The Democratic drop-out rate continues to climb, as yet another contender for the 2017 gubernatorial nomination decides to pack it in, discouraged, at least in part, by the way former U.S. ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy has consolidated his position as frontrunner — a full eight months before the primary and more than a year before voters take to the polls.
This week it’s Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union), who announced that he’s decided to forego an expected bid for the nomination. Instead, he said he’ll return to the Legislature’s upper house, where he’s served since 1983.
He’s not mincing words about his decision. The process that led up to the coronation of Murphy, said Lesniak, “sucks.”
“When the nomination goes to the wealthiest, rather than the best person to lead the state, that’s not a good process,” he added.
Lesniak, a progressive standard bearer in Trenton who’s racked up grassroots support over the years for his work on issues like environmental protection and criminal justice reform, is the third prospective candidate in the span of less than a month to call off a campaign.
Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop and state Senate President Steve Sweeney also dropped their plans in the past few weeks after a group of Democratic county chairmen announced they would back Murphy.
Two other potential candidates for the nomination — Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) and State Investment Council Chairman Tom Byrne, son of former Gov. Brendan Byrne — have expressed interest but have vowed not to make a final decision until the November 8 presidential election is over.
Wisniewski announced he was forming an exploratory committee last week, while Byrne told NJ Spotlight that he wants to “let the dust settle.”
There’s still some scratching of heads after Fulop’s abrupt withdrawal from the race, after years of laying the groundwork and building regional relationships with Democratic powerbrokers.
Long considered a likely frontrunner in the race, the rising Democrat said he had made his decision in the interest of “party unity,” though political observers have speculated about deeper reasons for his announcement.
Fulop’s entanglement in the ongoing trial over a politically motivated scheme that shut down commuter lanes at the George Washington Bridge in 2013, for example, or his relationship with Tom Bertoli, a close ally and developer who has been accused of holding undue influence over Jersey City government, are both issues that could have complicated a statewide campaign. There is talk that Murphy, who publicly announced his candidacy months ago and has promised to bankroll his own campaign, was planning a major advertising campaign to discredit Fulop.
More recently it was Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who in a less publicized — but no less surprising — announcement earlier this month said that his own bid had become “all but impossible” and that he would instead run again for senate president.
A Democratic moderate, Sweeney was also expected to be a frontrunner, bringing solid South Jersey support — and the backing of powerbroker George Norcross — to the race. But any South Jersey candidate needs some north Jersey votes in order to win, so Sweeney’s decision might have been based on some careful calculations. When Murphy began racking up key endorsements even in battleground counties like Essex and Middlesex, it became clear that Sweeney would have little chance gaining traction in the north.
Indeed, Murphy now appears to have a huge majority of north and central Jersey locked down, spanning from Sussex and Hunterdon in the west to Hudson and Bergen in the east.
And now Lesniak joins the ranks of the nonrunners. The Democrat, who began building interest about a campaign last year, had continued telling reporters of his intention to run even after Sweeney reneged on his campaign this month, arguing that the narrower field would focus the race on Murphy’s “buying support and the army of voters supporting me.” He said his calculus changed, however, after he spent a few more days considering Murphy’s advantages in the race, both in terms of finances and of county support.
Shortly after his launch back in May, Murphy, a retired Goldman Sachs executive, poured $10 million in personal funds into his campaign account. His early entrance into the race also gave him a head start on the competition, which he spent lobbying support and donating to local elections.
“I have an army of supporters, I would have started out with 100,000 votes.” Lesniak said yesterday. “And I would have been able to build on that enough to win a two- or three-person race, but basically it would have been me and Phil Murphy, and even the power of all the people I have supporting me could not overcome his tens of millions of dollars.”
Unlike Sweeney and Fulop, both of whom officially endorsed Murphy after declining to challenge him, Lesniak said he has not yet decided who to support. But he criticized Murphy, a political newcomer he said isn’t sufficiently progressive or experienced, as well as the process that got him this far.
A ranking member of the Senate’s Economic Growth and Commerce Committees, Lesniak is one of the most progressive members of the Legislature, having been a vocal opponent of the state’s death penalty and, more recently, a multimillion settlement between the state and ExxonMobil over a series of environmental-damages lawsuits.
“He’s never proven himself on those issues. He’s never fought for those issues,” Lesniak said of Murphy. “He wasn’t a champion of same-sex marriage. He wasn’t fighting Exxon and the settlement. He wasn’t a champion for public employees, and he wasn’t appearing at rallies against a bad pension deal. What has he championed in his life? The only thing he has championed in his life, is raising money in his public life so that he can become ambassador.”
Though he vowed last year not to return to the Legislature if a statewide bid didn’t pan out, Lesniak yesterday said that his decision will allow him to run for reelection in the 20th Legislative District, which he’s represented since 1978, when he entered the Assembly. There, he’ll continue championing progressive issues, he said.
While most of the counties surrounding it have fallen in line behind Murphy, Assemblyman Jerry Green, the chairman of Lesniak’s home county of Union, where he wields considerable political clout, has not yet issued an endorsement. Lesniak said that was the “right thing” and that other county chairs should have followed Green’s lead.
“What Chairman Jerry Green said was we have an election to focus on, Senator Lesniak is our favorite son, but first we have to elect Hillary Clinton in November,” he said. “It’s too early for endorsements.”
Joking, he added, “Maybe someone with even more money than Murphy will throw his hat into the ring.”
NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.