Steve Sweeney

Senate President Stephen Sweeney in July 2011.

Danny Drake

State Sen. Steve Sweeney became the latest prominent Democrat to bow out of the governor’s race, saying in a statement Monday that his priority is ensuring the state Legislature remains in Democratic control.

“For over a decade New Jersey voters have ensured we have a strong Democratic majority in both houses, and I view it as absolutely essential and my job to keep that streak going,” Sweeney said in a statement. “We will.”

Sweeney, D-Cumberland, Salem, Gloucester, joins a growing list of Democrats with statewide name recognition who have declined to take on Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who rides a wave of post-Hurricane Sandy popularity in polls as he prepares for a re-election campaign this year.

State Sen. Barbara Buono, D-Middlesex, is the only somewhat prominent Democrat to announce a run. However, she trails Christie in fundraising, $225,000 to $2.09 million according to campaign filings earlier this month.

Sweeney follows fellow state Sen. Richard Codey, who declined to run last week, and Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who chose last month to instead seek a US Senate seat in 2014.

Sweeney, 53, is an ironworkers’ union organizer by trade. He has been in the state Senate since 2002 and has served as its president since deposing Codey in 2010.

Sweeney’s decision leaves the race without an obvious South Jersey candidate.

Buono, 59, may be familiar with many of the issues in the region, having previously served as the chair of the Senate’s gambling committee.

However, Brigid Harrison said it seemed clear that whatever the outcome, the governor would be oriented toward North Jersey. While Buono is from Middlesex County, Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State College, pointed to Christie’s appointments and cabinet. “Most of the people he knows hail from North Jersey and his own experience.”

“We’re hopeful that the Democrats in South Jersey bring Barbara Buono to South Jersey and show her around,” said Daniel J. Douglas, director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Richard Stockton College in Galloway Township. He said she would have to learn more about Atlantic City and the region as she ran for governor.

Douglas also invited Christie and Buono to take part in a debate at Stockton.

Sweeney has been vocally supportive of the region’s casino industry but has also been critical as it has tried to recover from a prolonged slump. He was unhappy that Hard Rock backed out of plans to build a 200-room casino at the foot of Albany Avenue, after he, state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, and others worked on boutique casino legislation.

Most recently, he criticized Revel’s management. He wrote in a Nov. 23 open letter that the casino was burning through cash at an “alarming rate.” In Atlantic City last week, he said people had a “bad first impression” of the casino and it would be unable to successfully compete without new ownership.

"When the creditors take it back, it'll be sold," Sweeney told The Press of Atlantic City on Wednesday.

Sweeney’s passing up a run for governor comes as Christie has dominated all potential opponents in recent polls, suggesting problems for Democratic challengers.

He trounced Buono by a 64 percent to 21 percent in a Fairleigh Dickinson Public Mind poll of 700 people in early January. The same poll staked Christie to a 65-19 margin over Sweeney and 59-26 margin over Codey.

Another poll by Quinnipiac University released last week found similar gulfs in popularity between Christie and Democrats. The poll of 1,647 people found Christie enjoyed the approval of nearly three out of four state residents.

More than two-thirds of state residents said he deserved re-election, even among Democrats, who supported him 47 percent to 43 percent. The same poll found 82 percent of state residents didn’t know enough about Buono to form an opinion.

Locally, Whelan said he didn't think the announcement surprised anyone, saying Sweeney never indicated to him he was running. Whelan said the announcement "just confirms that what we thought the outcome would be all along."

"If Sen. Buono is our candidate, then we'll have a strong candidate," Whelan said.

State Sen. Jeff Van Drew said of Christie, "I have a great relationship and consider him a personal friend." But Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, also described Buono as a "worthy adversary."

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