Amid what’s expected to be a charged political atmosphere in Trenton — with the budget and school funding on the legislative agenda — the Assembly’s two top leaders say they are recommitting themselves to civility and mutual respect to set an example for others.
The public call for more decorum made by Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson) and Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) comes just days after a mass shooting near Washington, D.C., that saw members of Congress targeted as they practiced baseball in advance of a charity game. Authorities say the shooting was carried out by a man with a history of making inciteful political statements against Republicans.
But it also follows a bruising 2016 presidential election where the contest’s eventual winner, President Donald Trump, regularly called his opponents names, attacked them, and even criticized their families. And in New Jersey — where a particularly hardball brand of politics is practiced by county machines that still yield considerable control — Gov. Chris Christie has taken pride for regularly standing up to his most vocal critics by shouting back at them with insults like “idiot” and “jerk.” And it was Christie, in 2011, who urged reporters to “take the bat out” on Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen). (Christie suggested earlier this month he was only using the phrase rhetorically.)
A Kinder, Gentler New Jersey
It was Bramnick, a member of the Legislature since 2003, who more than a decade ago introduced legislation that sought to encourage “civility, kindness and respect to all” across New Jersey. Bramnick’s resolution never made it to the floor of the Assembly, and it was actually poked fun of at the time, he said. But now that there is an ongoing nationwide debate about the possible consequences of over-the-top political rhetoric, Bramnick has decided to reintroduce what he calls the “civility resolution.”
“Twelve years later, with extremists on both sides of the political aisle becoming more energized through hateful rhetoric, I’m hoping that the process begins to change,” Bramnick said.
“When public officials speak with disdain in their voice toward other public officials, that gives a license to the public to do the same, and even more,” Bramnick went on to say.
Prieto, who’s served in the Legislature since 2004, credited Bramnick for calling him last week with an offer to step forward together to promote more civility in politics. He said despite disagreeing at times on policy matters, the two men have a deep respect for each other. For example, they have bonded on issues separate from partisan politics, including their shared fondness for being a grandfather.
“People need to understand, we get along. The minority leader and myself have a great relationship, we’re friends above everything else,” Prieto said. “We may disagree on some policy issues, but that shouldn’t transcend into other areas.”
“I’m always respectful to the institution, to the position, and more importantly, to the person,” he said.
The Coming Storm?
Still, the two Assembly leaders were speaking about civility during a quiet Friday morning while standing inside a small meeting room in the State House that was far away from some of the political vitriol that is often heard on talk radio in New Jersey, or posted online and distributed via social-media sites. Starting this week, they will be on different sides of a debate about how to spend billions of dollars in tax revenue, including in school districts that have been underfunded for roughly a decade.
The legislative leaders are also getting ready to mount reelection campaigns later this year that will come just months after they voted on a bipartisan basis to raise the state’s gas tax — a decision that many voters are still angry with. And even if Democrats retain control of the Assembly in the fall, Prieto may ultimately end up losing his leadership post later this year due to intraparty political jostling.
But Prieto said throughout it all he tries to follow an approach that involves regularly listening to the other side, and also frequently posting some of their bills up for votes. He also cited some advice he received when he was a new lawmaker from a veteran Republican counterpart who at the time told him the Legislature works in cycles, with Republicans up in some years and Democrats in others.
“How do we get everybody a piece of the pie? That sometimes is very difficult,” Prieto said. “I try to negotiate and get somewhere in the middle that everyone can live with because that’s how you do this. If not, you really become polarized.”
Threading the needle
“You’ve got to thread that needle, and sometimes it’s not easy,” he said.
Bramnick said a key for lawmakers is to also regularly visit other districts in the state, particularly if theirs is one that has a concentration of voters with only one specific mindset. Known as “gerrymandering,” New Jersey’s legislative map has been drawn up by political leaders in a way that has helped to protect incumbents, but has also meant few legislative districts have much partisan balance or diversity of political opinion.
“We’re very isolated in New Jersey in terms of our districts, and it’s not good,” Bramnick said.
He also said it’s necessary for lawmakers to do their homework, and to raise facts during debates so that the focus is always on matters of policy. And while no one is perfect, Bramnick said those in public office have a responsibility to set the tone and to serve as an example, even if they’re being shouted at by a constituent.
“If you’re an elected official, you have to be above the fray,” Bramnick said. “You have to be the adult in the room.”
“I don’t think lashing out, as a public official, is the proper way to do it,” he said.