Craig Coughlin is poised to become the third most powerful legislator in New Jersey come January. But aside from ending the State House drama between Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, not much is known about the low-profile legislator.
Democrats voted Monday to replace Prieto with Coughlin (D-Middlesex) as Assembly Speaker after immense pressure for Prieto to drop his bid for re-election. Prieto’s eight years as speaker were marked by tense battles with fellow Democrat Sweeney and the Senate over issues including, the , , , and .
Prieto was a firebrand legislator — consistently fighting not just with Sweeney but also with Gov. Chris Christie. Sweeney’s ire was often driven by the fact that Prieto would oppose him on deals he cut with the governor in order to get Christie’s agreement to sign legislation. Coughlin has presented himself as a more flexible and process-oriented Democrat.
Coughlin’s selection was pushed by county bosses, as a more mild-mannered alternative to Prieto who consistently became the fly in the ointment when it came to getting Democratic proposals through. The constant pushback angered not just Sweeney, but other members of the Senate, as well as powerful South Jersey political boss George Norcross. Coughlin also hails from Middlesex County, which makes him a strong choice for the north Jersey county chairmen and balances out Sweeney’s South Jersey credentials.
Coughlin was elected to the chamber in 2009 and was re-elected to a new term in 2017 without much fanfare. He currently acts as parliamentarian and serves on the Commerce and Economic Development committee, the Labor committee and chairs the Financial Institution and Insurance committee.
At a press conference at the State House shortly after the vote Monday, appearing alongside Shavonda Sumter (D-Paterson), Lou Greenwald (D-Vorhees), and Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Newark), Coughlin emphasized his dedication to procedure and discussion.
“I think that I’m going to try and be a consensus builder,” Coughlin said. “I’m going to be someone who works to make sure that everyone gets to have their voice heard and to unify the caucus around a common commitment to the working-class people of New Jersey.”
Coughlin said there were several issues that “fell prey to Christie’s pen” that he hopes to address as speaker including wage equality, “sane” gun control, and paid sick leave.
Coughlin announced that one of his first acts as speaker will be to create a standing committee in the next term called the science technology and information committee that he said “will create legislation designed to put NJ at the forefront of emerging industries.”
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said he thinks Coughlin could offer a “fresh look from the Legislature.” He said the most interesting thing to watch as Coughlin is sworn in will be his dynamics with Gov.-elect Phil Murphy and Sweeney.
In the last election, Democrats picked up two seats in the Assembly bringing their total to 54 of 80 seats and establishing their largest majority since the late 1970’s. With Democrats holding a firm lock on the Legislature and occupying the three most powerful seats in state government, Murray said it’s more than likely that two will develop a stronger relationship than the third. The question is who they will be.
“The relationship between (Prieto) and Sweeney was the biggest drama in the State House for a while,” Murray said. “So that's what we'll be paying the most attention to.”
Murray noted that not much is known about Coughlin’s policy intentions but the new speaker did offer some nuggets.
Coughlin did not make any outright commitments on one of Murphy’s most talked-about policy areas: marijuana legalization. “I have not indicated whether I favor that or not,” he said.
However, looking back on his voting record, Coughlin voted “yea” on three key marijuana bills over the years: A-457 authorizing medical marijuana treatment for PTSD (signed into law in September 2016), S-2842 authorizing medical marijuana for minors (conditionally vetoed by Christie), and A-1465 legalizing small amounts of marijuana (died in committee).
“We’re going to sit down as a caucus and put together a leadership team that reflects the diversity of this state and we’re going to dig into whether that makes sense and how it makes sense,” Coughlin said of legalization efforts. “Even if we’re going to do it, I want to make sure that the bill that we have is the right bill.”
Murray said as it stands, recreational legalization is in a pretty good position to pass — Dems can lose 13 votes in the Assembly and still move a bill forward — but it will be interesting to see what Coughlin is looking for in the negotiations.
Coughlin also made a point to underline his commitment to bringing a discussion about gun control in the wake of the Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs shootings. Coughlin said he would be in favor of opening the discussion on tightening gun laws with magazine limits, and has voted for the statewide firearm buyback program and expanding background checks in the past.
“We respect the Second Amendment, but there are things that we ought to put in place to make it more difficult [and to] avoid things that we’ve seen in Las Vegas and other places,” Coughlin said.
Overall, Coughlin is fashioning himself in stark contrast to Prieto as a Democrat willing to work with Sweeney as well as with Murphy.
“From north to south, east and west, I am honored to be part of such a terrific team,” Coughlin said. “Our state faces some real challenges and we need to work together with Gov.-elect Murphy and Senate President Sweeney to put our fiscal house in order.”