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In Battle of Atlantic City Titans, Is Prieto Big Enough to Prevail?

The speaker is in the ring with some serious heavyweights -- Christie, Sweeney, and George Norcross -- and this is a blood sport

carl golden
Carl Golden

Game on!

There was no undercard to whet the appetite or heighten anticipation. Rather, it went directly to the main event, five political heavyweights -- that’s a descriptive term for powerful, so, please, no snarky comments about Gov. Chris Christie’s physique -- standing toe to toe launching roundhouse rights at one another.

The immediate prize for the winners? Control of the administrative and fiscal functions of the Atlantic City government. The longer-term prize? A serious leg up in the Democratic Party gubernatorial primary next year.

It’s a three-on-two contest at the moment -- Christie, Senate President Steve Sweeney, and South Jersey political powerhouse George Norcross facing off against Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop.

Christie and Sweeney have been flinging darts at Prieto -- and he back at them -- for weeks now with increasing rancor over the speaker’s refusal to permit an Assembly vote on Sweeney’s legislation to implement a near-immediate takeover of the Atlantic City government.

Prieto has stubbornly resisted the Sweeney/Christie approach, insisting instead that his proposal to give city government a two-year timetable to restore stability to its spending and budget process is more reasonable and -- more important to him politically -- would prevent the state from breaking municipal employee-union contracts,

The speaker suffered no small measure of embarrassment, though, when he was forced to withdraw his bill from consideration when it became clear it lacked sufficient support. He’s scheduled a second vote for Wednesday.

What is most intriguing about the recent confrontation is Norcross’ emergence into a highly public role supporting Christie and Sweeney.

While his political clout is without question, Norcross has customarily remained aloof from the street fighting typified by the ongoing dispute over the state’s involvement in the future of Atlantic City.

His public comments vilifying Prieto and Fulop for standing in the way of rescuing Atlantic City from bankruptcy and causing potential financial damage to other struggling municipal governments were out of character for him. He’s generally preferred to remain in the background and avoid public rock throwing while continuing to offer advice and counsel in a more private setting.

An even greater departure from his usual practice was Norcross’ confirming that he and Bergen County Democratic chairman Lou Stellato had discussed taking the unprecedented step of deposing Prieto from the speaker’s position and replacing him with Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle (D-Bergen). George Norcross does not play small ball.

In all likelihood, he was aware that a coup aimed at Prieto was a non-starter and would have produced a devastating party bloodletting. But it was equally as likely that his willingness to engage in a public debate over the idea was a shot across the bow of the good ship Prieto, sending a clear and ominous message that the stakes had been raised to a new level.

Speculation has it that, aside from his belief that a bankrupt Atlantic City would deliver a serious blow to a region already reeling from a major economic decline, the motive behind Norcross’ involvement is laying down his marker that in the early maneuvering for next year’s gubernatorial campaign, South Jersey -- and he -- are forces to be reckoned with.

His position of prominence and his influence have been staples in South Jersey for years and, thanks to him, Democrats have enjoyed a great deal of success.

He’s concluded, the theory goes, that with an open governor’s seat in 2017, it is time to move decisively to extend his influence northward.

Facing down the Assembly speaker and, by association, potential gubernatorial candidate Fulop, and besting them in a high-profile, high-stakes political confrontation would enhance Norcross’ power and establish him as the preeminent broker in Democratic politics statewide.

If, as is widely assumed, Sweeney enters the gubernatorial primary, a newly empowered Norcross -- the Senate president’s longtime friend and political mentor -- standing at his side would be of enormous benefit.

While Prieto has stood resolutely by his position, there is a growing belief that he’s overplayed his hand and that his David is about to be squashed by Goliath. Fulop would be a collateral squashee.

While sincere in his conviction that public-employee rights must be protected, his continued insistence that Christie and Sweeney simply want to trample those rights is a calculated strategy to appeal to the party’s organized labor base, denying labor support to Sweeny and positioning Fulop as its defender.

Should he fail on Wednesday to secure passage of his Atlantic City rescue bill, Prieto will suffer a major weakening of his position and be forced to agree to a deal that will be more capitulation than compromise.

Despite his insistence that Christie already holds sufficient executive authority to effectively supplant Atlantic City government and that the governor, rather than the speaker, is the obstructionist, Prieto will receive the bulk of the blame and condemnation if the city defaults on its obligations and tumbles into bankruptcy.

His options are narrowing and, should his legislation fail to win approval on Wednesday, Prieto will be in a remarkably weak negotiating position, accepting a solution forced on him by Christie and Sweeney.

The entire episode is beyond the give-and-take stage when, at its conclusion, both sides can walk away and claim success. It is now at a victor and vanquished stage, where, when the dust settles and the fog of battle lifts, the fate of each is clear.

Throughout the weeks of acrimonious exchanges, Prieto has said repeatedly that he and the Assembly Democrats simply want to be assured of a seat at the table.

He’s in danger of learning a hard lesson: If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.

Carl Golden served as press secretary for Republican Gov. Thomas Kean for eight years and as communications director for Republican Gov. Christie Whitman for three years. He is currently a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

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