Welcome to Primary Season: Prieto Versus Coughlin for the Speakership


There’s a statewide race for governor out there in 12 days and Democrats instead are focused on the subterranean passages, cloakrooms and connecting stairwells of the statehouse and who among them will walk those areas as undisputed lower house leader.

Less than 24 hours in, the speaker’s war continues in the Democratic Party, with an overriding intra-party irritability abounding now in the aftermath of Speaker Vincent Prieto’s (D-32) irritated response to Assemblyman Craig Coughlin’s (D-19) challenge. Coughlin and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) allies are crying foul – on the condition of anonymity – over Prieto and state Senator Nick Sacco’s (D-32) war-time footing and strategic moves to counter Coughlin.

Sacco and company are telling them to suck it up, compounding matters.

Although now he’s saying Craig’s List is meaningless, the Hudson senator, a source said, played footsie with Middlesex last year in an attempt to save Prieto’s speakership. The powerful North Jersey senator tried to pull Middlesex northward with an offer of the senate presidency to state Senator Joe Vitale (D-19), according to the source.

A backer of Senate President Dick Codey (D-27) when Sweeney’s challenged and deposed Codey in 2009, Vitale still sported scars from past collisions with South Jersey that Sacco noted in trying to deal-make with his caucus friend. Dump Coughlin for Prieto and Sweeney for Vitale, was the gist of the conversation. Middlesex didn’t bite, and instead cut the deal with South Jersey to empower Sweeney and Coughlin. One source said it was hypocritical for Sacco to say the Coughlin deal is meaningless because it’s early, when Sacco was button-holing people all the way back to the days to the demise of Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop’s gubernatorial candidacy.

Then there’s the Prieto-Sacco push back against the names of lawmakers who occupy swing districts. Coughlin presented a list of 28 names, but if Andrew Zwicker, Vince Mazzeo, Eric Houghtaling and Joann Downey all lose, he’s under water. Of course, the Woodbridge assemblyman’s allies make the case that a number of other lawmakers are wobbling in his direction. But let’s say they don’t move and four out of those five swing district assembly people lose, Coughlin’s speaker candidacy would be imperiled. One source said he was hearing the distress of people who are digesting the comments from Prieto’s camp as indication that he’s rooting for electoral loses in his own caucus.

The speaker’s allies note, however, that it’s Prieto urging Democrats to focus on getting Phil Murphy elected governor on June 6th, and cite the inopportune and self-serving timing of past South Jersey leadership shenanigans, including Sweeney’s run at Codey, for example, as Democratic Governor Jon Corzine tried to win re-election against Republican Chris Christie with days left in the contest. To be fair, South Jersey sources retaliate by noting that Prieto was advancing his own cause behind the scenes in 2013 as Democratic candidate Barbara Buono unraveled.

There’s bitterness on both sides.

A third source cited another objection, pointing out that the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), which backs Prieto’s school funding plan and detests Sweeney, is trying to pick off Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-31) – a charter school backer – in his home county, where he serves as the county Democratic chairman. The organization goes after one of the county chair’s own and he doesn’t say a word, the source pointed out incredulously.

It’s volatile.


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