N.J. Democrats poised to elect new speaker as balance of power changes in Trenton

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, center, announced Thursday he would not seek another term to the leadership position. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

The balance of power is about to change in Trenton — and not just because voters elected Democrat Philip D. Murphy to succeed Republican Gov. Christie.

On Thursday, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) dropped his bid to serve another term with the gavel, as candidates he backed failed to pull off enough upsets in the election to give him the votes.

Instead, Prieto conceded the leadership race to Assemblyman Craig Coughlin (D., Middlesex), who had support from a broad coalition including South Jersey Democrats and their de facto leader, power broker George E. Norcross III, the insurance and hospital executive.

Camera icon Coughlin
Assemblyman Craig J. Coughlin

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D., Gloucester), Norcross’s chief ally in the Legislature, was elected by his colleagues to another term as the upper chamber’s leader Thursday.

That means for the first time in years, North Jersey won’t be represented among the three most powerful elected officials in Trenton. Murphy, who has never served in elective office, lives in Middletown, Monmouth County, on the Shore.

In a statement, Prieto said he had “worked to expand the middle class and support the most vulnerable in our state and re-established the Assembly as a co-equal branch of our state government.”

He said it was “vital that the Democratic Party comes together to pass progressive legislation that will provide the help our working families so desperately need, from increased education funding and property tax relief, to expanded anti-poverty programs, a higher minimum wage and so much more.”

Sweeney said in a statement that Democrats were “united in our determination to move the state forward in ways that create opportunities for everyone.”

The minority GOP reelected its leaders: Sen. Tom Kean Jr. and Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, both of Union County.

Democrats expanded their majorities in both houses of the Legislature in Tuesday’s election. When the new legislative session begins in January, Democrats will control the Assembly, 54-26, and Senate, 25-15.

Prieto was elected speaker in 2013. He clashed with Sweeney on a number of issues, resisting the Senate president’s move with Christie to assert state control over Atlantic City. Prieto and Sweeney also fought over the proposed constitutional amendment that would have expanded gambling from Atlantic City to North Jersey.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Governor-elect Phil Murphy is joined by his wife Tammy and their children at his victory party at the Asbury Park Convention Hall Grand Arcade November 7, 2017. TOM GRALISH / Staff photographer

Voters rejected the amendment in 2016.

Prieto also became a target of Christie’s ire. The governor blamed Prieto for the government shutdown over the summer, posting flyers of the speaker’s face on closed facilities across the state.

But Christie lost that fight, as photos emerged of him lounging on the beach during the shutdown.

In other Statehouse news, Murphy on Thursday announced that Lt. Gov-elect Sheila Oliver would serve as commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, which deals with local governments on issues such as affordable housing.

Murphy met with Christie Thursday. Reporters were not allowed in the room.