Yet the burly South Jersey lawmaker brushes off the notion that he’s carving out a higher profile, and he insists his travels have nothing to do with gubernatorial aspirations.
“That’s what insiders are talking about,” Sweeneysaid in an interview Thursday. “I’m actually doing my job.”
But political experts dismiss his wink-and-nod denials and say his campaign is all but officialfor two big reasons: With Christie a potential presidential candidate who could leave office early, an election to replace him could take place before 2017. And the election of Steve Fulop as mayor ofJersey City last year immediately catapulted him to the status of Sweeney rival from the more populous northern tier of the state.
“Sweeney’s running for governor, as is Steve Fulop,” Patrick Murray, a pollster at Monmouth University, said. “Quite frankly, I’ve never seen a governor’s race start in earnest this early.”
Sweeney — who has worked closely with Christie when it suited their interests or those of the power broker George Norcross, the senator’s patron — has been scathing in his critique of the administration’s handling ofHurricane Sandy recovery aid.
To that end, he has written a “Sandy Bill of Rights” that he is promoting at press conferences and town hall meetings across the state.
On Wednesday, for instance, Sweeney was in Perth Amboy to discuss hisbill with Mayor Wilda Diaz and Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), another potential candidate for governor. On Friday, he was in Toms River for a town hall gathering and to visit a woman who has been unable to get federal funds to rebuild her home. Yesterday he was in Moonachie, 99 miles north of his hometown of West Deptford.
“If the administration did their job on Sandy, we wouldn’t be doing a tour on Sandy,” he said. “Honestly, this is drawing attention not to me. It’s drawing attention to the victims of this storm.”
And the man who once spurned Twitter now holds court on “Twitter Thursdays.”
Sweeney said he had received a “barrage” of criticism when he first dismissed the social medianetwork, but now he says he realizes Twitter is “a great way of communicating.”
“Even old dogs can learn new tricks,” he said.
What’s more, in recent months, a decidedly more liberal Sweeney, at least on some issues, has made himself more available to the Statehouse news corps, holding occasional 20-minute interview sessions.
As for his new-found liberal bent, he went from refusing to vote on a same-sex marriage bill in January 2010 to becoming one of its biggest backers. He refused to hold a vote on a bill to reduce the size of ammunition magazines last year, but he has come around and plans to announce his support for the measure tomorrow.
Bound for Israel
Sweeney soon will leave for Israel, where he’ll join several other lawmakers on a tour organized by the Jewish Federation of Metrowest. Typically, governors from New Jersey — a state with a large Jewish population — choose Israel as the destination for their first foreign trip.
Then there are those footsteps Sweeney hears — Fulop making his moves, if only with a lower profile. He held a closed-door fundraiser with former President Bill Clinton that netted his campaign hundreds of thousands of dollars, attended Democratic events far from Jersey City, and has bad-mouthed what are known derisively as Christiecrats, Democrats like Sweeney who have worked with the governor.
Last week, Fulop stepped into the mayoral race in nearby Newark, voicing his support for Ras Baraka. Although Sweeney hasn’t made an endorsement, his political allies have rallied behind Baraka’s rival, Shavar Jeffries.
Fulop — who said he would probably hold a fundraiser for Baraka — said all this activity had nothing to do with gubernatorial aspirations.
“We’re pushing a progressive agenda for Jersey City,” he said. “We’re happy that President Clinton came. And Newark is my neighbor here.”
The two Democrats are already squabbling. When Sweeney refused to put a bill before a Senate committee that would have trimmed Jersey City’s under-financed pension system, Fulop lashed out at him for playing politics. Sweeney relented, but not before removing some language and ensuring the money saved would go back into the system and not plug Fulop’s budget holes.
“It was his overreaction, not mine,” Sweeney said. “Every chance he gets, I think he’s looking to pick a fight with me. But I’m not going to fight with him.”
Vying for spotlight
The two men also compete for attention on certain issues. On Jan. 31, Sweeney issued a news release calling on Christie to increase the minimum wage for Newark airport workers. Then, on Feb. 3 at an event with U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, Fulop called on Christie to “follow New York’s lead” and increase their wages.
Of course, both insist that for now they’re focused on their day jobs, even if not ruling out a run.
“The short answer is, look, nobody knows what the future holds,” Fulop said. “I look at my job today, and I couldn’t be happier being the mayor of Jersey City. My intention today is to run for re-election as mayor of Jersey City.”
Sweeney went so far as to quote state Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex), a persistent critic whom he ousted as Senate president.
“It’s hard to believe I’m quoting Dick Codey,” Sweeney said. “He said you don’t plan for this stuff. You do your job, you prepare, and if opportunity comes, you go. Who knows where we’ll be two years or four years from now?”
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