“The guy that complains about the way the
ball bounces is usually the one that dropped the ball.”
-Legendary Notre Dame Football Coach Lou Holtz
This week’s big pronouncement was that Assemblyman Craig Coughlin (D-19) of Middlesex County had finally planted his flag on the high ground in his quest to become Speaker of the New Jersey General Assembly.
The only thing missing, fiddle and all, was an orchestrated version of the Limerick’s Lamentation. It’s a 17th century Irish folk ballad that was hauntingly used for the film score in the Coen Brothers’ gangster classic Miller’s Crossing.
The artistic merits of the 1990 film are solid and, most intriguingly, the film depicts a world of power struggles where “nothing is what it seems to be.” So, for comparison sake, that’s good enough for me. It’s just like New Jersey politics.
Miller’s Crossing was custom made for those who love characters, especially ones who switch sides. And, we certainly have an abundance of those.
So, to set the stage for the leadership dust-up in New Jersey, there is a wonderful scene in the film where the central character Tom Reagan (played by Gabriel Byrne) gives his then Irish boss this simple advice:
…“You run it (this town) because people think you run it.
When they stop thinking it, you stop running it.”
The film’s character Tom Reagan could have been talking to current Assembly Speaker Vinnie Prieto or
perhaps even George Norcross but I surmise Norcross better understands the implications of the advice.
Even so, the plot lines here in New Jersey are oftentimes better than going to the movies.
In an attempt to be successful, Assemblyman Coughlin needed to take a page from State Senator Steve Sweeney’s playbook and make his determination to be Speaker look to be inevitable. As of this week, that’s essentially what he’s done.
Announce a list of 35 supporters for a 52-member caucus vote that won’t even take place for another two months. There’s your inevitability and South Jersey gets to write the lesson plan.
But there’s more to this script than what appears to be emblazoned on the victory flag. It’s not just who has the votes, or who is counting the votes or even who is actually announcing the results.
There’s seems a breach in protocol, a hurried reason to call the fight before the opening bell. And, in a gubernatorial year, this bout should have been the under card.
It’s as if the aligned forces need to get to training camp for a fight that takes place sometime later.
It may have all started with Phil Murphy’s decision to accept public financing. It was the prudent decision for him but it was like throwing a large stone in a murky swamp and then watching the ripples in the once calm water.
Republicans were ready to pounce on Murphy if, like Jon Corzine, he was willing to spend his considerable fortune to self-finance. That (almost) worked for Bob Franks against Corzine in the 2000 race for the U.S. Senate.
Ironically, some Democrats actually wanted Murphy to be just like Corzine and spend his money to finance their races. But, Murphy acted judiciously.
In a more transactional way, he selected the very accomplished Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver as his Lt. Governor (running mate) from the weighty and vote rich democratic bastion of Essex County.
It was a shrewd move and a sure-fire way of pumping up his November vote. With self-imposed spending limits, it was a clever way to go.
But, much like the surprise announcement by Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop that he was ending his never-formally-announced bid for the gubernatorial nomination that opened a path for Murphy, public financing created a vacuum.
The question of how the 2017 legislative races were to be financed with Murphy taking public matching funds left a big hole in the program.
Recall the fanfare surrounding the fund-raiser held in South Jersey where Alec Baldwin appeared courtesy of George Norcross and the attending boasts of having raised more than a million dollars, ostensibly to be used for helping democrats in the upcoming legislative battles.
Those running for election will be counting on funds from somewhere. Promises of support can go a long way toward building coalitions. Score another one for South Jersey whose support for Craig Coughlin was always intact.
And, then score one for the young and experienced Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Kevin McCabe who had the resolve and foresight to put it all together.
Yet, it was the announcement by Essex County Democrats this week that seemed to surprise many but then again, maybe not.
Vinnie Prieto’s appointment of his own confidant, Joey Muniz, to the Horizon Board might very well have been a key factor in what seems his fumbling away of the speakership. It was like giving someone a kiss on your way out the door.
It’s a lucrative appointment, the Speaker’s choice, and perhaps awarding it to someone outside his personal ranks might have been a more effective way for him to build or, at least, fortify his own coalition, especially when you’re desperately looking for allies.
Following the announcement of Essex support for Coughlin, Prieto’s decision to challenge Essex County Democratic Chairman Leroy Jones’ consensus taking of the Essex legislative delegation was another mistake.
So now, if you give the Essex troops a choice between their Chairman and that of Hudson County’s it’s a forgone conclusion.
Besides, Jones, known for his quiet and resolute demeanor, is well respected as a man of his word both inside and outside of Essex County. There was absolutely no reason to contest that.
And, yet, it’s just another entry in the South Jersey playbook when counties like Essex and Hudson mostly bicker instead of band together.
But, before the final credits roll for this movie-like script, there remain some unanswered questions:
- How do the roles of minority and gender balance factor in and play out in this so-called re-organization of Assembly leadership?
- If the theme is one of “rotation”, which has merit, why isn’t the post of Assembly Majority Leader being rotated, too?
Finally, there is one near-end scene in Miller’s Crossing that stands out as it relates to this New Jersey legislative drama. Once again the central character Tom Reagan is set to eliminate one of his foes.
“You don’t have to kill me, look in your heart,” the soon to be victim pleads.
To which the shooter replies: