Neither side had enough confidence in their count to take the race for New Jersey Democratic State Chairman to a vote, so a compromise ended a year-long fight to lead what is still a deeply divided party.
John Currie will continue to serve as state chairman until June 2021, when LeRoy Jones, Jr. will take the post.
The deal helps Gov. Phil Murphy avoid losing control of his own state party just as he assumes a national role as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association – and prepares to seek re-election in 2021.
This was potentially embarrassing for Murphy, who expended considerable time and resources luring state committee members into his column. There was never a point in the race where Currie had a lead.
The bad news for Murphy was that as a sitting governor, he was never able to hit the 50% plus one mark for his state chair candidate.
The good news for the governor is that Currie remained competitive throughout – so much so that the Jones camp was nervous – showing that Murphy is not as much of a political outsider as his rivals thought he was.
Currie now gets to remain in office for another eighteen months, allowing him to attend the 2020 Democratic National Convention as the state chairman.
Jones will get to be state chairman during the 2021 general election, when he will take office without having gone through a bloody fight.
Jones appeared to have clinched the post last month when Ocean County Democratic Chairman Wyatt Earp endorsed him, bringing along five state committee votes.
Murphy had been certain Earp would be for Currie.
In retaliation, the Murphy administration fired an Earp ally from his job running a state motor vehicle agency.
A New Jersey Globe tally put Jones ahead, 55 to 43, more than the 49 ½ votes needed to win.
The numbers changed slightly in recent weeks, with the resignations of Jones supporters Bill Robinson of Monmouth and Allison Murphy of Cape May. Murphy is the chief of staff to Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who is preparing to switch his party affiliation to Republican.
Jones had the support of county chairs in Monmouth and Cape May and those state committee members could have been replaced before the state chair vote.
There might have been a floor fight over a vote to replace Robinson in Monmouth and the deal helps county chairman David Brown avoid that battle.
The Globe also took Joyce Mollineaux, a state committeewoman from Atlantic County, out of Jones’ column. Mollineaux, under some pressure, shifted to the undecided column.
Other state committee members listed in Jones column were also facing intense lobbying from Murphy, including some members of George Norcross’ South Jersey Democratic machine.
Former Willingboro Mayor Lavonne Bebler Johnson, a state committeewoman from Burlington County, was among the Currie votes who was potentially wavering.
Both sides were having private discussions with individual state committee members in a bid to peel off support from the other candidate.
And both sides acknowledged a lack of confidence in some of their votes.
The next pre-vote fight was expected to over Currie’s desire to have a secret ballot.
His supporters felt strongly that there were enough state committee members who would back the incumbent, if their vote would not be publicly recorded.
For exactly that reason, the Jones camp wanted a roll call vote.
State party rules don’t address how the voting is conducted.
The last contested state chairman race was in 1994, when Tom Byrne defeated Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski.
That was done by secret ballot and while outgoing state chairman Raymond Lesniak said the vote was close, the actual results were not released.