Democrat who once enabled Chris Christie launches 2025 bid to lead New Jersey

Former New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney on Monday launched his long-anticipated campaign to replace his fellow Democrat, termed-out Gov. Phil Murphy, in 2025.

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, who entered the primary back in April, responded to the news by telling the Associated Press that Sweeney is a “conservative” who was “very, very close” to Chris Christie when the Republican was governor. Sweeney’s intraparty critics also remember how he lost reelection to the legislature in a 2021 shocker against Republican Edward Durr, a truck driver who spent all of $153 on his campaign.  

Sweeney, who got his start as an ironworker and a union leader, is a childhood friend and close ally of South Jersey party boss George Norcross. To say Norcross was an important power player in the region would be an understatement: Steve Kornacki wrote in Politico in 2011, “It’s not written down anywhere, but it’s acknowledged by everyone (privately, of course): You don’t run for office as a Democrat in South Jersey unless George is OK with it—and you don’t win in the fall without him.” In 2009, Norcross went on to play a key role in helping Sweeney oust Richard Codey, who served as governor for 14 months from 2004 to 2006, as leader of the state Senate.

Sweeney and Christie had what on the surface looked like a terrible relationship, with the Senate president calling him a “rotten prick” in 2011. “I wanted to punch him in the head,” Sweeney went on. “You know who he reminds me of? Mr. Potter from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ the mean old bastard who screws everybody.”

However, as Kornacki highlighted that year, Sweeney made these comments after he’d helped Christie pass legislation that “radically scaled back healthcare and pension benefits for state, county and municipal employees and banned collective bargaining for at least the next four years.” The Senate president, Kornacki said, wanted to run for statewide office at some point in the future, and he couldn’t afford for Democratic activists to view him as a Christie enabler.

Sweeney also said in 2011 that his biggest regret in office was opposing same-sex marriage in 2009. “It was like real-time contrition,” Kornacki wrote, “as if Sweeney realized that his problems with the base were starting to add up and had decided to course-correct on the spot.”

Both Sweeney and Fulop planned to run to succeed the termed-out Christie in 2017, but their calculations changed after Murphy, a wealthy former Goldman Sachs executive, earned several influential endorsements. Fulop first announced in the fall of 2016 that he’d stay out of the race, and Sweeney acknowledged weeks later that Murphy “has been able to secure substantial support from Democratic and community leaders that would make my bid all but impossible.”

Sweeney instead ran for reelection in 2017, but he remained on the outs with one major progressive organization. The New Jersey Education Association took the unusual step of backing his Republican opponent, though that didn’t stop the incumbent from winning a very expensive campaign 59-41.

Sweeney and the new governor had a difficult relationship from the start, with Politico reporting just after the election that, after Murphy appointed one of Sweeney’s political foes to a spot on his very large transition team, the Senate leader “expressed his displeasure directly to Murphy in language befitting a New Jersey politician.”

The outlet soon published a story saying that Sweeney’s opposition to tax increases made him a major obstacle to passing Murphy’s agenda. However, the two were able to reach a consensus on legislation to expand family leave and raise the minimum wage to $15, laws Sweeney highlighted in his kickoff video on Monday.

Sweeney was on the ballot again in 2021 in a seat that Donald Trump had carried 50-48 the previous year, though he didn’t seem to be in any danger until election night. But Durr’s 52-48 victory, which came on the same night that Murphy was only narrowly winning reelection against former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, represented perhaps the most dramatic loss for the Norcross machine ever, and it led only to questions about whether the party boss’ reign was over.

However, while Norcross announced in May that it was “time for others to lead the party,” he’s hardly a spent force. Indeed, the New Jersey Globe responded to Democratic victories in last month’s legislative races, including former Assemblyman John Burzichelli’s victory over Durr, by writing that Norcross had “re-established his hold over the core of his South Jersey domain and will get a larger legislative footprint this year.” That’s a very welcome development for Sweeney, who will need strong support in South Jersey to win the primary in 2025.

Fulop and Sweeney, however, are unlikely to have the contest to themselves. The Globe writes that Reps. Josh Gottheimer and Mikie Sherrill “are moving towards gubernatorial runs,” and it also lists as possible contenders:

  • Newark Mayor Ras Baraka
  • State Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin
  • Former Deputy U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Jim Johnson
  • State Sen. Paul Sarlo
  • State Senate President Nicholas Scutari
  • Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller

On the GOP side, Ciattarelli announced he was in just days after he lost the 2021 general election to Murphy by a surprisingly narrow 51-48 spread. State Sen. Jon Bramnick is publicly considering joining him, while far-right radio host Bill Spadea is another possible candidate. More Republicans could also decide to run in what’s usually a reliably blue state.

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