Gov. Chris Christie may have another week in office, but New Jersey now has a new, even-more-Democratic and less-experienced Legislature whose real work will begin after Gov.-elect Phil Murphy is sworn into office.
On Tuesday at noon, the 120 Senate and Assembly members were sworn into office for the 218th Legislative Session, bringing in a larger-than-usual class of freshmen and a new speaker for the lower house in Assemblyman Craig Coughlin, a Middlesex County Democrat. The Democrats also have larger majorities: 54-26 in the Assembly and 25-15 in the Senate. While such majorities along with a Democratic governor should mean fast and easy passage of the party’s agenda in the next two years, that is not necessarily a given, particularly in New Jersey politics.
“We are going to work as closely as possible,” said state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) during a press conference following Christie’s State of the State address. “We are not going to fight as much, and when we fight, we will probably do it in private. We fought with (former Gov.) Jon Corzine. There is no promise it is going to be very easy. It never is … We will figure out how to get it done in some way.”
Coughlin struck a similar note. “I will always look for collaboration with the Senate and with our governor, but inevitably there will be times when the Assembly must set its own course and act as an independent and equal branch of government,” Coughlin said after taking the oath as the 171st Assembly speaker. “I will not be afraid to chart that path when it is necessary.”
The art of the deal
Coughlin replaced Assemblyman Vincent Prieto of Hudson County as speaker as a result of a deal struck between Sweeney, South Jersey party boss George Norcross, and Central Jersey Democrats last year. Prieto had battled with Sweeney continuously. Coughlin pledged the Assembly will “focus on building a stronger system of opportunity and security for our middle class, while standing up for the least fortunate and encouraging success.”
The Woodbridge lawyer presides over the 80-member Assembly. Democrats have held the majority since 2002 and hold an expanded 54-26 majority in the 2018-2019 session — the largest Democratic majority since 1978.
Sweeney, a 16-year legislator and union leader, begins his ninth year as head of the upper house and has a one-vote larger majority. He was honored by Christie during his State of the State as “a person of good will and honesty and character.” Following Christie’s address, he said one of his main priorities is going to be increasing the minimum wage.
The current Legislature includes 14 people in new seats, though not all are new to Trenton. Three of the five new state Senators have moved up from the Assembly and a fourth was a member of the lower house for 13 years until two years ago. All of the 10 new Assembly members are newcomers to the State House, although one is a former state labor commissioner.
Here is a scorecard of who’s who in the 218th Legislature:
■ In the 2nd District, which includes Atlantic City and other parts of the county, Chris Brown, a Republican, moved up from the Assembly to the Senate, replacing Democrat Colin Bell, who was seated only briefly to replace longtime Sen. Jim Whelan on his death last summer and who lost his bid to replace Whelan. This was the only seat the Republicans picked up in last November’s election. Brown, an attorney, spent six years in the Assembly. He considers himself a fiscal conservative and social moderate. After being sworn in, Brown pledged to “put people before party.”
Brown’s move opened an Assembly seat, which is now filled by Democrat John Armato. A former member of the Buena Vista Township Committee, Armato served in the Air Force and then worked as an HVAC mechanic in Atlantic City and has been a volunteer firefighter for 45 years. He said he plans to work “with my new colleagues in the Assembly to lower the tax burden for our working families, to support local businesses and new employers in Atlantic County and to expand support for our veterans,” as well address the opioid and heroin crisis. He has been named to the Assembly commerce and health committees.
■ In the 7th District, which covers part of Burlington County, Democrat Troy Singleton moved from the Assembly to take the seat vacated by Republican Diane Allen, who spent two decades in that spot. This is one of two Senate seats that flipped from red to blue. Singleton, a union officer, joined the Assembly in 2011 and had chaired the state and local government committee in the lower house. He has been named vice chair of the Senate Economic Growth Committee and a member of the Budget and Appropriations and Legislative Oversight Committee.
Replacing Singleton is Carol Murphy, a Mount Laurel Democrat. She most recently had served as a policy director for the state Legislature, where she had worked on such issues as pay equity, raising the minimum wage, and reducing gun violence. On the latter issue, she worked with state lawmakers and former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords to gain passage for a groundbreaking law that removes domestic violence abusers’ access to firearms. She was named to the Assembly budget, financial institutions and insurance, and judiciary committees.
“Having lived paycheck-to-paycheck, having paid my own way through college, having served as a caregiver to both of my parents before they passed, I can relate to the struggles many people in our state face on a daily basis,” Murphy said at her swearing in. “One of the reasons I ran for Assembly is so that I could channel these experiences into real-life solutions to address the rising cost of living in this state, the crushing burden of student-loan debt, and the everyday needs of our working families. Today that work begins.”
■ The 8th District, which encompasses parts of Atlantic, Burlington, and Camden counties, has a new Republican Assemblyman, Ryan Peters. The lieutenant commander of SEAL Team 18 in the Naval Reserve replaces Maria Rodriguez-Gregg, who served two terms and did not seek re-election. Peters was in his first term as a Burlington County freeholder when he won his seat last November. He lives in Hainesport with his wife and three children.
■ Monmouth County’s 11th District is now represented in the Senate by Democrat Vin Gopal, who defeated Republican Jennifer Beck, an 11-year lawmaker from Red Bank, in the Democrats’ second Senate pickup. Gopal is the former chair of the Monmouth County Democratic party who owns a marketing firm that runs two local magazines. The Long Branch resident is the only member of the Senate with no previous legislative experience. Gopal has been named vice chair of the Senate Transportation Committee and a member of the economic growth and health, human services and senior citizens committees.
■ The new senator for the 13th District, which also covers part of Monmouth, is Republican Declan O’Scanlon, who moved up from the Assembly after a decade in the lower house. The chief executive and founder of a wireless telecommunications consulting and public relations firm is replacing Joseph Kyrillos, who spent three decades in the Legislature, most of them in the upper house. O’Scanlon has been known for his crusade against red-light cameras and more recently for releasing a draft report of a task force on binding arbitration in a futile effort to get legislators to renew a 2 percent cap on arbitration awards to police and firefighters. He was named to the Senate community and urban affairs, budget and appropriations, and law and public safety committees.
O’Scanlon’s move to the Senate opened a seat in the Assembly now filled by Serena DiMaso, also a Republican. The Holmdel woman is chair of the Bayshore Medical Center Foundation and serves on the board of Meridian Hospital. She was a Monmouth freeholder from 2012 to 2017 and, prior to that, a 10-year Holmdel committeewoman who served as the township’s mayor from 2006 to 2010. DiMaso holds a bachelor’s degree in business management, as well as a law degree, and is a member of the Holmdel First Aid Squad.
■ The 16th District, covering parts of Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, and Somerset counties, now has two Democratic Assemblymen, with the seating of Roy Freiman. The Hillsborough resident won the seat vacated by Republican Jack Ciattarelli, who ran unsuccessfully for his party’s gubernatorial nomination last spring, and gave the Democrats their second Assembly pickup.
Freiman is a former Prudential Financial executive who led a team that managed data analytics, developed strategic plans, and sought to generate new business. He left his job at Prudential to run “because I saw a need for more strategic decision-making and collaborative leadership.” Freiman said he plans to focus on common-sense ways to hold the line on property taxes, support policies that promote lasting economic development, and work to create jobs by supporting entrepreneurs and businesses. He was assigned to the Assembly’s financial institutions and insurance and transportation committees.
■ Middlesex’s 19th District is now represented in the Assembly by Democrat Yvonne Lopez. The Perth Amboy resident joins the speaker’s district and is replacing John Wisniewski, who represented the district for more than two decades and gave up his seat in an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Lopez is a Democratic state committeewoman who is the executive director and CEO of the Puerto Rican Association for Human Development, Inc. in Perth Amboy. She founded the Boys and Girls Clubs of Perth Amboy. Lopez said her work experiences have given her “a very good sense of what our constituents need” and she will work to meet those needs. She was named to the Assembly transportation, regulatory oversight, human services and financial institutions and insurance committees.
■ For the first time in 35 years, Union County’s 20th District has a new state senator with the election of Democrat Joseph Cryan. The senator, who spent six terms in the Assembly before leaving in 2015 to become Union County sheriff, is replacing fellow Democrat Raymond Lesniak, who was one of the longest-serving tenured members of the Legislature and also made an unsuccessful gubernatorial run last year. The former state Democratic chairman was named vice chair of the Senate Commerce Committee and a member of the Law and Public Safety Committee. At his swearing in, Cryan said he “will be fighting every day to push back on the oppressive policies of the last eight years and against the divisive rhetoric and horrific mandates emanating from the White House.”
■ In the northwest’s 24th District, Christie’s former Labor Commissioner Harold Wirths replaced fellow Republican Gail Phoebus, who spent little more than two years in office before retiring. A former Sussex County freeholder, Wirths owned and managed furniture stores for almost two decades. He serves on the board of Highlands State Bank, which he co-founded as Noble Community Bank. Wirths lives with his family in Hardyston.
■ Essex County’s 29th District is now represented by Assemblywoman Shanique Speight, who replaced fellow Democrat Bonnie Watson. Watson spent 18 months in the Assembly and did not run for a full term. Speight, a lifelong Newark resident, is an Essex County sheriff’s officer and a former member of the city’s board of education. She said she sees service in the Assembly as “a great opportunity to serve my community at the state level and to effect change.” Speight was named to the Assembly health, housing and women and children committees.
The new Assemblyman for the 40th District, encompassing parts of Bergen, Essex, Morris, and Passaic counties, is Christopher DePhillips. The former Wyckoff Township Committeeman and Northwest Bergen County Utilities Authority Commissioner replaced fellow Republican Scott Rumana, who gave up his seat to become a Superior Court judge. DePhillips is vice president and general counsel of a consulting and systems company that works with medical, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.
While not totally new, also taking their seats were two Republicans who came aboard in the waning months of the last session to replace outgoing members and won full terms last November. They are Assemblyman Edward H. Thomson III, who replaced fellow Republican David Rible last August, and Sen. Kristin Corrado, sworn into office last October to replace Kevin O’Toole in the 40th District.
And expect another new member to join the Democratic Assembly caucus soon. Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver, a former speaker of the lower house, just won re-election to an eighth term representing the 34th District, which covers parts of Essex County and Clifton, but also was elected Murphy’s lieutenant governor and cannot serve in both offices so she will need to resign after being sworn in with Murphy next Tuesday.