Advocates protest lack of diversity in State House leadership

In the face of a potential change in the Assembly's speakership, some groups call for more diverse leadership.

Today’s press conference was about throwing another match into the fire over political jockeying for Trenton leadership. Namely the next Assembly speaker — the third most powerful elected position in state government. Grassroots leaders and activists aren’t happy with a potential shake-up that could oust Speaker Vincent Prieto.

“This wrangling is already taking place before even a vote has been cast. We have leadership in the Senate and the Assembly wrangling over who’s going to “take charge” instead of focusing on the real problems that are impacting our state,” said Analilia Mejia, director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance.

More specifically, Mejia is calling this a diversity issue. Just last week Middlesex-based Assemblyman Craig Coughlin announced he’s seeking the speakership and made public a long list of legislative endorsements. It’s a shift that would disrupt a traditional north/south balance in the chamber. As advocates argued today, it would remove the only person of color in leadership.

“I am completely concerned at the idea of having Senate and Assembly leadership that’s wholly comprised of white men, if not the majority being white men. Think about the diversity in our state, think about the lack of representation people of color will experience in the Legislature,” Mejia said.

“Without leadership representation of our populations, we are destined to create a larger underclass in New Jersey. This absolutely serves no one’s interest,” NJ NAACP‘s Bruce Davis said.

The groups say they’re worried progress on key issues for vulnerable communities will be lost citing lagging foreclosure recovery rates in minority groups, underfunded charity care and pension payments.

“We are extremely concerned about what is happening with school funding and we’re extremely concerned about the whole issue of health care and what is happening with the ACA at the federal level and what is happening in New Jersey,” said Latino Institute Executive Director Bill Colon.

“One of the things that makes this diversity, that frustrates this diversity, is the fact that the large number of people who are disproportionately imprisoned in New Jersey prisons, 67 percent of the people in New Jersey state prisons are African-American or Latin-American and they can’t vote,” said Jean Ross from the People’s Organization for Progress.

But these activists are also largely known for gaining a platform under the helm of Prieto and they’ve expressed that gratitude through endorsements. For their part, the groups contend that’s the goal of having representation.

The advocates point out in recent years the speakership was held by a person of color: Albio Sires, Sheila Oliver, Vincent Prieto, and that in this speaker they were able to work on common goals.

“Democrats, instead of putting resources into mobilizing voters are focusing on their own power struggles,” said Patricia Campos-Medina, president of LUPE PAC.

We reached out to Assembly leadership but they didn’t return our request. A spokesperson for Senate President Steve Sweeney declined to comment.

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