Gordon Johnson touts breaking a glass ceiling of his own as he seeks to become the first Black state senator from Bergen County, but when he had a chance to help Cory Booker become just the fourth Black since Reconstruction to win a seat in the U.S. Senate, he went in another direction.
On the day before a 2013 special primary election, Johnson endorsed Rep. Rush Holt, a 65-year-old White congressman from Central Jersey, in his primary challenge against Booker that year.
Now Booker is sitting out the State Senate primary in the 37th district, eschewing a request from party leaders to publicly back Johnson in his battle with Valerie Vainieri Huttle.
Vainieri Huttle supported Booker in that campaign, along with the Bergen County Democratic organization.
The state’s junior senator’s decision to stay clear of the primary is likely in deference to his own respect for Paul Juliano, the Bergen County Democratic Chairman, several sources familiar with the current campaign suggested.
Booker also gets to send a message to Democrats that while he typically preaches a missive of love and harmony, he possesses the kind of long-term memory that is more prevalent in New Jersey politics.
“Machiavelli’s advice to leaders is that it is better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both,” said Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “That last part gets forgotten sometimes, but Senator Booker appears to be wisely striving for both here.”
The decision to go for Holt was a curious one for Johnson at the time, but nearly eight years later, it casts a small but significant shadow on Johnson’s own assertion that electing the first Black state senator from the state’s largest county in overdue.
Johnson also had a second option: he could have endorsed Sheila Oliver, then the sitting Assembly Speaker who was seeking to become both the first Black and first woman to represent New Jersey in the U.S. Senate.
“While I had a longstanding relationship with Congressman Holt, I want to be clear, I was never not a supporter of Senator Booker and I have proudly endorsed him in every election since,” Johnson told the New Jersey Globe.
Johnson is no stranger to making his own endorsements, even if Bergen Democrats are somewhere else – and sometimes that’s worked to his advantage.
In 2016, he was among the first Democratic officeholders in the state to endorse Phil Murphy for governor. At the time, Murphy was at best running in third place behind Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop and Senate President Steve Sweeney. Vainieri Huttle was with Fulop, who was expected to get the Democratic organization line in Bergen.
Murphy has endorsed Johnson for the Senate seat and is raising money for him.
Johnson picked the right horse in an acrimonious fight for Assembly Speaker in 2017, backing the winner, Craig Coughlin, in his bid to unseat the incumbent, Vincent Prieto.
As a result, Prieto sacked Johnson from his post as Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee
The move paid Johnson long-term dividends. Coughlin restored his committee chairmanship, named him Speaker Pro-Tempore, and joined with Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Kevin McCabe helped raise money for Johnson’s Senate bid this month.
Vainieri Huttle stuck with Prieto, a move that cost her the Assembly Human Services Committee chair the following year.
Along with Rep. Steve Rothman (D-Fair Lawn), Johnson also backed Barack Obama for president in 2008, when Bergen County Democrats were largely in Hillary Clinton’s camp.
In his last-minute support of Holt, Johnson praised the congressman’s “commitment to the fight for civil rights is founded on his Quaker background, with its unique history of support for the abolition of slavery.”
Essentially, Johnson was telegraphing supporters that Holt might be equally as effective as Booker on issues relating to racial justice.
While Booker isn’t endorsing him, Johnson still praised the state’s junior senator.
“Senator Booker has done a tremendous job for the State of New Jersey and our nation,” Johnson said. “He has held true to New Jersey values in Washington and his work to reform policing and the criminal justice system is going to transform this country.”
But his support of Holt, who finished third in the U.S. Senate primary and retired from Congress in 2014, gave Johnson no residual benefit.
Asked if he was taking sides in the State Senate primary between Johnson and Vainieri Huttle, Holt told the New Jersey Globe, “I’m not.”