Musical chairs in Jersey City

With Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop’s feet firmly walking the yellow brick campaign road toward the state house next year, names of his possible replacement as mayor are cropping up everywhere.

Freeholder Bill O’Dea, whose fundraiser brought more than 1,200 to Liberty House last week, has long been seen as the front runner.

His fundraiser included a who’s who of political bigwigs, the most surprising of which was state Senator and Union City Mayor Brian Stack, whose district includes half of Jersey City. Stack pointed out that he rarely attends such fundraisers, hinting that he will support O’Dea’s bid.

But the event also included former assemblyman and one time Jersey City mayoral candidate Louis Manzo, suggesting a healing of old wounds, since Manzo and O’Dea had a falling out about eight years ago.

Also included in the parade of political stars was former Gov. Jim McGreevey, who was at one time rumored as a possible candidate for mayor.

Another familiar but not surprising face was former U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli, someone who is apparently making the rounds to possibly get his old seat back if U.S. Senator Robert Menendez is forced to resign. Menendez faces serious corruption charges that may or may not vanish if Hillary Clinton is elected president.

And, puzzling to many, the entire Rutherford City Council also attended O’Dea’s fundraiser, as did the Bergen County prosecutor.

Mayor Fulop gave a big speech, honoring O’Dea, who has been a lone wolf reform maverick in Hudson County since his days on the city council in the late 1980s. O’Dea’s powerful friend, state Sen. Ray Lesniak, was also a prominent attendee, suggesting that money and workers might be made available if O’Dea makes the mayoral run next year.

In the back of the room and far less prominent, state Sen. Sandra Cunningham was also there to show her support.

Other bigwigs included former Jersey City Councilman Bill Gaughan, behind the scenes political heavyweight Bobby Knapp, and Hudson County department directors Ben Lopez and Angelica Harrison. Fellow freeholders Anthony Vainieri, Kenny Kopacz and Anthony Romano also were present as was Hudson County Sheriff Frank Schillari, Assemblyman (and rumored rival) Raj Mukerjhi, and former Jersey City Councilman Chico Rhamchal. Perhaps the most surprising visitor that night was former Bayonne Mayor Mark Smith.

O’Dea is not a shoe-in

An early Fulop supporter, O’Dea has been eyeing higher office for decades, but does not completely have the trust of many Hudson County powerbrokers. Some of these are uncomfortable with O’Dea’s closeness to Lesniak and this relationship could well ruin O’Dea’s chances at becoming mayor, since Lesniak technically is still a candidate competing against Fulop to become the Democratic nominee for governor next year.

If Fulop successfully wins the nomination, he will have to throw his support behind a candidate for mayor he trusts to retain his philosophy. His entourage has a number of political princes interested in getting Fulop’s endorsement.

Most insiders believe Mukerjhi has the inside track. Money has been pouring into his campaign war chest on this presumption, from contributors hoping to impress him. Mukerjhi is seen as a safe candidate, someone who won’t shake the municipal boat too much and who has mostly fallen in line with the Fulop agenda for redistribution of housing to the poor throughout the city.

But recently, Councilwoman Joyce Watterman’s name was thrown into the mix as the possible heir apparent. This may be a political ploy, a warning shot against Cunningham, who appears to support state Senate President Stephen Sweeney for governor.

Watterman is a powerful African-American in Jersey City, who may well be seen as a threat to Cunningham in the future. Fulop offered Watterman one of the two assembly seats in the 31st District last year, then withdrew the offer in what many claim was at the request of Cunningham.

With so many deals being made behind the scenes in anticipation of Fulop’s moving up into the state house, can Watterman feel confident that this offer to support her for mayor is real?

As with Fulop’s campaign for mayor in 2013, a number of people are hoping to ride his coattails to the next level of government. This may include Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez, who some believe is hoping to become the next attorney general.

Can you say Congressman Fulop?

But what if Fulop doesn’t win the primary for governor?

Many people presume he will seek reelection as mayor. But some believe he wants to find a golden parachute to another level of government, in part of avoid some of the serious problems which will emerge shortly, such as the revaluation of homes in Jersey City and the possible loss of state aid to schools.

Behind the scenes on the state level there has been fierce negotiation for the 8th District House of Representatives seat currently held by Albio Sires. Some believe that Fulop may seek this seat rather than return as mayor. Sires, however, appears not ready to move, and he has enough friends in the state Democratic organization to supply him with money and workers to fight off a takeover bid.

Will Murphy become a compromise candidate?

Although the battle for the Democratic nomination for governor has largely been painted as one between Fulop and Sweeney, some prominent Democrats believe that former U.S. Ambassador Phil Murphy could become a compromise candidate, someone that will pull the party together.

Democrats are a bit overconfident in presuming that they have an edge over Republicans because of the bad taste left by outgoing Republican Gov. Christopher Christie. Whether the political scandals associated with misuse of Port Authority resources by Christie associates and even the current scandal involving the closing of lanes on the George Washington Bridge (commonly called Bridgate) will hamper chances for a GOP nominee remains to be seen.

Al Sullivan may be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com