John Currie has been state Democratic chairman for five and a half years. Last month, Essex County Democratic Chairman LeRoy Jones let it be known he might challenge Currie for that title next January. County Democratic chairmen around the state immediately started taking sides.
As of Monday, 11 county chairs have endorsed Jones, seven have endorsed Currie and three are neutral.
The geography mirrors where the counties stand in regard to Gov. Phil Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney, who have been feuding for a year. Jones is seen as allied with Sweeney, Curries as a partner of the governor.
“I will stand strong in supporting Gov. Murphy. I believe in his agenda. I know he’s moving the state in the right direction. And if that’s their only complaint about John Currie being state chairman, is that I’m supportive of the governor, I’ll take that and I’ll go to state committee and I think state committee will be with me because they know the work that I’ve done,” Currie said.
Currie says under his leadership the Democratic Party is stronger than it’s ever been. Jones says he’s not even an official candidate yet.
“I think everybody enjoys the opportunity to express ambitions, and that’s all I’ve done is expressed an ambition. I have the utmost respect for John Currie — I did yesterday, I do today and I will tomorrow,” Jones said.
Currie ran afoul of Sweeney and his ally, South Jersey power broker George Norcross during last year’s budget battle when Currie appeared to favor Murphy’s positions. Sweeney struck back last month by trying to weaken the state party chairs in the legislative redistricting process, an effort that failed. Now, putting up a candidate to challenge the state chairman looks like the latest sign that the party is divided.
“I don’t know if the party is divided. Maybe there’s some people in the party that don’t have their way, but I don’t see this party as being divided. We just had 500 people that came to Washington to support myself, the governor, and Cory Booker who hosted a reception for them all. That’s not a divided party. I had people from all over the state coming up and saying they’re with me. And I feel very good about where we’re going in the future,” Currie said.
Jones is more willing to concede that the party is divided.
“Right now is there a line drawn in the sand in the party? Clearly there is. My goal is to try to help erase that line in the sand,” Jones said.
The Jones/Currie challenge is really just a reflection of the Murphy/Sweeney rivalry. With the chairman’s election still a year away, this thing could break in one of several directions.
“I feel confident that I will be state chairman in 2020 as long as Gov. Murphy wants me to be. And it’s always been a policy, if you will, in our state party that the governor chooses his state chair,” Currie said.
“I’m glad he’s confident. We’ll see how its all shakes out,” Jones said.
That we will.