The Democratic primary battle for the state Senate in the 37th Legislative District is the No. 1 topic in Bergen County political circles.
And it’s also generated considerable interest — and money — 100 miles to the south in Camden County.
An independent expenditure group with close ties to George E. Norcross III has launched television ads, and mailers to boost the campaign of Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, the former Bergen County sheriff, who is locked in a bitter contest to succeed Sen. Loretta Weinberg, the liberal titan from Teaneck who is retiring.
Johnson, the choice of the Democratic Party establishment, is competing against Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, his longtime colleague in the 37th District, who is running a buck-the-establishment campaign.
It’s a high-stakes primary. Given the liberal, Democratic composition of the district, the primary winner will likely win the general election in November.
Huttle is hoping to tap progressive disgust with the party machinery and what she says is a coordinated “old boys network” effort to undermine her candidacy.
Now she has a new foil to add to her attacks: Norcross, a businessman and practitioner of the take-no-prisoners school of politics.
“What interests do South Jersey party bosses have in Bergen County?” Huttle asked in an interview last week. “As I said, this election should be decided by the voters of District 37 and, obviously, South Jersey party bosses should not be trying to influence this election.”
The main target of Huttle’s ire is the American Democratic Majority, whose officers include William Tambussi, Norcross’ lawyer; Assemblywoman Patricia Egan Jones, Camden County’s director of outreach for veterans affairs; and consultant Sean Kennedy, who chairs the group. The group’s involvement in the 37th primary was first reported by Politico New Jersey.
As an independent expenditure group, American Democratic Majority can raise and spend unlimited sums on the race — but is prohibited from coordinating with the Johnson campaign.
ADM’s participation in the race, however, speaks to a more complex realignment of the Democratic Party power over the past two years.
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Party ‘thaw’ shapes race
The group is the latest example of the intra-Democratic party thaw in relations between Gov. Phil Murphy and the the South Jersey axis, led by Norcross, along with his close ally, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester.
American Democratic Majority is bankrolled with a $1.25 million contribution from Garden State Forward, the independent campaign group operated by the New Jersey Education Association, the powerful teachers’ union.
That contribution is steeped in a historical irony — the union spent millions in an unsuccessful bid to defeat Sweeney in his 2017 reelection race. Now they have resumed the deep-pocketed alliance they enjoyed before the 2017 dustup.
The NJEA also happens to be one of the earliest and most ardent backers of Gov. Phil Murphy, whom Norcross publicly castigated as incompetent and a liar, and Sweeney opposed in the Senate. The union was the first to endorse Murphy’s campaign in 2017 and has become a major donor to New Direction New Jersey, a Murphy-aligned independent group.
They are now all on the same page — and the same advertisements — for Johnson, a back-bench legislator since 2001 who is seeking to become the first African American to serve in the state Senate.
“Join Governor Murphy and Loretta Weinberg to support Gordon Johnson, the progressive Democrat for state Senate,” the narrator intones in a 30-second spot.
In mailboxes, district voters are treated to negative portraits of Huttle that seek to discredit her claims of independence and transparency.
“They are desperate and they are threatened by me” she said.
For nearly 16 years, Huttle has amassed a reliably liberal record on health care, the environment and social issues in the Assembly.
And she has faced little trouble getting reelected — certainly nothing like this kind of well-organized opposition from party leaders and her own county committee.
Huttle, who is being backed by a number of progressive groups from around the state, believes the leaders are afraid of an “independent” who doesn’t march in lockstep with party orders.
Huttle’s casting as ‘independent’
Earlier this year, she publicly lashed out Bergen County Democratic Chairman Paul Juliano, accusing him of orchestrating Johnson’s nomination behind the scenes, angering some of her party operatives and allies in Bergen.
Last week, she also stepped up her branding as a maverick by calling for the elimination of “county lines” — the coveted ballot position given to party-endorsed candidates. That’s a reversal of her position she took in a debate earlier this month, but now she says the system is anti-democratic and harms women and candidates of color.
“They clearly want somebody more pliable,” she said, referring to Johnson, who was granted the line at the party’s nominating convention in March.
Johnson’s campaign manager, Storm Wyche, fired back, saying Huttle was trafficking in racist stereotypes — a charge Johnson made earlier in the contest.
“The fact is, Johnson has the vast support of the grassroots Democrats in Bergen County because he has spent his life in service to this community,” Wyche said in a statement. “To shamelessly misrepresent reality for your own political gain and claim he is only in this position because the bosses put him there is disgraceful, offensive and fundamentally racist.”
Norcross did not respond to a message seeking comment. But an official with direct knowledge of American Democracy Matters’ operations says it is only natural that Murphy, the party’s top leader, would prefer a candidate who would most likely support his agenda.
Murphy will be listed on Column 1 on the District 37 ballot, right above Johnson and the rest of the party line candidates. Huttle will be listed in column 2 with a blank space in the governor’s slot above her name.
“By definition, Phil Murphy wants people who support his agenda. By definition, leaders want people with whom they can work,” the official said. “If Valerie Huttle’s argument is that she’s going to be independent of Phil Murphy and fight with her colleagues, who would want her there?”
Other factors at play
Yet party unity may not be the sole motivating factor for South Jersey’s involvement in Bergen.
The retirement of Weinberg, the Senate majority leader, will leave Sweeney without a trusted lieutenant on his leadership team and one fewer Bergen ally in the Senate Democratic caucus.
If elected, Johnson would likely move into Sweeney’s orbit. Backing Johnson also strengthens Sweeney’s ties with Juliano, the Bergen County Democratic Party chairman. Lou Stellato, Juliano’s predecessor, kept an arms-length distance from South Jersey influence.
Another factor is the role of prominent progressive activists in Huttle’s campaign. One ally in particular, Sue Altman of the New Jersey Working Families Party, has been a constant thorn in Norcross’ side. Defeating Huttle would be seen as a rebuke of Altman’s energetic brand of activism.
And then there is the issue of money. Johnson’s fundraising, combined with that of his Assembly running mates, Shaima Hader and Ellen Park, lags behind Huttle and the rest of her slate, Gervonn Romney Rice and Lauren Kohn Dayton.
The Huttle slate has raised a combined $378,000, which was boosted by Huttle’s $151,000 personal loan, according to the latest Election Law Enforcement Commission filings. But even if the loan is not factored in, Huttle’s camp still leads Johnson’s slate’s by $184,000 in contributions.
Huttle’s campaign had a total of $238,000 left to spend, compared with $184,000 for Johnson. But Johnson supporters dismissed suggestions that Huttle’s advantage prompted American Democratic Majority into action (the group filed its paperwork with ELEC in January). And, they noted, Johnson will enjoy the resources of the Bergen County Democrats and will be helped out by money raised last week at a fundraiser led by Murphy and Weinberg.
As for Murphy, Huttle said she was “obviously disappointed” with the governor’s support of Johnson. But she has confidence that voters will not be swayed by the outside money or whether or not she is on the organizational line. She intends to send out a mailer that includes an illustration of the ballot.
“I’m actually making a visual graphic, and the people will see where to vote for Murphy and me because we are Democrats,” she said.
Charlie Stile is a veteran political columnist. For unlimited access to his unique insights into New Jersey’s political power structure and his powerful watchdog work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.