County Race Foreshadows Gubernatorial Battle

By John Celock

WEST CALDWELL, N.J. – The growing battle for the Democratic nomination for New Jersey governor in 2017 came to a fundraiser for a county official’s reelection campaign Thursday night.

The kickoff event for Essex County Freeholder Leonard Luciano’s (D-West Caldwell) reelection campaign, became as have many Democratic events in the Garden State in recent months, part of the growing shadow campaign for an election just under three years away. Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop (D), the featured speaker for Luciano, is considered one of two frontrunners for the 2017 nomination, along with Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford), who is backed by Democratic leaders aligned with Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzio (D).

While many in the crowd chatted quietly about the gubernatorial battle, continuing the chatter that has come to dominate many New Jersey political conversations for the last year, the topic was not brought up by Fulop, who centered his remarks solely on Luciano. Luciano, though, addressed the topic head-on during his brief remarks.

“I want to say thank you to the mayor of Jersey City, possibly our next governor here in New Jersey,” Luciano said to a packed house at a bar blocks from the birthplace of President Grover Cleveland.

Following the brief program, candidates and elected officials in attendance clamored for the chance to briefly meet and have their picture taken with Fulop. The scene culminated what has been the decade long rise of the 37-year-old Marine veteran from upstart challenger to the powerful Hudson County Democratic machine to one of the most powerful Democrats in New Jersey.

While long popular amongst his base in Jersey City’s affluent waterfront, which he represented for eight years as a city councilman, Fulop drawing a crowd and being the center of attention at a fundraiser for a suburban Essex County official would have been almost unthinkable just five years ago. Fulop gained traction in Jersey City politics pushing for ethics reform and good government, becoming a perennial thorn in the side of then Jersey City Mayor Jerry Healy (D).

The July 2009 arrests of several dozen New Jersey politicos on corruption charges, including several close to Healy, helped vault Fulop to a new level of statewide prominence. Healy was never charged or implicated in the case.

Fulop steadily built on his new prominence from 2009, gaining more allies in Jersey City and laying the groundwork for his 2013 mayoral campaign. Battling Healy, the Iraq War veteran found himself on the defensive as Healy allies called Fulop “un-American” and part of the one percent for quitting his Wall Street job to spend over a year campaigning for mayor. The mayoral race was upended when President Barack Obama endorsed Healy, a rare presidential endorsement of a mayoral candidate. In the end, Fulop easily defeated Healy in the nonpartisan contest.

In the year since taking office, Fulop has become a frontrunner for the gubernatorial nomination in 2017, talk that started even while former state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Metuchen) was running her own long shot campaign to unseat Gov. Chris Christie (R) that year. Fulop and Sweeney have been battling their own shadow campaign for a year, appearing at events statewide and assisting in local races. Fulop scored a win last month when his candidate for Newark mayor, Ras Baraka, easily defeated a candidate backed by Sweeney and DiVincenzio.

DiVincenzio was in attendance for part of the fundraiser before leaving for a personal commitment.

In addition to Fulop and Sweeney, former ambassador to Germany Philip Murphy and Montclair Deputy Mayor Bob Russo have expressed interest in running for the 2017 Democratic nomination. Russo, considered a long shot statewide candidate was in attendance at Luciano’s fundraiser. The talk in the crowd though centered on Fulop and Sweeney.

No Republican candidates have emerged to take over for the term-limited Christie in 2017. Among those considered potential GOP gubernatorial candidates are Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, Assemblyman Jay Webber, state Sen. Mike Doherty and state Sen. Jennifer Beck.

Among the politicians in the crowd was Essex County Freeholder Brendan Gill (D-Montclair), who was considered a potential alternative to the struggling Buono in last year’s gubernatorial contest. Gill, the campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Cory Booker’s reelection campaign who was a top aide to former U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, has been mentioned as a potential lieutenant governor nominee in 2017.

While Luciano was willing to address the chatter about Fulop’s statewide ambitions, the mayor stayed focused on the freeholder, citing the need to protect Democratic issues in county government. Luciano faces a challenge from Republican Richard Leonard in the most swing district in the Democratic county.

“Lenny stands for something that we all stand for as Democrats, for working families, women’s rights and what Democrats stand for,” Fulop said.