The bombshell announcement Wednesday that Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop withdrew from gubernatorial contention and endorsed his onetime rival Phil Murphy has sent a shockwave through New Jersey that has reverberations in Newark.
Fulop surprised many by bowing out of the 2017 Democratic primary race before he had even officially entered it. Fulop's fateful move leaves the field in North Jersey, with counties such as Bergen, Hudson and Passaic, wide open for Murphy, the sole declared gubernatorial candidate.
But in a press conference held outside of Jersey City City Hall, one question asked by NewarkInc.com demonstrated the importance of New Jersey's largest city, which is often the source of the most Democratic votes in statewide elections.
Phil Murphy, the only declared Democratic candidate for New Jersey governor, speaks at a press conference on the steps of City Hall in Jersey City, where he received the endorsement of Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop.
At the center of it all stands Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who up until Wednesday was Fulop's earliest and highest-profile supporter in the city. Now with Fulop out of the race, Baraka is left without a candidate, though Murphy has designs on winning him over.
Fulop, who said he had breakfast with Baraka, said he hoped Baraka and other supporters would back Murphy in the coming weeks.
"I think [Murphy] has been doing a pretty good job in Newark - he's been organizing and building," Fulop said. "I think that it's pretty clear that there are different people aligned with different people today. The hope is that everyone comes behind one candidate. I think that's going to be the process over the next couple of weeks, and we're going to be working toward that."
Murphy, a former U.S. Ambassador to Germany and Goldman Sachs executive, said he also spoke with Baraka and hoped to have his support.
"Our objective is to get on the same side of the table and do what [Fulop] just said - let's get united and go after what we really have to go after, which is standing up on behalf of the people of this state, and pushing back against the failed special interest politics that have hurt us so much," Murphy said.
A source close to Baraka told NewarkInc.com that while the Newark mayor had no immediate comment, Baraka would make a statement about who he will support for the Democratic nomination "at the appropriate time."
But Baraka's tardy arrival to Murphy's team -- should it happen -- may not have much consequence in the city, which has become increasingly polarized between the mayor and his one-time supporters.
Murphy has already buttoned up the support of former Mayor Sharpe James, who remains popular and influential in the city's South Ward, Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins, who previously ran at-large and enjoys support citywide, and former City Councilman Calvin West.
James, West and Chaneyfield Jenkins have been hosting rallies and meets-and-greets for Murphy in the city that have been well attended by city residents. The trio each bring their own constituents, including seniors, who are the most reliable Democratic voters in the city.
Chaneyfield Jenkins, who ran on Baraka's ticket in 2014, has increasingly found herself at odds with Baraka on a host of issues and her early support for Murphy could potentially help her should he become governor and she decide to run for mayor against Baraka in 2018.
Murphy, ever the diplomat, seemed unwilling to exact revenge against anyone who sided with at least one of his potential 2017 Democratic primary foes.
"I'm an admirer of [Mayor Baraka]. We're going to sit down," said Murphy in an interview with NewarkInc.com. "We're making a lot of progress in Newark in any event, and I think today will no doubt accelerate that."
Murphy will return to Newark to hold an East Ward town hall meeting at the Ironbound's Sport Club Portuguese on October 18.
Fulop's withdrawal also puts pressure on Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, a longtime ally of South Jersey power broker George Norcross. DiVincenzo is looking to avoid a messy primary battle that could put his state legislators in peril.
Norcross is the primary backer of Senate President Stephen Sweeney, another potential 2017 Democratic gubernatorial candidate. While DiVincenzo holds sway in Newark's North and East wards, the number of votes generated in South, Central and West wards would swamp the North and East in a Democratic gubernatorial primary, just as they did in Newark's 2014 mayoral election. A united Newark could potentially be the difference for a candidate in a tight primary battle.
Norcross and his and his allies could make an persuasive argument that Baraka should join forces with Sweeney, who as governor could boost the mayor's fortunes in the six months leading to the 2018 mayoral election. A return of local control of the school board, for example, would be considered a major victory for Baraka.
But Baraka and Norcross would certainly make strange bedfellows as it was Norcross and DiVincenzo who supported Baraka's rival, Shavar Jeffries, in the 2014 mayoral race.
A phone call to Phil Alagia, DiVincenzo's chief of staff, seeking the county executive's take on the latest political machinations was not immediately returned.
But if DiVincenzo were to ever join forces with Murphy, the county executive would have to swallow a bitter pill. DiVincenzo's longtime nemesis, State Sen. Richard Codey, was an early backer of Murphy and is part of the Team Murphy's kitchen cabinet.
Codey, along with State Senator Ronald L. Rice, another early Murphy adopter, have strong support in Newark's West Ward, including the Vailsburg neighborhood that borders the Essex County municipalities of Irvington, Maplewood and South Orange. Also supporting Murphy is Essex County Freeholder Brendan Gill, who doubles as Murphy's campaign consultant.
DiVincenzo, along with Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman LeRoy Jones Jr., will be instrumental in deciding who gets the coveted line A on the ballot in Essex County in the Democratic primary next June.
Back in Jersey City, Imam Mustafa El-Amin, who presides over the Masjid Ibrahim on Chancellor Avenue in Newark's South Ward, came to Fulop's press conference to witness Fulop's withdrawal and endorsement of Murphy.
"I met Mr. Murphy at the town hall meeting he had at the Masonic Lodge [in Newark's Central Ward] earlier this month. He strikes me as genuine, and that he's speaking from his heart," El-Amin said. "As a Muslim, with all that's been going on, Mr. Murphy has shown no hesitation whatsoever in embracing the Muslim community.
"We need something new, something fresh," El-Amin said. "We need somebody who has not been involved in all of the garbage and corruption that's been going on in New Jersey government for years. It's a pleasure to know Mr. Murphy. And we all need him."