By Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron
[Note: This article first appeared on njspotlight.com on December 17, 2012.]
It’s all about you now. We saw you on Face the Nation, The Daily Show, a Huffington Post video, on the front page of The New York Times. It seems the whole country is waiting for your decision, not just New Jersey.
I remember seeing you at the Democratic Convention this fall being mobbed by the masses and thinking, “This guy really is a national phenomenon, just like Chris Christie.”
If you run, you can probably beat Barbara Buono in the primary. But don’t underestimate her. She is tough, smart and well-spoken. I’ve watched her grow from an excessively cautious freshman assemblywoman in 1994 into one of the backbones of the Democratic majority in the Senate.
Buono has been Budget Committee chair, majority leader. She probably knows the intricacies of state issues better than you. She was pushed aside two years ago by the power structures of South Jersey and Essex County. But she has used her time in the shadows to patiently plot out a run for governor and is probably farther along than any of you Democrats in thinking through the message and the means of delivering it. Being tossed aside by party bosses is part of her narrative now, and she’ll do her best to make it work for her. That means you’ll be the candidate “of the bosses.”
If you run, you might beat Chris Christie, but you probably won’t. The same goes for Buono. What you both have going for you is that you probably start with 40 percent to 45 percent of the electorate, just being a Democrat.
But Christie is enormously popular, a gifted politician, and someone who probably transcends party labels at this point. Unless his fortunes change — which is possible — he’s going to be a two-term governor, like Byrne, Kean and Whitman. He seems worthy of being in their company, don’t you think?
You’ve got a mess on your hands in the Newark City Council. We all wonder if you’ll run for governor just to get the hell out of there. How did you lose the support of the four African-Americans on the council? Why is there such vitriol coming out of them?
These are questions I hope to put to you on December 21, when you come in to tape NJTV’s On The Record, which airs the weekends before and after Christmas.
Buono, it’s been pointed out, is more liberal than you, more “progressive,” as you Democrats like to put it. You’re thought of as more of a centrist because of your support for charter schools, education “reform,” and pension and benefits reform. So that, too, would become part of the narrative. You may not be willing to concede that she is more progressive, but are you prepared to defend the right flank of the party in a primary that’ll bring out the lefties?
If you don’t run, we expect someone else will enter the race and not just concede the nomination to Buono. Most likely that would be Steve Sweeney. He is sounding and acting more and more like a gubernatorial aspirant these days.
Then again, he would have to give up his Senate seat and the senate presidency to file as a candidate for governor. You can’t run for both seats at once. Buono is giving up her Senate seat to run, but she’s got less to lose than the senate president. If he doesn’t run, maybe Lou Greenwald will, picking up the banner of the South Jersey Democrats. He’s been itching to run for a couple of years and makes a nice contrast with Christie, as you all do.
Buono’s entrance into the race makes it less likely that the party will turn to Chris Bollwage or Bill Pascrell or Tom Byrne as a placeholder. Buono fills that role. The fear is that she or any Democrat will get trounced as badly as Peter Shapiro in 1985, who got about 30 percent of the vote against incumbent governor Tom Kean.
That landslide brought with it a Republican takeover of the Assembly. A change in party control is far less likely in 2013 even if Christie wins big. The districts have been gerrymandered so much that all but one or two are relatively safe.
That leaves your fellow Essex County guy Dick Codey, who’s had a taste of being governor and remains popular. He likes to point out that you and he are in a dead heat in polling that pits you both against Christie. But no one I know thinks he’s going to run. His 40-year voting record leaves him too vulnerable, they say. George Norcross would eat him alive with opposition research, they add. And, besides, he and Buono are part of the same wing of the party, the wing that is on the outs with Norcross, Sweeney, and the Essex leaders Joe DiVincenzo and Steve Adubato, Sr. It’s hard to imagine two from Codey and Buono’s team and none from the other team competing in a primary.
The likeliest scenario now is a Buono-Booker primary or a Buono-Sweeney primary. Both are tasty prospects. All three of you are strong performers.
I was a little worried when everyone was saying that you could “clear the field” if you ran, worried that there wouldn’t be a Democratic primary and we would have to wait until next September to really have a campaign.
Buono fixed that. People this week told me she was smart to get in when she did, that if she had waited for your announcement and you weren’t running, she’d look more hesitant. Barbara is still a very cautious politician but also very careful and deliberate, wouldn’t you agree?
Now let me bring up 2014. Presumably you are deciding whether to run for governor or U.S. senator the following year. You said two weeks ago you’re looking to see where you can make the best contribution, maybe even run for mayor again in 2014. I doubt that. But are you really prepared to push Frank Lautenberg aside if he won’t go gently into retirement? The polls say you can beat him in a primary, but is it in the spirit of a man who keeps the Bible, the Jewish scripture, and the Koran on his desk to elbow out an elder who will turn 90 shortly after the election?
I’m told you don’t like it when you read the common wisdom that you are better suited to being a legislator than a chief executive. That’s another question I want to put to you this week.
Last question: are you going to tweet your announcement? Put out a video press release the way Buono did? What other modern tricks of the trade that veteran journalists like myself couldn’t have dreamed of 20 years ago will you employ? Whatever it is, I’m sure it’ll be attention-getting. And you’ve been fun to cover since you burst onto the scene in 2000. It feels like I’m going to be covering you in one capacity or another for years to come if they let me.