A few days into the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, it looked like most Democrats were uniting behind Hillary Clinton in a bid to defeat the Republican nominee, Donald Trump.
But a new fight was just beginning to brew among Democrats in the New Jersey delegation, as 2017 gubernatorial hopefuls started making their pitches to voters and party insiders just a stone’s throw from the Garden State.
“You don’t often get so many Democrats from all different corners of the state in a whole bunch of different forums,” said Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, who is considering running for governor. “This is an opportunity to network with New Jersey Democrats.”
Early-bird campaigning was at its peak during breakfasts for the New Jersey delegation at the Renaissance Philadelphia Airport Hotel, where members were staying.
Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and recent U.S. ambassador to Germany, sponsored the first breakfast on Monday.
“New Jersey leads in too many things it should lag in,” he told the crowd, “and lags in too many things it should lead in.”
So far, Murphy is the only Democrat to confirm he is running for governor next year.
Jersey City Mayor and likely gubernatorial candidate Steve Fulop headlined the next day’s breakfast, which included a promotional video highlighting his service in the Marine Corps and his pledge to reduce homelessness in the Hudson County metropolis.
“We took a pledge about two years ago at the White House — we were the first in New Jersey to do that — regarding our commitment to make sure that every veteran has a roof over their head,” Fulop said on the big screen.
Fulop still has not committed to running for governor. Wisniewski has also refrained from throwing his hat in the ring. (“I’m going to break news right now,” said Wisniewski, “I’m going to have some eggs and a waffle for breakfast.”)
State Sen. President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, had been slated to host Wednesday’s breakfast, but he boycotted the meal because sponsor PSE&G donated to the campaign of Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett, who allegedly withheld donations for a group that supported gay candidates. (As the breakfast wound down, Sweeney appeared outside the doors and briefly spoke to the press.)
State Sen. Ray Lesniak, D-Union, is also weighing a gubernatorial bid.
With campaigning also comes mudslinging, which started as early as Tuesday.
Sitting at a front table during Fulop’s breakfast was South Jersey power broker and Sweeney supporter George Norcross. The two had previously tangled in press releases over their disagreements about a state takeover of Atlantic City.
“[Fulop] tells people what they want to hear, and he patronizes people. He’s just like [former Gov. Jim] McGreevey was,” Norcross told reporters. “He’ll tell you you’re great looking, your wife’s beautiful, your mom and apple pie. That’s a politically correct politician.”
Did voters notice?
While potential candidates were hoping to make a lasting first impression with voters and other party members, several New Jersey Democrats said it was simply too early in the process to choose.
“I like Phil Murphy. I certainly like Steve Fulop. They’re both extremely qualified. They’re both different,” said Barbara Casbar Siperstein. “I haven’t come out for anybody yet.”
Albert Granell, a delegate for Bernie Sanders, also withheld his endorsement, but he predicted that New Jerseyans would have a few solid choices for governor next year like Democrats did this year on a national level.
“The [New Jersey] governor’s race is very similar to the presidential race. You have multiple factions, multiple points of view, multiple ways of getting to that same location that we all want to get to,” said Granell. “I think it’s gonna be a real challenge for the voters of New Jersey to figure out what path or what road they want to get on.”
Joseph Juliano, a chiropractor and fire captain in Orange, said he thinks New Jersey Democrats can learn from how national Democrats backing Sanders handled his loss at the convention.
“Bernie Sanders ran a great campaign, and he himself stood up for Hillary multiple times,” said Juliano. “I hope that transition happens here in New Jersey, because the north and south parts of the state can come together and will come together and will elect a Democrat.”
Who that Democrat will face next November is also very much in question.
Possible contenders for the Republican ticket for New Jersey governor next year include Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno; state Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean Jr.; and Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick; among others.