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Democrats Vow to Fight, But Who’s the Boss?

Sweeney and Oliver discount influence of Norcross and DiVincenzo as power brokers.

From left: Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester; Sheila Oliver (D-Essex); John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex); Lou Greenwald (D-Camden).

Buoyed by Election Day victories, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) yesterday vowed to stand up to Republican Gov. Chris Christie, but found themselves answering questions about whether they would be answering to South Jersey power broker George Norcross II and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo.

Two days after retaining 24-16 control of the Senate and gaining one seat for a 48-22 majority in the Assembly, Sweeney and Oliver pledged to push a Democratic agenda that would include job creation programs; higher taxes for millionaires; and healthcare, education and environmental initiatives.

They bristled when the first question asked at their joint press conference was why anyone should believe that the two Democratic leaders would stand up to Christie over the next two years, when Norcross and DiVincenzo – the powers behind their thrones – are good friends with the Republican governor and see eye-to-eye with him on the most controversial issues.

“I think you really demean the members of the legislature when you as the media continue to press that there are outside external influences that drive the agenda in these respective houses,” Oliver scolded the assembled media. “The members of both caucuses of the legislature are perfectly capable of identifying a legislative agenda, moving it through their respective chambers, and it has nothing to do with anyone and any external influence,”

“You give way too much credit to people who aren’t in the room,” Sweeney complained.

Despite Oliver’s and Sweeney’s protestations, it was Norcross and DiVincenzo who cut the deal two years ago to put Sweeney, Norcross’ childhood friend, and the unknown Oliver, who works for DiVincenzo as an administrator, into the two most powerful positions in the Legislature.

It was the Norcross-Sweeney duo in South Jersey and DiVincenzo-Oliver in Essex who provided the Democratic votes needed to team with Christie’s unanimous Republican voting bloc to pass a hotly contested bill that required public employees to pay more for their pensions and health benefits, and stripped public employees of the right to bargain on health care benefits for four years.

And when DiVincenzo couldn’t come up with enough votes out of Essex, it was Norcross who cut the key deal with powerful Sen. Nicholas Sacco (D-Hudson), under which Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) dropped his challenge to Oliver in exchange for the chairmanship of the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

The reason Oliver almost lost her speaker’s post was because she posted the controversial pension and health benefits bill against the wishes of a majority of the Assembly Democratic caucus last June. Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) and 12 other Assembly Democrats who had opposed Oliver’s reelection met with Oliver yesterday morning and extracted a promise from her not to post any bills that did not have the support of 41 of the 48 Assembly Democrats for passage, McKeon said. Just how ironclad that pledge is could be tested soon on a controversial issue like tenure reform.

Nevertheless, the leadership moves orchestrated by Norcross, DiVincenzo and Sacco in support of Sweeney and Oliver consolidated legislative power in the hands of the Democrats who worked most closely with Christie on the pension and healthcare bill – the “Christie-crats,” as they were dubbed by liberals and public employee union leaders.

As part of the Prieto deal, Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Cryan (D-Union), an opponent of the pension and healthcare bill who had been angling to replace Oliver for months, was ousted from his leadership post in favor of former Assembly Appropriations Committee Chairman Lou Greenwald (D-Camden). Greenwald’s elevation puts another Norcross protégé in line for Assembly speaker in case Sweeney runs for governor and the power brokers decide to have a North Jersey Democrat take his place.

The realignment also ousted Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) from her leadership post. Buono criticized Sweeney publicly over his sponsorship of the pension and healthcare bill and has been considering running for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2013. Buono’s demotion relegates her to the back bench -- a boost to Sweeney or whomever Norcross and DiVincenzo decide to back in 2013.

Buono’s demotion also knocks down a rival to state Democratic Party chairman and Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) in the Balkan politics of New Jersey’s second most populous county. Wisniewski, who signed on to the Oliver-Prieto deal soon after it was made, was rewarded with the post of deputy Assembly speaker, which puts him in an Assembly leadership troika with Oliver and Greenwald..

To take the sting out of Buono’s demotion for both women and liberals, Senator Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), the feisty liberal grandmother who ran as the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor with Gov. Jon Corzine in 2009, was chosen to replace Buono as Senate majority leader. Weinberg will provide a liberal voice in the caucus, but she is not considered a threat to anyone’s future gubernatorial or legislative leadership ambitions. Weinberg’s elevation was also a nod to the importance of Bergen County, the state’s most populous county and a bellwether in statewide elections; Senator Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) remains in leadership as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Christie praised the Democratic leadership realignment at a press conference yesterday, saying that “all the changes appear positive for them [Democrats] and for the state” -- referring the ouster of Buono and Cryan, two of his most vocal critics, from their leadership posts.

Praise from Christie is the last thing Democrats wanted to hear yesterday.

“We have gone through a tough two years,” Sweeney said. “A lot of tough decisions had to be made, not popular ones. They were made. We have had differences of opinion as Democrat. We listened to our colleagues and moved forward. We did reforms that had to be done. Now we have to focus on what has not been done by this administration -- the creation of jobs and fixing the economy. No one should think we will not be aggressive over the next few years in advancing a jobs package and helping the poor, the middle class and seniors attacked over the last two years by this administration.” Sweeney not only was quick to defend the pension and health benefits bill that split the Democratic caucus, but also to insist that Democrats should take credit for it. He noted that in 2007, he and Assemblymen Jerry Green (D-Union) and Paul Moriarty (D-Camden) “stood up and said, ‘We’ve got to fix the state.’”

Pension and health benefits reform “wasn’t the governor’s initiative, it was our initiative,” Sweeney said. “So when people start saying this was the governor’s position, let’s get that straight first. it was ours and we did it for the taxpayers of the state of New Jersey, and not for any reason . . . I am proud that the people of New Jersey now feel the State of New Jersey is on the right track. We’re going to fight with this governor when we know he’s wrong, but we’re not going to fight at the expense of the taxpayers.“

Oliver emphasized that New Jersey voters favored increasing state income taxes on millionaires and pledged that Democrats would pass the millionaire’s tax again -- even if Christie vetoes it again, as he promised to do yesterday. Sweeney concurred: “Two years of treating millionaires with kid gloves has not helped the economy in New Jersey.” Sweeney and Oliver pledged to work with the governor on tenure reform, but both said they had real problems with other parts of Christie’s education agenda. Oliver said New Jersey’s top ranking on fourth grade and eigth grade standardized test scores, on Advanced Placement exams, and in numbers of students going on to higher education prove that the state’s public education system is “not broken.” She added that there needs to be more emphasis on addressing the socioeconomic problems that hold back schoolchildren in the poorest cities.

If Sweeney and Oliver do go head-to-head with Christie on major policy issues, they will be able to keep the solid majority support they enjoy in their respective caucuses today. But if they are seen as compromising too readily – or, even worse, compromising at the behest of Norcross and DiVincenzo, they will quickly face new challenges from Cryan, Buono and other former Democratic legislative leaders they have relegated to the back bench.

“Majority leader is a position that demands concessions be made -- concessions I am unwilling to make when I do not believe that they are right for the state and this party,” Buono said yesterday in a letter to Sweeney declining an offer to serve as a co-majority leader with Weinberg.

“Tuesday’s legislative elections underscore the reality that the people of New Jersey demand a check on the Governor. I am proud to serve as an independent voice defending our core Democratic principles. I thank you for your trust and friendship in bestowing on me the honor of breaking an historical glass ceiling,” she wrote, then closed with a veiled threat: “And I look forward to breaking many more.”

Mark J. Magyar teaches labor studies at Rutgers University and is a frequent contributor to New Jersey Spotlight. A veteran Statehouse reporter, he served as deputy policy chief in the Whitman administration and as policy director for the independent Daggett for Governor campaign in 2009.

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