An Old-Fashioned Horse Race to See Who Will Be Next Assembly Speaker

Colleen O'Dea | May 25, 2017 | Elections 2017
Relative unknown Craig Coughlin says he already has the political backing to take the speakership from Vincent Prieto — two weeks before the primaries

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin
Jockeying for the post of the next state Assembly speaker — for the legislative session that begins January 2018 — has already started in earnest. This despite the fact that members face not just a general election in November but — in some cases — contests in the primary in less than two weeks. Regardless of the calendar, it looks like the post may go to a little-known Democrat from Middlesex County who may be friendlier to the agenda of the president of the Senate, Steve Sweeney.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) already appears to be facing a credible challenge from Assemblyman Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) for the third-highest position of power in the state. And just as he was behind bringing Prieto to power three years ago, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and his ally, the powerful South Jersey political boss George Norcross, are among those working to make Coughlin the speaker.

Issuing a challenge

Coughlin, a lawyer first elected to the Assembly in 2010, released a statement yesterday declaring he would be challenging Prieto for the speaker’s post and listing the names of 26 legislators and two candidates expected to win in November who are backing him. That would be enough support to win the position should the Assembly keep a 52-member complement after the general election.

“I am truly humbled by the support, encouragement and commitment that so many of my colleagues have openly displayed over the last few months since I have undertaken this journey,” said Coughlin in the statement.

In his own statement, Prieto noted that Coughlin’s announcement is premature until the outcomes of the elections for all 80 seats are decided.

“As we all know, the entire Assembly will also be on the ballot soon and the current Democratic caucus will be different from the one that will be deciding on leadership in January,” he said. “Until the voters make their decision and we know who will have the privilege of serving in the Assembly, an announcement of this type is premature.”

An unprecedented battle

Several politicians and political observers said a public battle for the speakership this early in the year is virtually unprecedented. Usually, these fights take place in the fall, at least after the primary. But it has been proceeding behind the scenes for quite some time.

“At this time I believe our party should be focused on helping Phil Murphy secure the Democratic nomination and ultimately become our next governor by winning in November, not on an internal leadership decision,” said Prieto.

Coughlin supporters said Prieto instigated a public battle when he announced last Friday his plans to seek another term as speaker. In his announcement, Prieto said he was confident he had enough support to retain that position and said was proud to have re-established the Assembly as a political force in Trenton.

That was a reference to Prieto’s putting forth his own proposals and standing up to the Senate president, rather than simply acceding to his wishes.

More competition than cooperation?

According to sources, Sweeney has been frustrated by Prieto’s actions to push his own legislation separately, rather than hammering out compromises with the Senate leader. The two have had competing bills to bail out Atlantic City — Sweeney’s won — reform the school-funding formula, and, most recently, expand paid family leave in the state.

Matthew Hale, a professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University, said that given Coughlin’s long list of supporters, he was surprised Prieto would have announced his candidacy for speaker.

“Maybe it was a desperate plea by Prieto to shake something loose,” he said. “But it’s not the first time he has done that. He regularly seems to throw stuff out without having the votes.”

Stabbing Sweeney in the back

Hale said it is not surprising that Sweeney would be cutting deals to get a different speaker, given Prieto has “back-stabbed” the Senate president several times.

“It is a tangled web we weave in New Jersey. Welcome to the North-South divide,” Hale said.

Sweeney, who has been in the Senate for 15 years and has been president of the upper house for the past seven, has also been running to retain his presidency before any votes are cast. His super PAC “New Jerseyans for a Better Tomorrow” has been touting Sweeney’s record, announcing endorsements, and talking up his plan to change the state’s school-funding formula. This is despite facing no primary opposition and being expected to win re-election in the blue district. The union leader, who surprised many when he decided not to run for governor, has made clear his plan to remain in the number two spot in Trenton.

He rose to lead the Senate, unseating then senate president and 14-month Gov. Richard Codey of Essex County, in 2010 as part of an arrangement to split the control of the houses between north and South Jersey Democrats. Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver of Essex County became speaker that year and served until 2014, when, in another power-sharing arrangement, Sweeney and Norcross helped replace Oliver with Prieto.

Extending the terms

A change in the leadership in both houses at this point would be expected. For roughly the first 35 years after the adoption of the current constitution in 1947, the Assembly and Senate leaders served for one year only. The length of those terms began growing longer during the 1970s and 1980s, with two or three years becoming more common. Two Republicans further extended those terms in the 1990s: Sen. Donald DiFrancesco of Union County spent a decade as president of the upper house, as well as a year as governor after Christie Whitman resigned to become head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, while Assemblyman Jack Collins was speaker, from 1996 to 2002.

The last two speakers each served four-year terms. Sweeney’s seven-year term could wind up being the longest under the current constitution if he is re-elected, chosen again as leader and serves in that position throughout another four-year Senate term.

At the time he won the speakership of the Assembly, Prieto was chair of the Assembly Budget Committee, a powerful position. Coughlin, an attorney first elected in 2010, chairs the Financial Institutions and Insurance Committee, where he has been a leader in the push to reform out-of-network health insurance billing practices.

There is also talk that Middlesex County’s Democratic Party, which has been a long and powerful force in state, has been pushing for a greater say in what happens in Trenton. The last few Democratic-controlled Legislatures have involved someone from South Jersey heading one house, while a North Jersey politician has headed the other.

Building blocs

Middlesex and Union county officials teamed up to form a strong bloc to support Coughlin, at least for the moment.

“My Assembly colleagues and I are firmly supporting Craig for Speaker,” said Assemblyman Jerry Green (D-Union), Speaker Pro Tempore of the Assembly and chairman of the Union County Democratic Organization, in a statement released yesterday. “We are confident that Craig will be the type of leader who will listen, be inclusive, and bring unity and direction to our caucus. He understands the challenges facing our state and believes the only way to overcome those challenges is to work with every member of the caucus, to strive for consensus, and to agree on solutions that benefit every resident of this great State.”

Prieto supporters say Coughlin may have jumped the gun, because his list of backers includes at least six Assembly members in close districts — the 1st, 2nd, 11th, and 16th — whose re-election chances are not assured. North Jersey’s Democrats may fight hard to not lose the power of the speakership, although Coughlin counts at least one Bergen County Assemblyman, Gordon Johnson, as a supporter. Still, Prieto has the backing of the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union that likes the speaker’s funding plan better than Sweeney’s and has deep pockets.

Team Coughlin says north Jersey could be assuaged if the Democratic gubernatorial primary winner chooses a north Jersey politician as his lieutenant governor. They say Prieto’s legislative agenda has not been well thought out and has had little regard for cost and that he has been a weak speaker — unable to get enough votes in his house for his plan to save Atlantic City.

Asked about Prieto on Monday in light of the challenge, Gov. Chris Christie gave him a slightly better review.

“He’s been OK,” Christie said. “I’m not going to give him raving reviews as speaker. He’s been OK. There’s been some things where we’ve worked very well together and there’s other things where we haven’t worked as well together. But what I can tell you is I won’t care who the next speaker of the Assembly is … I wish them all the best as they compete with each other.”