Home>Campaigns>McKeon dips his toe into Senate race with two Democratic incumbents

Assemblyman John McKeon. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe).

McKeon dips his toe into Senate race with two Democratic incumbents

With his biological clock ticking, 11-term assemblyman wonders if there is a path to higher office

By David Wildstein, February 24 2022 8:05 pm

Assemblyman John McKeon (D-West Orange) is testing the waters for a possible State Senate bid in the newly-drawn 27th district which already has two incumbent senators, Richard Codey (D-Roseland) and Nia Gill (D-Montclair).

Members of McKeon’s political team have been calling Democratic leaders to see if there is a path to obtaining the organization line for Senate even if Codey and Gill remain in the race.

The conventional wisdom still has Codey as the favorite to win an unprecedented 14th term in the State Senate and to extend a legislative career that began with his election to the State Assembly in 1973, when he was 26-years-old.

But McKeon, a staunch Codey ally, is growing weary of waiting for a chance to move up – and perhaps a frustration that the lower house may turn out to be his highest obtainable office.

The former West Orange mayor is now 63 and now in his 21st year as an assemblyman.  He’s put his name forward as a candidate for attorney general twice, but Gov. Phil Murphy has picked someone else both times.  He spent several months mulling a congressional run in 2018 against Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-Harding) but dropped out three months after newcomer Mikie Sherrill (D-Montclair) entered the race and quickly impressed party leaders as a strong challenger against Frelinghuysen, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

At the same time, McKeon has touched base with Democratic officials to indicate his wish to remain in the Assembly in a district that now includes new terrain in Montclair and Clifton.

If there was an appetite for a new senator by Essex Democrats – and there is no indication that there is – than it wouldn’t necessarily be McKeon.

Essex County Commissioner Brendan Gill, who is a statewide political player and the Montclair Democratic Municipal Chairman, could also emerge as a candidate for State Senate in the event that Democrats decided not to give their line to one of the incumbents.   He could also emerge as an Assembly candidate if a lower house seat opens up.

There is virtually no apparent support for Nia Gill, who has occupied the Senate seat since redistricting in 2001 put East Orange and Montclair into the same district as a Republican lawmaker, State Sen. Norman Robertson (R-Clifton).

Indeed, several top Democrats have said they haven’t heard from Nia Gill since the new maps came out.

Passaic County also has a role in the process, with 26% of registered Democrats in the 27th district coming from Clifton.

The Democratic county chairman, John Currie, is widely expected to simply ratify the choice of Essex County Democrats in awarding the organization line.

Still, Currie has enjoyed a long-term friendship with Codey.

“I don’t think Nia Gill has been to our events in years,” said a Passaic County insider who spoke on the condition of anonymity.  “Codey comes to our events.”

The other incumbent under the new 27th district map is Assemblyman Thomas P. Giblin (D-Montclair).  He’s a revered figure in New Jersey politics – a second-generation labor leader, the son of a senator, a onetime Democratic State Chairman who has served as an Essex County Freeholder, Surrogate and longtime county chairman – and there is no opposition to his return for a 10th term if he chooses to run.

And while McKeon is expected to settle for a 12th term in the Assembly, several Democrats said they wouldn’t be shocked if he just retired.

Democrats have a deep bench in Livingston, Millburn, West Orange and Montclair.

While Montclair makes up 26% of the district’s registered Democrats and West Orange is 23%, it’s not immediately clear that either municipality has a permanent lock on a legislative seat.

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