Steve Sweeney enters New Jersey governor’s race

Now, with Murphy term limited, the “two Steves” are the only declared candidates.

“I will always put New Jersey’s kids, working families and seniors first. You know that’s who I’ll fight for because that’s who I’ve always fought for,” Sweeney said in a video announcement. “It’s who I am — a fighter for those who can’t fight for themselves.”

The dynamics have changed considerably since Sweeney and Fulop were expected to run for governor. In 2016, when Murphy declared early because he was such a long shot, Sweeney and Fulop were considered the strongest contenders for the Democratic nomination.

Fulop was the young, progressive and ambitious mayor of New Jersey’s second-largest city in the middle of an economic boom. Sweeney was the second-most powerful elected official in the state, having developed a relationship with Republican Gov. Chris Christie that led to public employee pension and health reforms, a higher education realignment and a focus on revitalizing Camden, in Sweeney’s backyard in South Jersey.

But Sweeney’s shocking loss to Ed Durr in the 2021 legislative elections greatly diminished the power of his largest benefactor, the longtime South Jersey power broker George Norcross. Democratic leaders in the central and northern parts of the state — which have many more voters than in South Jersey — have in turn become much more influential. Though Norcross has told POLITICO he is stepping back from statewide politics, he also said he would help Sweeney if he ran for governor.

And there are more candidates rumored to jump into the race, including Democratic Reps. Josh Gottheimer and Mikie Sherrill.

Within a couple hours of his announcement, Sweeney picked up the endorsement of the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters, which represents more than 15,000 workers in New Jersey. The union cited Sweeney’s advocacy for offshore wind production, protecting union apprenticeship programs and supporting contractor language for public projects as reasons he “will be a governor with true union values.”

Fulop, who announced his candidacy in April, welcomed Sweeney’s entry to the race, joking that “it was getting lonely for the last seven months.” But he now expects the contest to heat up, with opportunities for the two to contrast their records and make their case to voters even though the election isn’t for another two years.

“Ultimately they’re the ones who stand to benefit from a competitive primary, and they haven’t had a competitive primary in a long time,” Fulop said in an interview.

In his launch video, Sweeney portrayed himself as a sort of working-class hero in Trenton. He highlighted his history as a steelworker and emphasized how his daughter’s Down syndrome led him to run for office to improve the lives of people with disabilities.

He has long been to the right of many Democrats on fiscal policy, and in Murphy’s first year in office, he nearly brought state government to a halt over his refusal to reenact a millionaire’s tax (although he later relented and raised taxes on corporations).

At the same time, Sweeney noted his progressive streak. Without his blessing, New Jersey would not have expanded paid family leave or the $15 hourly minimum wage that is one of Murphy’s biggest achievements. Sweeney also worked with Murphy and fellow Democrats to overhaul the state’s public education funding formula, leading to more state aid for most districts.

Sweeney said there is more work to be done on education, though he did not specify what in the video. Notably, he said New Jersey should pass a constitutional amendment to protect women’s reproductive freedom, something Democrats briefly sought to do in 2022.

In what may be a nod to his ouster two years ago, Sweeney said that “sometimes in life we face setbacks, but New Jerseyans get up, we dust ourselves off, we get back to our work. Because that’s who we are.”

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