Six weeks after the state budget battle ended, some party leaders remain angered by a perception that Democratic State Chairman John Currie sided with Gov. Phil Murphy and used the state party apparatus to attack Democratic lawmakers.
But the issue might be more about control of the legislative redistricting than anything else. As state chairman, Currie appoints all five Democrats on the Legislative Apportionment Commission, which is constitutionally required to redraw the map for all forty districts after the 2020 census.
That would likely put Murphy in control of the new legislative map, at least on the Democratic side, leaving Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin without a say in a process that makes or breaks political careers once a decade.
Four Democratic county chairs, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the New Jersey Globe that they thought it might be time for Currie to go, although they all stopped short of saying that he should leave before his current term expires after the 2019 mid-term elections. They cited Currie’s use of the state party apparatus to help move grassroots Democratic supporters to Murphy’s side in the budget fight as the reason.
Another chairman, Kevin McCabe of Middlesex County, said he was “extremely disappointed that Currie allowed the state party to take sides in a dispute between a Democratic governor and Democratic legislative leaders.”
“Under his direction, the New Jersey Democratic State Committee sent email after email attacking fellow Democrats who differed with the governor on policy issues related to the budget,” McCabe said. “The chairman’s job is to be objective, unite and build the Democratic Party, yet his actions were actually designed to do the exact opposite.”
McCabe clearly had the back of Coughlin, a Middlesex County legislator who became Speaker in January.
“NJDSC funds – some of which the Middlesex County Democratic Organization both donated and raised – were used by Chairman Currie against Democratic members of the legislature from our county and state,” McCabe said. “That is wholly inappropriate. For the NJDSC to choose sides between Democrats on a policy matter is shameful.”
Currie pushed back on criticisms of his involvement.
“I just wanted to get a budget done. We’re all Democrats, it would have been an embarrassment to have a shutdown,” Currie told the New Jersey Globe. “That was my only goal in this. Never talked to anybody about a policy, it’s for just all of them to come together, make a compromise.”
The state chairman said that state committee “has always been the governor’s party.”
“The governor chooses who he wants as his state chair with help from the state committee. That’s always been the way we’ve done it in New Jersey for years.”
Still, party leaders consistently cited redistricting as their top concern – at least as it relates to the state chairmanship.
The State Constitution is unclear as to how early appointments to the panel that draws the districts may be made, saying only that they must be made on or before November 15, 2020.
During his final hours as Democratic State Chairman in January 2010, Joseph Cryan appointed himself and State Sen. Paul Sarlo to the redistricting commission. That left just three appointments for his successor, Assemblyman John Wisniewski.
So it’s possible that even if some Democrats tried to remove him – there is no evidence that a coup is in the works – Currie could still name the five commission members before actually leaving.
The Republican State Chairman will name the five GOP members of the commission. In the event that both parties fail to agree upon a map, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner would appoint a tie-breaker.
For his part, Currie remains confident that his record will bring him job security.
“I took this party over in 2013. It was broke. I picked up extra legislative seats. I kept this party together under Chris Christie, raising money, was able to elect Cory Booker, able to elect Bonnie Watson Coleman, able to increase our local candidates,” Currie said. “I worked my butt off to build this party and done a lot of good things, and now that I have a Democratic governor, I have a treasurer that is solid – got close to $1 million on hand to be able to help and do the party things, the things we need to do in the party to go forward.”