How Jersey City mayor's exit doomed Sweeney's bid for NJ governor

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New Jersey State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who for at least three years had been building the groundwork for a campaign for governor in 2017, announced Thursday he would not seek the Democratic Party's gubernatorial nomination next year.

NEWARK, N.J. - When State Senate President Stephen Sweeney landed at Philadelphia International Airport last week after a trip to Houston for his day job as head of an ironworkers union local, he turned on his flip phone and answered a reporter's call.

"What do you think of Fulop dropping out?" the reporter asked, referring to Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, who had just shocked the New Jersey political world by announcing he would not seek the Democratic Party's gubernatorial nomination in 2017.

"What?" Sweeney said, according to a person familiar with the exchange.

Sweeney (D., Gloucester), a prospective candidate himself, was caught off-guard like everyone else. Fulop was the favorite of many power brokers in North Jersey counties rich with Democratic voters. Fulop's decision created a vacuum.

With Fulop out, Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and President Obama's ambassador to Germany from 2009 to 2013, raced to consolidate northern support.

At first, Sweeney thought he still had a shot. But his presumptive allies, such as Sen. Brian Stack of Hudson County, began to fall in line behind Murphy. By Wednesday evening, the Democratic chairs of Bergen, Hudson, and Passaic Counties were set to endorse Murphy the next day. Essex County leaders were to follow Friday.

On Thursday morning, Sweeney decided he couldn't defeat Murphy head-to-head, and the 2017 Democratic primary campaign for governor became something of a coronation eight months before polls open.

"It is no secret that I seriously considered running, and I believe I would have been able to win the general election and return the governor's mansion to Democratic control," Sweeney wrote in an email to supporters Thursday.

"As a proud ironworker for almost 40 years, I understood the hard work it would take to win. However, in the last few days it has become clear that Phil Murphy has been able to secure substantial support from Democratic and community leaders that would make my bid all but impossible."

Sweeney said he intended to seek reelection to the Senate and was confident his colleagues would reelect him president of the chamber.

Given Gov. Christie's extraordinary unpopularity in the Garden State, Democratic strategists have long believed the winner of their party's June primary would easily defeat any Republican opponent.

Both Sweeney and Fulop spent at least three years building the groundwork for a statewide campaign.

Fulop, who said he would seek reelection as mayor, says he decided against running because he wanted to "unite people in a common cause" and avoid a "very, very bloody primary."

Few New Jersey political observers buy that explanation. The opposition research file on Fulop is said to be daunting.

Sweeney's candidacy depended in part on Fulop and Murphy fighting for support from the same North Jersey voters and power brokers. Sweeney would need to build on his South Jersey base to make inroads in a couple of northern counties and possibly win the prime ballot spot, known as the "county line," in Essex.

"I thought that with three strong candidates in the race - Fulop, Murphy, and Sweeney - there was a strong possibility Sweeney could pick off enough of the north, win the entire south, and he would prevail in the Democratic primary," said Matt Hale, a political scientist at Seton Hall University.

Trying to stem the flow to Murphy, Sweeney made a simple pitch over the last week to party chiefs like state Chairman John Currie, Jerry Green of Union County, and others.

"I'm a known commodity: all the warts, all the good, all the bad. You know what you're going to get from me: honesty and direct conversation," Sweeney told them, according to a person familiar with the matter.

While many allies told Sweeney they liked him, they had two main concerns. One was, how would he match Murphy's fund-raising prowess? And some told Sweeney they simply didn't like his chief political benefactor, George E. Norcross III, the South Jersey hospital and insurance executive.

As Senate president, Sweeney has driven the Democratic policy agenda in Trenton for nearly seven years. However, he has never been a favorite among the party's progressive base, in large part because of his collaboration with Christie.

For example, Christie needed Sweeney and his South Jersey legislative allies to overhaul the state's pension and health benefits systems in 2011, angering public-employee unions that bankroll Democratic campaigns.

And on social issues, Sweeney was slow to embrace marriage equality and gun control as top priorities.

Murphy, a former finance chairman for the Democratic National Committee, formally announced his candidacy in May and lent his campaign $10 million, establishing himself as a formidable threat.

But many political observers didn't think Murphy, of Republican-leaning Monmouth County, had a strong enough base to win a Democratic primary.

Plus, Fulop and Sweeney had war chests of their own, controlled by outside groups. A super PAC backing Sweeney's expected candidacy began raising money in June 2015. The political action committee, New Jersey for a Better Tomorrow, reported having more than $1.2 million in the bank as of July 2016.

The PAC backing Fulop had $3.2 million, according to campaign-finance records.

Still, Sweeney wouldn't have been able to fight Murphy dollar for dollar.

"I am proud of the record I have built as the Senate leader," Sweeney said. "The difficult choices my colleagues and I have made in recent years will make New Jersey a better, stronger and more financially secure place for Phil Murphy to lead as governor."

Murphy is unlikely to run unopposed in the primary. Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski of Middlesex County announced Thursday that he was forming an exploratory committee for governor, and State Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak of Union County may also run.

On the GOP side, Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli of Somerset County announced his candidacy this week. Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick of Union County are also possible contenders.

aseidman@phillynews.com

856-779-3846 @AndrewSeidman