It didn’t have to be this way.
Forget the titles for a second. For a moment, leave the Confederate and Union uniforms folded in the drawer. Don’t think about the respective rat packs they hail from, or the bosses who back them, or the people around them whispering in their ears. When one examines Steve Sweeney and Vincent Prieto in isolation, they don’t look far apart. They are obviously physical guys. Sweeney was a weightlifter and ironworker. Prieto was a bodybuilder and code enforcement official. Whatever wild streak existed in youth found formation in the essence of political organization – and daughters whom they love. They both found a home in the Democratic Party. In a cruel business, each had to weather the meathead tag. You could picture them both in a truck stop bar somewhere over a pool table, maybe with a heavy metal song by Black Sabbath in the background. But maybe precisely because of that easy blue collar association, they overcompensated on the intellectual rigors of the game. Don’t make the mistake of telling Prieto you’ll give him the score on state budget figures, or of trying to let Sweeney know about a policy fine point. Each of them fiercely guards his expertise, lest someone with a fancy college degree attempt to educate – and run straight into a right hand.
They truly have so much in common, and yet, they don’t like each other.
It goes deeper than that, in fact.
They probably hate each other.
No one can pinpoint exactly when the hair rose on the backs of each of their necks and never again stayed down when the other was around, but it was early. Prieto’s been there as speaker since 2014, and what was supposed to be the arrival of a guy who could work with Sweeney and Governor Chris Christie quickly turned into a two against one situation, not unlike the leadership dynamic that existed when Sheila Oliver served as speaker prior to Prieto.
Prieto bucked Sweeney and Christie on Atlantic City takeover.
He bucked them on North Jersey casinos.
He refused to rubber stamp their budget priorities, insisting on those additions or deductions of the assembly.
Sweeney allies say they tired quickly of promises about a corralled caucus, which turned more often that not into evidence of a lower house circus. Prieto allies say Sweeney has no respect for the assembly and simply wants a rubber stamp. Sweeney allies say Prieto doesn’t know his caucus. Prieto allies say the speaker has restored the relevance of the assembly.
It’s North versus South, of course, too, which exposes all the worst harbored regional hurts, affections and chest thumping of macho New Jerseyans. The public sector unions also found a ready ally in Prieto, as they fidgeted with longstanding ill will toward Christie, going back to the senate president’s work with Christie on pension and benefits overhauls.
Building Trades guys broke with Sweeney. NJEA and CWA loyal members embraced Prieto.
Then there’s the George Norcross III fear factor.
Every time Prieto appears close to having a committed caucus on his side, South Jersey coheres with whichever up-north county it can find, be it Middlesex or Essex, and undercuts him. The speaker then has to hear Sweeney complain about how he doesn’t control his caucus – whjen it’s precisely Norcross – Sweeney’s chief South Jersey ally – mangling the game plan. It’s truly irritating. But Sweeney’s minders also say Prieto’s troop of operatives don’t exactly radiate prime time vibes. It’s ugly, as ugly as it gets, with at least two sources even going so far as to describe racial and ethnic overtones to the men’s disaffection. Sweeney thinks Prieto’s a liar Prieto, one source said, without understanding the consequences of calling a Cuban a liar.
Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop – a Prieto ally – fueled senate-assembly tensions all last year in his bitter north v. south showdown with Sweeney for governor, which ended when both men tapped out to former U.S. ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy. Fulop could re-entrench in Jersey City in the aftermath. Prieto was stuck in Trenton with Sweeney.
In short, it all adds up to “genuine animosity,” in the words of another source.
And now, as Sweeney prepares for another tour of duty as senate president, with the first domino in his favor dropping just this week when longtime North Jersey ally state Senator Brian P. Stack (D-33) backed him, Prieto looks to be getting ready for what may be the last defining fight of his tenure as speaker.
Specifically schools funding.
Primarily irritated by the way urban Abbott School districts siphon 70% of all state aid, Christie in his budget address earlier this year said he wants the legislature to reform the formula by which the state parcels out money to school system. Routinely sitting in the vicinity of 20% job approval rating now, Christie appears to be limping into the sunset of his second term, dragging the combined clanking ignominy of Bridgegate, his vindictive put-downs of other people, a failed presidential bid, and a Republican Party in tatters. A win on education – and particularly a win on schools funding, which gobbles up the lion’s share of people’s property taxes, would arguably push the boulder off a Christie legacy that right now looks heavy on personal ambition and light on the common good, by the reckoning of most insiders. A source this week told InsiderNJ that Christie looks prepared not to dig in his heels this time, and to accept anything that at least moves the schools funding issue toward more equity.
In the immediate aftermath of his address, Prieto expressed skepticism. Sure, the legislature can tweak the formula, but it’s constitutionally just as it stands. That’s not to say he wouldn’t make adjustments.
The two sides will deny it, as they spell out their commitment to “overall fairness,” which in Sweeney parlance translates as deep concern for the Abbott schools, as Prieto talks with deep concern about suburban districts, while sources confess to schools in Sweeney’s district getting screwed under the current formula, while Prieto – a Hudson County power player – obviously seeks safeguarding Abbotts like Hoboken and Jersey City. In essence, one source said, Prieto doesn’t want change, and Sweeney wants incremental change.
Needless to say, both sides are being very cautious about specifics right now, but Sweeney as a consequence of the district he lives in and based on his past wars with the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) appears better suited for a final compromise that would alter the exact allocation to Abbotts right now. His allies make clear that he wants full funding, which could end up meaning more money in the end for the Abbotts.
In any event, his plan hinges on a commission of education experts, which Prieto people fear would minimize the role of the legislature, and specifically the role of the assembly, which has been one of Prieto’s longstanding beefs with the senate president anyway.
Whether it’s Prieto’s last stand, Christie’s road to something resembling redemption, Sweeney’s trumpet blast of power heading into the next stage of his career, or a combination of these, at the ongoing heart of it stands Sweeney versus Prieto.