ZERO HOUR: Prieto Attempts to Punch Through South Jersey’s and Middlesex’s Invincibility Atmosphere

Even if he loses amid South Jersey jeers about how he can’t count and the toxicity of the cronies stuck to him, Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-32) win or lose come Tuesday will be remembered as a speaker who got to the dance on a deal, received the heave ho, and instead of simply bowing out, went down brawling, attempting to dynamite his way through new passageways that had at best before looked like dead ends and impassable walls.

Dems eager to help Prieto turn back an intra-caucus challenge by Assemblyman Craig Coughlin (D-19) by supplying the speaker with two additional assembly seats think they have Republican incumbents on the run in LD39. The strategy has somewhat irritated Democrats in LD38, who feel a closer-than-expected race in the swing district. But that irritation fails to equal the angst expressed by at least one of those Republican incumbents.

A parlor room side show in the larger statewide leadership context?

Maybe.

But don’t tell that to the speaker.

A stout ally of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) who was one of the four Northern County party chairs who originally backed Phil Murphy for Governor, Prieto has enlisted the aid of top operative Mark Matzen in an effort to build majority toward retaining the speakership and, presumably, giving Democrat Phil Murphy an arm of the legislature not overseen by powerful South Jersey Democrat George Norcross III.

Not that Murphy ever asked for that, but given the fracture at the heart of the party between public and private sector unions and the messaging divergences, at the very least, of Murphy and South Jersey, that’s the larger argument Prieto’s allies make when prodded to explain how the effort equals something more than the speaker’s own foolish pride.

A Secaucus foot soldier, Prieto fell out of favor with South Jersey during wrangles over North Jersey casinos, the state takeover of Atlantic City and the Horizon bill, among other collisions, and now – after two two-year terms on the throne – wants to hold on and remain speaker despite the fact that the South cut the deal with Middlesex and Coughlin to replace him.

The South and Middlesex make the case that the sitting speaker is leg-ironed by some hard numbers that make it impossible or nearly impossible for him to retain the speakership. They’re partly right. It’s nearly impossible. But not impossible.

There are 80 seats total in the Assembly; 52 of them Democratic and 28 Republican. A caucus-only leadership fight requires 27 votes for the win, which the South and Middlesex claim to have more than achieved.

These 28 names of those in the Democratic caucus (or who are projected to be in the caucus oat reorganization) who support Coughlin are as follows: Bob Andrzejczak (D-1), Arthur Barclay (D-5), Daniel R. Benson (D- 14), John J. Burzichelli (D-3), Herb Conaway Jr. M.D. (D-7), Craig J. Coughlin (D-19), Joseph Danielsen (D-17), Wayne P. DeAngelo (D-14), Joann Downey (D-11), Joseph V. Egan (D-17), Jerry Green (D-22), Louis D. Greenwald (D-6), Eric Houghtaling (D-11)
Gordon M. Johnson (D-37), Patricia Egan Jones (D-5), Rob Karabinchak (D-18), James Kennedy (D-22)
Pamela R. Lampitt (D-6), R. Bruce Land (D-1), Yvonne Lopez (D-19)*, Vincent Mazzeo (D-2), Paul D. Moriarty (D-4), Gabriela Mosquera (D-4), Carol Murphy (D-7)*, Nancy Pinkin (D-18), Annette Quijano (D-20), Adam Taliaferro (D-3), and Andrew Zwicker (D-16).

Now these Democrats under the strategic campaign leadership of former DACC Chief Mike Muller are confident that they have an edge to return swing district occupants Mazzeo, Houghtaling, Downey and Zwicker to the assembly. Of those four, sources say Zwicker at this moment is the most vulnerable in the count down to Tuesday’s election, even as Republicans hit him this weekend with a new round of Princeton-centric mail. If Zwicker loses but everyone else wins, and the Democrats pull Mazzeo’s running mate to victory in LD2, Coughlin will have lost nothing. But for argument’s sake, what if Zwicker loses, and Downey and Houghtaling lose in LD11? That drops the Middlesex lawmaker (even with a double win in LD2) to 26 and below the required mark.

Middlesex and Coughlin have that contingency covered, they can argue, pointing to their newfound alliance with Essex County. Middlesex County Democratic Committee Chairman dutifully showed up at Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman Leroy Jones’ fundraiser last month, and Jones returned the favor a day later by attending McCabe’s soiree.

Appearing to put the speaker’s contest out of reach earlier this fall, Jones issued a release noting the members of his county’s delegation on board with Coughlin for speaker. Even if Zwicker, Houghtaling and Downey lose, and if Mazzeo’s running mate loses, Essex County’s Mila Jasey (D-27), John McKeon (D-27), Ralph Caputo (D-28), Cleo Tucker (D-28), Eliana Pintor Marin (D-29), LD29 candidate Shanique Speight, and Tom Giblin (D-34) all add up to deal Prieto a mortal political wound.  That’s 31 votes, plus three if Zwicker, Houghtaling and Downey all win, and plus win if Mazzeo’s running win.

Then there’s 32, in the event that Essex scrambles to replace Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver (D-34) – the Democratic Party’s candidate for Lieutenant Governor – with Chairman Jones’ choice, who will obviously vote for Coughlin. Whatever happens in LD39 at the point would appear to be moot, and yet, sources in Essex say Caputo and Tucker never agreed to back Coughlin, although their names appeared on a list.

So let’s say Zwicker, Houghtaling and Downey (all Coughlin backers) lose; and Jannie Chung and Annie Hausmann (backed by Prieto) defeat LD39 incumbents Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi and Assemblyman Bob Auth. Might that propel Caputo and Tucker to stick with Prieto and buck Essex? Again, the question is irrelevant, because Coughlin is still at a hard 30, and a hard 31 if Jones installs Oliver’s replacement and 32 if South Jersey picks up that second assembly seat.

So what if Prieto is able to bump off incumbent Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll and Assemblyman Tony Bucco in LD25 and install his replacements, who are running with his brand?

That would give him, for argument’s sake:

Reed Gusciora (D-15), Liz Muoio (D-15), Annette Quijano (D-20), Jamel Holley (D-20), Jim Kennedy (D-22), Jerry Green (D-22), Richard Corcoran (D-25), Tom Moran (D-25), Nick Chiaravalotti (D-31), Angela McKnight (D-31), Angela Jimenez (D-32), Prieto (D-32), Raj Mukherji (D-33), Annette Chaparro (D-33), Benjie Wimberly (D-35), Shavonda Sumter (D-35), Gary Schaer (D-36), Marlene Caride (D-36), Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37), Joe Lagana (D-38), Tim Eustace (D-38), Jannie Chung (D-39), Annie Hausmann (D-39). Add in Caputo and Tucker and he’s still short at 25. What if Giblin jumps, and state Senator Dick Codey (D-27) chips in McKeon and Jasey?

Then he gets there.

But it’s difficult to see all those people holding for Prieto. For starters, Mukherji and Chaparro in circumstances like this do Stack’s bidding, and Stack has already signaled that he’s strongly with South Jersey. The deal to make Coughlin speaker also restores Steve Sweeney to the senate presidency. If either of them disagrees, they can ask former Assemblyman Ruben Ramos what happens when an assemblyperson bucks Stack. They’re holding with Prieto now, but if a caucus fistfight develops and South Jersey and Sweeney tell Stack to protect the deal by giving Coughlin two additional votes, he’ll do it, and they’ll do it. Then there’s Union. They’ve kept out of the drama for now, but Green has ties to the South and for that matter, so does Union County Sheriff Joe Cryan (who will be the senator-elect representing the 20th District on the other side of Election Day). Cryan has already announced his support for Sweeney as senate president. He’s close to Middlesex and McCabe. Again, when it comes down to it, he’ll send Quijano into Coughlin’s arms as painful as it will be for her to renounce Prieto. As for Kennedy, if Sweeney tells Scutari he’s looking in another direction for the Senate Judiciary chairmanship, the Senator from Linden will tell Kennedy to back Coughlin.*

Perhaps the argument could be made – if it means retaining the speakership for an Coughlin-South-Middlesex alternative – for someone other than Prieto.

Wimberly?

Caputo?

Huttle?

Schaer?

Remember, those Democrats who didn’t appear on the Coughlin lists haven’t endorsed Prieto. They just didn’t back Coughlin.

Again, there’s too much history of the South going up and plucking people, and in this case, controlling those senators through politics who could pluck people, and too much northern fracture, to consider this playing out for Prieto or an alternative.

Now, of course, this entire scenario could change if the Republicans engage, but again, the leveraging mechanisms to control those caucus members – if the Dems get deadlocked in the worst of all possible election outcomes for the South and Middlesex – appear to favor the more institutionally welded South.

But what if LD18 proves a sleeper, and Republicans – always in the hunt there in the suburban stronghold – come out of nowhere and defeat incumbents Nancy Pinkin (D-18) and Robert Karabinchak (D-18)? Word on the street is Middlesex overall is tighter than McCabe wants it to be. Remember, Chris Christie defeated Jon Corzine in Middlesex by four points in 2013, and Murphy’s message as a suburban plan of action has appeared to flounder in the face of Republican Kim Guadagno’s constant barrage of reminding voters that Murphy will raise their taxes. But if LD18 is tight, that means LD38, in many ways a similar suburban district, is tight; and Prieto could lose allies Lagana and Eustace even as Coughlin loses Pinkin and Karabinchak.

Most insiders don’t entertain those scenarios, seeing a low-turnout, lackluster and sleepy election come Tuesday, with few surprises.

But whatever happens, Prieto refused to give up when the southern powers told him it was over, and even as they cackled about his counting prowess, refused to see their numbers as hard. If the status quo prevails and he fails, he can always reassure himself with the example of that other discarded northern speaker coming back for a second act whenever he looks at Lieutenant Governor Oliver, the speaker he replaced as part of the deal struck between Hudson and the South, who herself ran a kamikaze senate campaign in an effort to remain in the statewide political bloodstream, not dissimilar from Prieto’s last, stacked against the odds stand.

* Kennedy, Green and Quijano have already come out for Coughlin, a kind reader notes, putting Prieto’s operations farther out of reach.

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