The Democratic caucus this afternoon unanimously reaffirmed Craig Coughlin from Middlesex as Speaker of the Assembly, in a quickly called caucus session in Trenton that sent New Jersey’s political classes aflutter with intrigue about the other suddenly unoccupied seat, whose occupant usually sits there as part of a statewide power sharing arrangement.
“Craig is going to be on his timeline, not Steve Sweeney’s,” a Democrat snapped, when asked why Middlesex would move to restore Coughlin without first gut-checking a stab at the senate presidency.
A Middlesex move for the senate throne would likely require Coughlin to step down as speaker, to create the balancing act option of another region (North Jersey, for example) to grab the speakership.
Coughlin not breaking stride as he reassumed the speakership only accelerated backroom talks about a Sweeney successor.
The names most frequently in the mix are Senator M. Teresa Ruiz (on the strength of her presence in Essex County, which pushed Murphy over the top late in the game) and which claims the home of Democratic State Party Chairman LeRoy Jones; and state Senator Joe Lagana of Bergen.
Others are said to be interested (Senator Paul Sarlo, Senator and Senator Nick Scutari) but have not moved to the top tier of contention at this time.
Especially given Coughlin reupping and Middlesex gaining political muscle mass, the question around Sweeney’s replacement concerns whether that person will be a long-serving (at least four years) leader or a caretaker on Coughlin’s assembly (two year) reorganization clock.
As the Democratic Party labored underground to summon the best option that would be good for the business side of the equation, members strained to consider – big, important word coming up – optics.
Ruiz? Good, because she would diversify a leadership structure consisting of three Irish guys (Murphy, Sweeney, Coughlin).
“Two birds with one stone,” said the Democratic Party source.
Hispanic and female.
“He’s from Paramus; Joe gets it – he knows the crazies on the left are ruining the party,” said the Democrat, making the case of Tuesday’s election for a sedate, lunch bucket background suburbanite who can show up on a construction site with a hard hat on and not look like Mike Dukakis sitting atop a tank.
In a world lacking all sophistication, the pair of contenders quickly found themselves consigned to one of two groups rending Democrats as congress people stare at Joe Biden’s two bills in Washington like deer in headlights: moderates and progressives.
A backer of Lagana tried to get nuanced.
“Ruiz is a progressive from the city, but she’s too close to [George] Norcross [Sweeney’s South Jersey ally],” the source said, referring to the power broker whose money helped put Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo in office.
The next senate president should be someone as far away from Norcross as possible, the source added.
“That’s Joe,” he said. “Sweeney s-it canned Joe – what else do you want as the state tries to turn the page on the South?”
He’s a Bergen guy, who “connects,” the source insisted.
But in fact, Lagana is a brainy, somewhat introverted attorney who doesn’t fill up a room like Sweeney.
Whatever linkages to backroom power supposedly controlled him, Sweeney reveled in the role of strapping, suspenders-wearing operator who can handle hundreds of people running at him at once with their problems.
By contrast, Ruiz and Lagana are both policy nerds who like to actually put on the horn-rimmed glasses and do the reading, and probably naturally have no raw talent for herding cats.
Sources in the party also uniformly worried on Thursday about the overall bifurcated condition of the Democrats, seemingly fractured between the AOC/Sanders wing and Josh Gottheimer and his suburban foot-soldiers.
From the beginning of his reign, particularly in the Murphy era, Sweeney like a New Jersey colossus rose above the moderate, Building Trades, put your head down, shut up and talk about food on the table, property taxes and infrastructure jobs wing of the party.
He had played footsy with the left when he considered running for governor, but that was social issues stuff, hardly of the free college and healthcare for all variety.
The amount of political oxygen Sweeney consumed, a natural condition going back to when (pre-Christie, pre-Ciattarelli) he advocated a rein-in of state spending, and fueled in part by his raging bitterness over Murphy failing to rein in the NJEA when they ran the most expensive race in United States legislative history against him, almost required Murphy to go into hurry-up progressive mode as a matter of survival.
From the beginning, he had visions of himself as a kind of Bobby Kennedy figure.
But Sweeney’s gargantuan occupation of the center, along with the senate president’s antagonism over the NJEA and his own irritation over Murphy – a political neophyte – beating him for the governorship, forced the governor to go create his own progressive base with non-machine molded New Jerseyans.
Sweeney and Murphy were true party pioneers in one regard.
If Democrats oversimplified their own bifurcated ranks along the lines of the two Biden spending bills, Sweeney and Murphy long ago perfected the fracture, their mutual states of political being largely conditioned by labor – Building Trades (Sweeney) and Public Sector (Murphy).
With Sweeney vaporized and Democrats everywhere demoralized by Tuesday’s election, insiders fretted over Murphy without Sweeney.
“This f-ing guy is floating in a long boat like Henry Hudson with Bernie Sanders,” one source fumed, referring to Murphy.
Even if they hated each other, Sweeney stabilized him.
“Who is going to be the adult in the room?” a “moderate” Democrat wondered out loud.
Never the demagogue, an erstwhile and unflamboyant marcher in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade from Woodbridge, Coughlin was supposedly going to be that guy, less in hotheaded Achilles mode with Murphy and more like Sancho Panza to the governor’s Don Quixote.
In policy terms, Murphy – perhaps still intent on the presidency – could advocate for something like civilian review boards, while Coughlin – with his eye on the cops, part of his base – can say, “Now, wait, Phil.”
He could be that supposed veteran figure to ground the governor.
But at least one source this afternoon bewailed the vote today on Coughlin for speaker, arguing that Middlesex had outfoxed the other counties looking for power.
The caucus should have delayed the vote on speaker until Democrats secured the senate presidency, the source groused.
“Then they would have something to work with,” he said.
But as that complaint echoed down the empty halls of the statehouse, the following formal release from Assembly Democrats appeared:
Members of the Assembly Democratic Caucus convened Thursday to select members of the Senior Leadership Team for the 220th legislative session. At a press conference, Assemblyman Craig J. Coughlin (D-Middlesex) announced the Caucus’ vote by acclamation to select him to serve another, history-making term as the Speaker of the New Jersey General Assembly.
“I am deeply grateful to have the trust and confidence of my Caucus members to serve as Assembly Speaker for a third term,” said Speaker Coughlin. “In these past four years, we did not shy away from tackling the big issues. We raised the minimum wage, we made climate response a real priority, reinvigorated our state’s economic competitiveness, and addressed serious institutional inequities.”
Garnering the support to secure a historic third term as Speaker, Coughlin will be the first Democratic Assembly Speaker to serve three consecutive two-year terms. Alongside him, Majority Leader Greenwald (D-Camden, Burlington) will serve a seventh term in his leadership position and Majority Conference Leader Quijano (D-Union) will begin a second term. Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Bergen, Passaic) will become Speaker Pro Tempore.
“The charge ahead is to keep building policy for transformative and lasting change. We’re aiming to get to the heart of some of the deepest inequalities laid bare by the pandemic – from housing security, food access, and small business resilience to childcare, education, and mental health,” said Speaker Coughlin. “Leading our chamber, I am once again confident that working with my leadership team, the members of our caucus, our colleagues across the aisle, and in partnership with the Senate and Governor, we will build on the progress of these past for years.”
Members for the 220th legislative session will be officially sworn in during early January 2022 when an official leadership election vote will take place.