By publicly announcing more than a year in advance they enjoy near-unanimous support for serving another term as the Legislature’s presiding officers, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) laid down their markers early — the policy agenda for the 2021 election year would be driven as much by their houses as by the governor’s office.
Declaring victory in an intra-party election more than a year before the ballots are cast might be considered an act of unbridled hubris, but it is, in fact, a shrewd calculated strategy that serves several purposes:
*It affirms and reinforces the conventional wisdom that Democrats will retain their majorities in the 2021 legislative elections and there will be no appreciable change in the partisan makeup in either house.
*Guarantees there will be no credible primary challenge to Gov. Phil Murphy, who has already announced his re-election bid to become the first Democratic governor in 43 years to win a second term.
*Makes it clear that the Legislature is capable of delivering a record of accomplishment for Murphy to take to voters, but that it will be an equally shared enterprise.
*Signals the Administration that the Legislature is united behind its leadership and will remain so in any differences of opinion or approach with the executive office.
*Reminds the governor that the accommodations his office reached with Sweeney and Coughlin to assure passage of the nine-month budget, tax increases and borrowing must be honored.
*Forecloses the potential for public grumbling or expressions of discontent from legislators by elevating the need for unity above personal differences.
*Effectively puts to rest any potential challenge to either leader from within their ranks.
*Assures that, should Murphy win re-election, jockeying for the party’s gubernatorial nomination in 2025, will begin a minute or so after his inaugural address.
The obviously coordinated actions by Sweeney and Coughlin to secure the support of their members at such an early stage was a dramatic display of power — a reassertion of the Legislature’s equal standing in determining policy as well as politics.
At first glance, Sweeney, at 11 years already the Senate’s the longest serving presiding officer, and Coughlin, representing the growing clout of the Middlesex County organization, make for an unlikely partnership.
Coughlin, Speaker for two years, is understated, a fan of compromise and quiet persuasion. Sweeney is outspoken, blunt, unafraid to deliver a jackhammer point of view.
That their collaboration has been remarkably successful, though, is undeniable. For two years, 2018 and 2019, they kept their caucuses disciplined to deny Murphy his sought after millionaire’s tax, clearing it only in the face of the economically destructive COVID-19 pandemic while, at the same time, extracting concessions from Murphy.
They’ve been generally supportive of the governor’s actions in dealing with the pandemic, keeping any criticism from their members at low volume even as many schools remain closed and business continue to struggle.
Their decision to stand by Murphy in the face of accusations he moved too slowly to lift lockdowns and re-open commercial activity was validated as other states experienced an upsurge in infections and fatalities after moving too precipitously toward restoring routine daily activities.
For Murphy, the leaders’ approval of his response to the most severe public health crisis in a century has been critical and has contributed to his 60 percent plus public approval rating.
By continuing to stand behind Murphy, the leaders confined legislative criticism to Republicans, allowing the governor and his allies to attribute the attacks to partisan political strategy.
Had Sweeney and Coughlin broken with the governor, the impact would have been damaging, indeed, forcing Murphy into a contentious public debate with his own party leadership, struggle to justify his executive orders, and undermined his ability to marshal broad public support for his efforts.
Underpinning the early victory lap strategy, of course, is the Democratic Party’s belief (an article of faith, really), that it will retain solid control of the Legislature, relegating Republicans to yet another term of minority status and unable to exert any significant impact on major policy issues.
History suggests their optimism is well placed. With a Senate majority of 25-15 and an Assembly edge of 52-28, the Republicans can only hope to begin to make inroads with no realistic expectations of regaining control within reach.
New Jersey has steadily and inexorably turned from Democratic powder blue into Democratic midnight blue. The party registration now outnumbers Republicans by more than one million, a registration deficit impossible to overcome.
It last elected a Republican to the United States Senate nearly a half century ago; it holds but two of the 12 seats in the House of Representatives, and the most recent Republican presidential candidate to carry the state was George H.W. Bush.
2020 looks equally dismal with President Trump expected to lose the state in a landslide.
Sweeney and Coughlin’s locking up support for their leadership positions in 2022 places their party in an even greater position of strength, bringing their “good cop, bad cop” routine to New Jersey’s future.
They’ve laid down their markers. At the moment, there is no one on the horizon ready to pick them up.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.