Amid Incessantly Ringing Phones, Essex County Dems Caucus with Questions About Timing and Diversity


Within the context of a fast-accelerating caucus leadership fight, Speaker Emeritus Sheila Oliver (D-34) stood up in a meeting of the Essex County Democratic Delegation this morning and wondered aloud why Essex – a county built on diversity – would get behind a leadership deal that upchucks two Irish Americans – without a real discussion, including a total evaluation of the aims and intentions of the Democratic Party – onto the twin thrones of legislative power.

Sweeney and Coughlin.

There were some ayes and nods of assent.


They remember. They remember the way it happens. It starts with that sinking feeling of support getting dragged in another direction. Then there’s another big, muscled up county that gets overlaid like suffocating saran wrap on top of the structures that felt so strong and sure-footed for so long.

Then there’s that dreadful sensation of deprived oxygen, a long with the public demand of having to appear as though everything’s fine.

Four years ago it was Oliver herself who got tossed out of the ring in favor of Hudson County with its unified delegation, one of whom, then-little known Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-32) emerged as Oliver’s rival and then successor. Now it’s Hudson County clutching its belly, having been kicked there, and thrown to the side and another overgrown, north I-95 county, in this case Middlesex, empowered as the latest Primo Carnera-like creation to enable South Jersey to stay in power.

As the plummeting Prieto anticipates the hard thud of a landing, Hudson’s tugging at Essex.

Come on, you know what it feels like, Essex. You can take revenge on South Jersey right now. Please don’t do this.

So is Middlesex.

Come on, Essex. Do you really expect to put your neck on the line for Vinny when Vinny was the guy who cut the deal with South Jersey four years ago? Please don’t do this.

“There’s Vinny fatigue,” one source insisted.

Caught in that pressure cooker, Essex County Democratic Chairman Leroy Jones called a meeting of the delegation earlier today.

InsiderNJ caught up with him in the aftermath.

“I’m not going to disrespect the process,” said the chairman, lingering on the fact that one member of his delegation, Assemblywoman Blonnie Watson, won’t have a vote in the caucus next year, while Watson’s replacement, Shanique Speight, isn’t yet sworn into office; hasn’t even won an election. “I’m not going to disrespect the process, or that individual to vote for someone they don’t even know.”

He made the comment against the backdrop of some grumbling among those clumps of Vinny Prieto hold-outs for whom that asterisk next to the name of as-yet-unelected Yvonne Lopez stuck in the craw, and stuck in the marrow of what was left in the state of a sense of that little woebegone institution called democracy. Then there were battleground names on that list – people who could conceivably lose their re-election bids – acting like they would be back in that caucus room with Coughlin in the command chair.

“We’re not committed to anyone, and we’re not against anyone,” Jones added. “But we do have questions about diversity in representation and we have questions about timing. Let’s get Phil Murphy elected first. Let’s get him over the finish line of the primary, then let’s have this conversation with all of these considerations. Let’s make sure we have representation that looks like the state of New Jersey.”

Others in the delegation spoke up, too, and like Oliver, expressed doubts about Essex participating in the perpetual re-inflation of South Jersey.

Big on paper, Essex suffers from the fact that it has personalities who pride themselves on independence, which works great when people wait for that recognizable voice to sound on the floor of the senate, for example, but which is useless when the county seeks a unified front.

South Jersey reps have no autonomy, but together they move like a Roman phalanx.

Everybody’s auditioning to play the part of Maximus up north and simultaneously stands amid the crumbled ruins of a countywide organization that once led the rest of the state.

The problem goes back to when Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo decided he could get all he needed by having a close relationship with Republican Governor Chris Christie, not by building and cultivating a controllable legislative team, which proved good up to the point when Christie became enraged over Essex’s inability stay together. Now they don’t talk. No, it didn’t start there, another source opines, considering Essex’s troubles. It really started when DiVincenzo came to power under the auspices of South Jersey, which creates the irritating dynamic of everything having to run through South Jersey, including the executive’s consideration for governor, which started with Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), a preference that bottled up the county and prevented it from moving meaningfully beyond the Christie era, as other counties – like Middlesex – cut in line on being first to the dance with Democratic front-runner Phil Murphy.

Yet Jones – ever optimistic and standing on the real, year-in-the-building power base of East Orange – says he’s confident Essex will together this time.

“We’re going to vote as a bloc,” he told InsiderNJ, referring to the speaker battle and its resolution.

But while Essex tries to align itself now, others may jump at the opportunity to glob onto Coughlin’s coattails.

And while Oliver circulates again as a possible option for Essex’s reanimation, this time as a Murphy short list choice for lieutenant governor, a source groaned at the notion when asked by InsiderNJ, “Sheila’s too strong for a ticket like that. She’d speak up. Look at what happened to Kim [Guadagno]. Oliver would actually speak her mind, and that could prove detrimental to a guy – a neophyte like Murphy.”


That’s the other continuing part of the conversation. If Coughlin gets made speaker in exchange for the re-upping of South Jersey’s Sweeney, won’t that deprive the favorite for governor of any real autonomy as the state’s chief executive? “Just win, baby,” a source told Insider, when asked what the reaction of Murphy World was to the speaker’s drama. “the attitude is ‘Just win.’ Everyone will have to deal with Phil when he’s in the front office, and they’re not worrying about who’s in the legislature.”

Or that’s a battle that can get fought later, once the new administration test drives the Sweeney-Coughlin arrangement; if indeed the deal holds up; with big players like Essex at some future date in a position to reevaluate its position once someone like Coughlin goes the way of Oliver and Prieto in terms of his standing in what seems to be the inevitability of South Jersey disaffection. If the current cycle freezes the northern giant out of prime positions of power, perhaps Coughlin – fed up sooner rather than later with the South – will come begging for a new alliance, find the once mighty Essex asleep but sufficiently rested, and give the place a lifeline of relevance.

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