Eyes on the Prize


“When you ain’t got nothing,
You got nothing to lose.”

(Like a Rolling Stone)
-Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan

Eyes On The Prize

The latest commotion over future leadership roles in the New Jersey Legislature seems, on the surface, to be a geographical contest of wills, a skirmish between warring factions of the Democratic majorities.

Usually these dustups come down to who can count and who can be counted on.

But, to the players in this continuing and increasingly bitter rivalry of North and South Jersey, it’s more akin to playwright August Strindberg’s Dance of Death, an early 20th Century drama.

Strindberg’s stagecraft revolved around a half-crazed couple on a fortress island replete with strains of discordant music and the inevitable enervation of domestic strife. And, if New Jersey political history is any guide, that might be more like what’s really taking place.

In the Assembly chambers, there’s Middlesex County’s Craig Coughlin (D-19). His game plan is demonstrating inevitability while publicly, albeit early, claiming a majority of 52 members of the Assembly Democratic caucus.

His announced support includes a solid coalition of South Jersey legislators and pockets of support from central and north Jersey.

The incumbent Speaker, Hudson County’s Vinnie Prieto (D-32), is attempting to claim the same, only in his case, it doesn’t include any support from the south, at all. It appears he is barricaded in the north.

In the Senate chambers, current Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) lays claim to a broader coalition of 17 of 24 of his party members with no opposition to speak of at the moment.

Traditionally, these decisions are made in a party caucus in the weeks following the general election and formalized after the swearing-in of the new legislature. Pro forma and civil. The results predicted in advance by those who do the counting.

Including the Governor’s race this year, inevitability seems to be the word de jour. Kind of reminds one of the mindset of Hillary Clinton’s reach for the White House.  And, we all know what happened in that case.

Best laid plans, often go awry.

But, inevitability and stitched together coalitions sometimes collide. In January 1972 Democratic leadership planned to name S. Howard Woodson of Trenton as Speaker after winning control of the Assembly in the 1971 elections.

But someone took his or her eye off the prize. Then Democratic Assemblyman and former Minority Leader David Friedland of Jersey City decided otherwise.

While Republican William Cahill of South Jersey was busy being a harried Governor, Friedland concocted an arrangement with three other members of the Democrat majority and voted to give the Republican minority leadership control of the General Assembly. It turned out to be quite a coup.

They elected (future Governor) Thomas H. Kean. Sr. as Speaker, derailing Woodson who was slated to be the first black speaker in state history.

Give Democrat Friedland his due. He faced down charges of racism, but short of gaining the post for himself, he bargained for a committee chairmanship, staff, instant notoriety and a place in legislative history.

Democrats ultimately united. Woodson inevitably (there’s that word again) won the Speakership in 1974 as, in those days, the post rotated much quicker than it appears to in these days.

Judas or genius, Friedland’s argument was that Democratic leaders had been ignoring the needs of Hudson County. Ironically, it’s often what you hear these days from South Jersey leaders.

As an aside, Friedland had big time issues, particularly legal. He decided against seeking re-election in 1973 but ran and won a State Senate seat in 1977, which he later had to forfeit after a 1980 racketeering conviction.

In 1985, he faked his own (drowning) death and ultimately was caught in the Indian Ocean’s Maldives islands running a scuba shop. You can’t make this stuff up.

By that time, 1988, Tom Kean was nearly finished with his second 4-year term as Governor.

Friedland once said after his escapades and a stint in federal prison: ”I can’t tell you the nights that I lay awake just crying because I realize the opportunity I had to do so much good, and how I blew it.”

Back To The Future

So, the question remains just what is the hurry to secure the legislative leadership posts at this time? After all, there is the upcoming Primary election for Governor along with the legislature contests. You would think that would occupy most political efforts.

But, given the serious, if not nefarious, efforts to elect legislative leaders nearly 50 years ago, 2017 should or could have been just as dramatic.

Out of token respect for the process and the speed and fluidity of the current state of affairs, it’s more than likely that the contest for Assembly leadership will be decided the week after the Primary. So much for tradition!

It’s also more than likely that the banner democratic County of Essex will play the deciding role.

There is something to be said about locking things down though, lessons learned from times past. Essentially, that’s what Sweeney managed to do after his losing effort to secure the Democratic nomination for Governor.

Immediately following Phil Murphy’s successful efforts to fill the void left by Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop’s dropping out of the gubernatorial race, (with Fulop providing the haymaker by endorsing Murphy), Sweeney folded his would-be gubernatorial tent.

Sweeney then adroitly put on a full court press to renew his Senate Presidency. Like Melville wrote in Moby Dick: “Any port in the storm, scud to the wind.”

Smart move on his part. The persistent announcing of his growing list of supporters allowed him the perception that his renewed position was inevitable. Coughlin is using his playbook. Score one for South Jersey.

South Jersey Democrats, who vote as a solid block of 13 in the Assembly, now have in mind to depose current Speaker Prieto. It’s well known and widely reported that Prieto’s time as Speaker has been conspicuous for disagreements with Senate President Sweeney.

In simpler terms, Prieto has been known to say no to Sweeney’s political guru, South Jersey’s unelected power broker George Norcross who ironically was responsible for Prieto’s elevation to the post over then Speaker Sheila Oliver of Essex County.

Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald, another Norcross ally, once said: “ South Jersey’s strength is and always has been that we stick together.”  Give them credit for that.

Those are formidable fighting words especially if you consider that the stakes for South Jersey would include deciding the Presidency of the Senate with all its clout, the Speakership of the Assembly and the Assembly Majority Leader spot for Greenwald himself.

And, of course, there’s the prize of committee chairmanships.

And, after Coughlin says no to George Norcross more than once, and, if you prefer to play chess over checkers, liked the game of musical chairs as a kid and factor in the possibility of future vacancies, there’s always the inevitability of Speaker Greenwald.
No Fly In The Ointment

It must be odd for the Republican delegation to watch all these goings-on. With all the wrangling in the Democratic ranks, Republicans, after all, have 28 members in the General Assembly. That’s twice the size of the South Jersey voting block.

There is always the possibility, although quite remote, that the Republicans can have a say in who becomes Speaker. But, that would entail some original thinkers among that group. The other option is to sit on the sidelines.

Ironically, Prieto is a Hudson County leader who represents a mashed up version of how his legislative district looked in 1972. Maybe all they’re missing is a David Friedland.

In this Strindberg like drama, Chris Christie is in the role of William Cahill. If his personal history is in any way predictive, on the way out the door he’s likely to forestall any arrangements of power sharing in favor of his allies in the democratic ranks.

It might seem a stretch, but Chris Christie, by telling his GOP ranks to stand down, might be the ultimate decider of who takes charge of the next legislature.

As for Phil Murphy, the likeable, likely and odds-on favorite for Governor?

When he gets to Drumthwacket, he’ll have to decide on and plan for his priorities: Commerce, Education, and Transportation? We’ll see.

What he’ll have to hope for is that the Committee chairs in the legislature, the real prizes in this drama, will further his agenda.

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