State Democratic Chair LeRoy Jones on Wednesday ousted former Senate President Steve Sweeney from his role on the commission that redraws state legislative district boundaries, a stunning public re-opening of the rift between North and South Jersey Democrats.
Jones’ decision, which touches on one of the most politically important processes of the decade, comes a month after tensions boiled between members of the congressional redistricting commission, where there was deep mistrust between the panel’s two South Jersey members and the rest of its Democratic delegation over their proposed map and strategy.
“No person or organization’s goals and ambitions are above the interests of our party and the people of this State,” Jones, who chairs the five-member Democratic delegation on the commission — formally known as the Apportionment Commission — said in a statement announcing the change. “It is in that spirit and in reflection on input that the Apportionment Commission has received, that I have exercised my authority to make this change to the Democratic Delegation. This decision was necessary to protect the future of the Democratic Party, and the integrity of the Commission as a whole."
Jones, who also serves as Essex County Democratic chair, didn’t specify which “person or organization” he was referring to, but the target was obvious: the South Jersey Democratic machine, which has long been led by Sweeney and his childhood friend, insurance broker George Norcross.
According to two sources with knowledge of the process, Jones also removed two Democratic redistricting staffers with close ties to South Jersey Democrats: Michael Muller and Mickey Quinn. Both also worked for the Democratic congressional redistricting team.
Jones said in a letter to Secretary of State Tahesha Way that he replaced Sweeney with Laura Matos, a longtime Democratic operative from Belmar who’s an executive at the public relations firm Kivvit. Matos is Hispanic, and advocates had complained about the lack of a Hispanic member on the Democrats’ redistricting team.
“In appointing Laura Matos today, we are also taking a long overdue step to bring broader, more diverse voices and perspectives to the work that we have on the Apportionment Commission. In New Jersey, our diversity is our strength, and we must continue to build a party that reflects our great state,” Jones said in his statement.
The commission includes five Democrats, five Republicans and tie-breaker Philip Carchman, who was appointed by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner.
Reached by phone, Sweeney — an ironworkers union executive — said he was just learning about Jones’ decision but was going into a work meeting and declined to immediately comment. Muller and Quinn did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Sweeney, the longest serving Senate president in state history, lost reelection in November to Republican Ed Durr in what many say was the biggest political upset in state history. Shortly after Sweeney’s loss, Jones told POLITICO he had no plans to remove Sweeney from the Apportionment Commission, even though it put Sweeney in a position to help redraw his old legislative district.
Since then, Sweeney has privately told allies he plans to run for governor in 2025.
Jones did not return a phone call seeking comment. But three sources with knowledge of his decision said it stemmed from the infighting between the two South Jersey members of the congressional redistricting commission and its other four Democrats, as well as early tensions on the Apportionment Commission, which must approve a new state legislative map by March.
During congressional redistricting, South Jersey Democratic members Dana Redd, a former Camden mayor, and Jeff Nash, a Camden County commissioner, clashed with the four other Democrats over late-proposed changes to several districts, including the 1st Congressional District that’s represented by Donald Norcross, one of George Norcross’ brothers. During the process, Democrats privately expressed concerns that the South Jersey members could withhold their votes or even strike a backroom deal with members of the Republican delegation.
As the congressional redistricting process was wrapping up, Redd wrote an email to the commission’s tie-breaking member, John Wallace Jr., seeking to extend the process — something most of the Democratic delegation did not want to do. Wallace chose the Democrats’ map, which has led to a lawsuit from the GOP members of the delegation.
While Jones and his allies were careful to frame Jones’ decision to oust Sweeney as a way to bolster Democrats’ chances in the redistricting process, it comes two-and-a-half months after South Jersey’s Democratic legislative delegation — the most cohesive in the state — suffered perhaps its largest political blow in recent memory, losing two of its six state Senate seats and four of its 12 Assembly seats.
Despite their smaller size, South Jersey Democrats’ lock step voting had allowed them to often dominate state Democratic politics, taking advantage of the fractious political machines further north to build alliances.
North Jersey Democrats are also pushing back on South Jersey’s power knowing that the state’s population growth in the last Census was concentrated in its heavily Democratic northeastern counties.