Keeping Tabs on the New Democratic Committee Chairs

Who earned a seat, who’s moving on — or up — and what does it portend for the coming legislative session?

Eliana Pintor-Marin
It was an almost-routine announcement in a day of big speeches yesterday, but the Democratic legislative leadership’s picks of committee chairs could portend some significant changes in how it will do business this coming year.

The lengthy list released by each chamber’s Democratic leadership was full of changes on virtually every committee, as would be expected in the change of legislative sessions.

But the political musical chairs is especially significant, since the men and women leading each committee carry big influence in deciding what bills will be heard and voted upon — or not.

And while this year’s changes are basically a switch from one Democrat to another, they speak to some of the inner dynamics — and in some cases, power struggles — within the party. A few also come at a critical time when deciding policy with the incoming administration of Gov.-elect Phil Murphy.

Here are a few that stand out:

Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor-Marin, Assembly budget chair

Pintor-Marin, a three-term assemblywoman from Newark, has vaulted up the power ladder in the Assembly to take maybe its most important chairmanship. The budget chair leads the Assembly’s deliberations over the annual state spending plan, which are sure to be particularly eventful this year with a new governor.

She replaces Assemblyman Gary Schaer, who had made a strong name for himself in that role but was surely left out for his support of outgoing Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto in his failed bid to keep the speakership. Newly sworn-in Speaker Craig Coughlin prevailed.

Nonetheless, Pinto-Marin has also held her own as a member of the Assembly committee, and will need the experience since she will be a center of attention this spring with Murphy’s first budget.

It also likely helps that she comes from the Democratic Party’s important Essex County base, no small issue in the state’s perennial north-south tug of war. She is closely aligned with state Sen. Teresa Ruiz and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo.

Sen. Robert Gordon, Senate transportation chair

Sen. Robert Gordon
Gordon, who has represented his Bergen County district since 2004, has long been considered an influential legislator in his party, but definitely takes a step up in leading the transportation committee at a time when the issue is at the top of everyone’s list.

He replaces state Sen. Nicholas Sacco, one of the Senate’s long-serving veterans, but brings new momentum after leading hearings for the oversight committee into the troubles at New Jersey Transit and elsewhere last year.

That’s just one of the issues he will face in the coming year, since Murphy has said transportation will be a top priority and big challenges lay ahead with transportation funding and especially the Gateway project.

Gordon is not the only prominent legislator on the issue; the Assembly also named a new chair to its committee. Assemblyman Daniel Benson will assume the position, taking over from John Wisniewski, who left the Assembly to make a bid for governor.

Assemblywoman Pam Lampitt, Assembly education chair

Lampitt, a Camden County assemblywoman since 2006, will be a new face to the education committee when she assumes its chairmanship, replacing former Assemblywoman Marlene Caride, whom Murphy named as his banking commissioner.

Lampitt has not been particularly active on education issues, but as an administrator at the University of Pennsylvania, she brings a new perspective and some fresh issues.

In an interview with NJ Spotlight yesterday, she followed the Democratic line on a few perennial topics like testing and charter schools. (She thinks New Jersey over-tests its students, and is open to a slowdown in charter school approvals.)

But she also said she will push for boosting programs for children coming to school hungry, and also provide more opportunities for girls in science, math, and technology.

Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin, Assembly environment chair

Pinkin, in her second term representing her Middlesex County district, will move up to replace state Assemblyman Tim Eustace as chair of the influential committee. While it’s not being said outright, Eustace also was likely victim of the power struggle in the Assembly, as he backed Prieto as well.

The changing of the guard left the Sierra Club lamenting Eustace’s exit but also putting the best face on Pinkin’s ascension and the prospects of a sympathetic governor.

Eustace had been a favorite of environmentalists, noted among other things for driving an electric car, but Pinkin is a Sierra Club member in her own right.