But as part of the deal, the job of Assembly Speaker would be vacated by Roberts and given to a Democrat from Essex County -- Oliver, who also works for DiVincenzo. So it was a good deal for DiVincenzo and Adubato. Sure, their county lost the Senate presidency, but they'd never liked or gotten along with Codey, and now their lieutenant would be running the Assembly. And it was a great deal for Norcross, who was able to claim a big prize for one of his proteges, Sweeney, while still having wide influence with the Assembly Speaker. With this deal, George Norcross -- an unelected backroom player -- became the most powerful Democrat in Trenton.
And now we are seeing the results. If Dick Codey were still running the Senate, the benefits overhaul would surely never have reached the floor, and the outcome of the public television bill -- only one more vote would have killed the giveaway -- would have almost certainly been different. But instead, Codey is now a backbencher, so all he could do was vote against Christie's agenda -- and watch as some of his fellow Democrats provided the crucial votes to make it law.
Isn't that a pretty story? And see what wonderful things it's done for New Jersey?UPDATE: JOIN THE ADAM GREEN'S PLEDGE TO FIND AND
SUPPORT A PROGRESSIVE CHALLENGER FOR STEVE SWEENEY
I don't read much, so I'm just catching up with the Progressive Change Campaign Committee's Adam Green's Tuesday DailyKos post, "Defeat the top Democrat who helped Chris Christie attack workers
." (Don't try clicking on the button in the graphic which says, "CLICK HERE." The link in the post should work, however, or you can follow the DailyKos link, or go directly to the PCCC's website
I'm from New Jersey and I'm outraged. I don't think I'm alone.
I'm outraged that top NJ Democrats like Senate President Stephen Sweeney worked hand-in-hand with Chris Christie to pass an anti-worker bill that some say is worse than Wisconsin's -- which Christie signed into law about two hours ago.
Democrats...were the deciding votes to block NJ workers from negotiating for better health care.
Today, I'm pledging to do everything I can to help a bold progressive candidate defeat Stephen Sweeney when he seeks the Democratic nomination for governor. Will you join me? Click here.
Please pass this diary to every progressive you know. As more and more of us take the pledge, not only will Stephen Sweeney feel the heat but every Democratic politician in NJ will be on notice.
Over 1,000 2,000 people have taken the pledge on the PCCC's website so far -- that's a lot of volunteers!
I was the NJ Democratic Party's communications director several years ago. But today, I am disgusted and outraged at what some party "leaders" are doing. . . .
Labels: Chris Christie, George Norcross, Jon Corzine, New Jersey, Steve Sweeney