Assembly Dems: Message from NJ voters received, but plans in flux
TRENTON – Democratic lawmakers are adjusting to the changes voters imposed on the legislative roster and political mood, acknowledging the importance of focusing on taxes as a policy and message in the upcoming legislative session.
The Thursday after the election is typically when the Senate and Assembly members hold caucus meetings to select leaders for the approaching two-year term – and with Senate President Steve Sweeney’s shocking loss, only one of those four leaders will be returning.
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, will be speaker for a third term. He said it was “a tough and trying 48 hours” for Democrats but that despite the setbacks at the ballot, the party succeeded in retaining full control of state government and flipped one Senate seat.
“There was clearly a message that was sent by voters last Tuesday. We’re going to sit down and figure out what that was,” Coughlin said. “Although I think in many respects it’s clear. We need to probably listen, and we need to make sure we have an agenda that people understand is being done in their best interest.”
Democrats lost two Senate seats, more than offsetting the one gained, and appear to have lost six seats in the Assembly.
“There were a number of reasons for the results on Tuesday,” Coughlin said. “Some of them were things like headwinds from Washington. Taxes is always at the top of everybody’s list in New Jersey, we know, when you see a poll or do a focus group or whatever. So certainly, that was I’m sure part of it.”
“There was some movement,” he said. “How else would you explain Senate President Sweeney’s condition? That wasn’t based on a thorough candidate analysis, in my opinion. It was rather a movement kind of thing.”
Sweeney, the longest-serving legislative leader in state history, apparently lost to little-funded truck driver Edward Durr, though Sweeney has not yet conceded the race.
“Clearly we didn’t have the night we had hoped for,” Coughlin said. “We lost some seats. The governor’s race was much tighter than any of us had expected. And so, one of the things we’re going to sit down and talk about internally is what does that mean? Where did that come from?”
Coughlin said lawmakers are still finalizing a lame-duck agenda, let alone one for the next two years. Among the potential topics, one that he cited repeatedly was child care.
Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald, D-Camden, said the Democrats remain in the same position as before the election – holding the governor’s office and both houses of the Legislature.
But he emphasized the Path to Progress government and spending reforms that had been championed originally by Sweeney and taxes on his list of priorities going forward.
“We also are committed and heard the electorate very loudly I think on Tuesday that the speaker and myself, our leadership team, have been focused and continue to focus on how we can make meaningful difference in people’s taxes, among property taxes and the like,” Greenwald said.
Senate Democrats postponed their meeting to decide new leaders, as the remaining members of the caucus jockey for support for an opening nobody expected.
Republicans have selected new leadership for the next session. Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., R-Union, didn’t seek re-election as he plans another run for Congress. Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, R-Union, won election to the Senate seat Kean is vacating.
The Senate minority leader next session will be Sen. Steve Oroho, R-Sussex. He said the caucus will focus on property taxes, including the school aid formula, investigating deaths at nursing homes and veterans’ homes during the pandemic and overly strict COVID-related rules.
“That’s the major message coming out of Tuesday,” Oroho said. “… People are tired of being told what they can and can’t do. They’re tired of having no say into what their children’s schools, what they’re being taught. I think that’s a very critical and important message that came out from Tuesday night.”
“I certainly hope the message that Gov. Murphy gets is that he has to bring the Legislature in,” Oroho said. “He has to listen to the people because they’ve had enough.”
The Assembly minority leader will be Assemblyman John DiMaio, R-Warren. It had appeared at one point that Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, R-Union, would be selected, but conservatives objected to her more centrist voting record.
“Our caucus, under this new leadership team, will focus on letting people keep the money they earn, parent their children and live freely,” DiMaio said. “It is what Republicans stand for. And is clearly what people want. If Democrats didn’t get that message on Tuesday, Republicans stand to personally deliver it every step of the way.”
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.