By BRIAN DONOHUE
As Monmouth County Democrats convene this weekend amid a wild primary race to replace indicted United States Senator Robert Menendez, Red Bank’s Democratic leadership has staked out perhaps the trickiest position of all: Switzerland.
County Democrats will likely vote at their convention Saturday to endorse either New Jersey First Lady Tammy Murphy, who lives just across the river in Middletown; or Congressman Andy Kim, whose district covers part of the county.
Also running in the June primary are longtime Newark activist Larry Hamm and Patricia Campos-Medina. Menendez, meanwhile, has not ruled out another run, but is flagging badly in the polls and the endorsements tally in the wake of his indictment.
The race between front-runners Murphy and Kim has been “bananas,” even by the notoriously cutthroat standards of New Jersey politics.
“We’ve been in regular contact with both campaigns,” said Red Bank Deputy Mayor Kate Triggiano, Chairperson of the Red Bank Democratic Committee. “Every single time it’s me saying, ‘I’m remaining neutral, thank you.’”
In this environment, that stance feels like an outlier.
Dozens of party leaders and elected officials statewide quickly fell in line by endorsing Murphy, whose husband, Governor Phil Murphy controls the levers of power and the state budget on which many rely for local programs and projects.
Supporters of Kim, meanwhile have decried the Murphy campaign and its tactics as political bossism and nepotism at its worst.
After leading a group of reformers to take over the Red Bank Democratic Organization last year, Triggiano said she wanted to use a more hands-off approach as chairperson and let each of the 18 members decide who to support.
“There was this environment of feeling if your chair is going a certain way then you should go a certain way,” she said of the organization in recent years. “I want to make it so every single person feels empowered to go to that convention and vote for who they want to vote for.”
Not that they’re telling. redbankgreen emailed all other members of the council, including Mayor Billy Portman, to ask if they’d be endorsing anyone. None replied. Triggiano declined to reveal whom she’ll cast a ballot for at convention as well.
“I just want to be fair to the committee people so they don’t feel there’s a wrong answer to that,” she said of her decision to remain publicly neutral.
It would appear a particular sticky situation for Triggiano, who received high praise from Gov. Murphy after her slate swept into power last year amid a bitter internecine battle between rival Red Bank Democrat factions. But she said she has equally strong ties to Kim and has also worked on issues for years alongside Hamm and Campos Medina.
“I’ve known all of them,’’ she said. “ I never thought they’d all be running at the same time.”
The neutrality pledge stood out in a week when the Murphy campaign released an extensive list of Monmouth County officials – including 10 mayors and 15 municipal chairpersons – it said had endorsed the first lady’s campaign.
Triggiano pointed out that she is not alone in remaining neutral, noting state Senator Vin Gopal and Monmouth County Democratic Chairman David Brown are both doing the same.
Unlike many counties where party chairs can almost unilaterally make the endorsement, Monmouth’s choice for the party line is chosen by a vote taken at convention. That makes this weekend’s convention the first direct face-off between the two clear front runners, Kim and Murphy .
The stakes are potentially huge.
In New Jersey, county endorsements are seen as an important key to victory due to the unique “county line” system that gives chosen candidates preferred ballot spacing that studies have show lead to a double digit advantage.
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