The Race for the Red Cape: Murphy and Sweeney in a Claymation Death Match to Put Their Own Fingerprints on Pot

Insider NJ presents the week's winners and losers in New Jersey's political news during the week of the 2020 budget deadline.

The death of the adult recreational marijuana bill today simply delays the inevitable, according to most insiders. It’s going to get done, the only questions are how and by whom.

If they stalled at 18ish votes, how do they get to 21?

Governor Phil Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) are, of course, political rivals, a dynamic created in part by Murphy stymieing Sweeney’s 2017 shot at the governorship.

Since that fundamental political dynamic hasn’t changed, and pot is there to get done, the pair of Democrats will now undertake a more accelerated contest to bring senators to the table.

Sweeney in the end wants to be the hero who is able to say (presumably to Democratic Primary voters), “Look, this was all me. We gave the governor a shot to do this and he proved once again that, while he can dream of pie in the sky, I actually can made the sausage.

“Just as I did with marriage equality,” he might add.

But Murphy too, wants to get past Sweeney in their ongoing muddy steeplechase, with his own chest-first declaration of not only being the big vision guy with a Bobby Kennedy love affair, but a sharp-elbowed operator who can actually buttonhole lawmakers.

“We gave the legislature a chance to get this done, and Craig Coughlin, God love him for being the adult in the room, delivered, while Sweeney didn’t,” the governor might say. “Time for us to put on the blue Mel Gibson war paint and get this done.”


Dawn Addiego (D-8)

If someone can switch parties they can switch other things, too, like a vote on pot. Addiego was a Republican a few months ago.  Now she;s a Democrat. So her Shermanesque rejection of legalization should be interpreted as a yes. Both Sweeney and Murphy will work on being able to say at a cocktail party (or in a union hall), “I’m the guy who actually made the phone call to Senator Addiego,” but in the end this is Sweeney’s vote to stuff in his bi Santa Claus-sized sack. Addiego’s a South Jersey product. Plus, Senator Troy Singleton’s (D-7) already on board. Advantage: Sweeney.

Senator Nilsa Cruz-Perez

Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D-5)

She’s waiting there for the green light to go off so she can vote yes. Sure, she’s part of the South Jersey constellation and most of her other colleagues down there are opposed, but she’s in a bright blue district. If Sweeney needs a “D” vote in the event that Murphy starts ponying up support, he would probably be inclined to go to South Jersey comfort zone Camden. Advantage: Sweeney.


Jim Beach (D-6)

Unlike other South Jersey Democrats like Senator Robert Andrzejczak and Senator Fred Madden, Beach doesn’t occupy a Republican-leaning district. So he doesn’t have to worry about getting thumbed in the eye in a general election by Republicans as a consequence of his voting yes to legalize pot. He’s a little like Cruz-Perez here. He can vote yes if he gets the go signal from the boss. Advantage: Sweeney.

Declan O’Scanlon (R-13)

Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon of Monmouth County.

This was a Murphy play, evidently, and evidently he engaged a willing lawmaker. The governor got on the phone late with the Monmouth County-based Republican senator to talk pathway to 21. The always intellectually astute O’Scanlon says the policy needs to be fixed. It needs to break the back of the illegal black market. Also, the tax structure has to be constrained enough, “then you have to be completely transparent with [the money] to [help] reduce the state’s structural deficit, which is $4 billion. You have fully fund our 911 system,” O’Scanlon said. He wants direct property tax relief in the form of a senior freeze. Those things, and others, need to be in place in order for the senator to back the bill. He favors legalization – but only if he can exact those cost-saving elements he sees as necessary to improve the state’s financial condition. “If I didn’t believe there was some merit on policy [he wouldn’t even be in the consideration conversation].” He travelled to Colorado, and sent a staff member to Nevada. “I don’t believe it will destroy our society if this happens,” the senator told InsiderNJ.* It’s a very heavy lift. It would require a lot on Murphy’s side to extract O’Scanlon’s vote. Maybe too much. Maybe the governor’s willing, but it’s pricey.* (see editor’s note, below) Advantage: Murphy.



Dick Codey (D-27)


Dead set against it. has to protect Newark pal senator Ronald L. Rice (D-28). Sure, we get that. And it’s true. Codey needs Rice (not Murphy) for his Essex County politics. and Rice – who put up the decriminalization alternative to legalization) ain’t budging. But if Codey can cajole some prime LD28 resources out of Murphy, then present those to Rice, maybe the West Ward senator will green light Codey to help Murphy. Whatever irritation the former governor experienced over Murphy saddling Pete Cammarano with the Katie Brennan-Al Alvarez mess, he still despises South Jersey and would prefer to see Murphy (not Sweeney) own a big win. Advantage: Murphy.

Paul Sarlo (D-36)

Sweeney allies howled at the ham-handedness of the front office to actually turn the South Bergen

Sarlo, right, and Bollwage.

senator into a hard no vote on pot with their opposition to Sarlo’s prosecutor pick. But whatever the Reagan Democrat’s innate distaste for marijuana legalization, he can still be talked into support (with projects, patronage, money, etc) as he was when he once changed his no vote on marriage equality to yes. Sarlos in the catbird seat here, as he can entertain phone calls from both Sweeney and Murphy and be coy with both sides. Murphy has to be careful. Sarlo has never been a close chum of Bergen County Democratic Committee Chair Lou Stellato, who was one of the key chairs who backed Murphy over Sweeney in 2017. But Sarlo has said privately he doesn’t want to simply be handmaiden to derailing a Democratic governor. Advantage: Leans Sweeney.

Senator Robert Singer (R-30)

Robert Singer (R-30)

Like O’Scanlon, his name surfaced late in the game as Murphy tried to air out a couple of long balls. Was his name offered by a helpful former Gov. Tom Kean, Sr., or the friendly chip-in by former Senator Joe Kyrillos? Did Kean, Sr. tell junior to help the siting governor? We don’t know. We only know. All we know is Murphy worked Singer late. He apparently didn’t get there. But he tried (is trying). Advantage: Murphy.


Shirley Turner: Similar to Rice, she’d have to go through Codey. She’d be a Murphy get, but unlikely. Caucus watchers hummed today about a Turner bill worth $10 million in aid to the City of Trenton that the governor could veto as a tough guy sign of needing the veteran senator’s support on pot in the future.

Kip Bateman: The Republican’s usually a reliable Sweeney life line, but the prosecutor doesn’t like the bill. Neither do the cops he knows and works with in Somerset County.


*EDITOR’S NOTE: An original version of this story did not properly explain, and indeed mischaracterized Senator O’Scanlon’s reasons for entertaining support for marijuana legalization. I regret that error. – Max Pizarro


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