Musical chairs

Assuming the Democrats, as expected, retain control of the State Assembly next month, look for some major reshuffling of committee chairmanships. Health Committee Chairwoman Loretta Weinberg will move up to the Senate as soon as they go back into session (she won a Special Election Convention to replace Byron Baer), and Commerce and Economic Development Committee Chairman Donald Tucker passed away last week. Three other Chairmen, Robert Smith of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Mary Previte of Family, Women and Children’s Services, and Peter Eagler of Regulated Professions and Independent Authorities, are not candidates for re-election, and three other committee chairs, Bonnie Watson Coleman of Appropriations, Wilfredo Caraballo of Telecommunications and Utilities, and Neil Cohen of Financial Institutions and Insurance, are possible candidates for Majority Leader. Assembly Speaker Albio Sires could replace Weinberg and Tucker for the final two months of the current legislative session, although the next Speaker may not feel constricted by Sires’ picks. One Democratic staffer says he expects Sires and Joseph Roberts, the leading candidate for Speaker, to reach a mutual agreement on Health and Commerce. Similarly, the new Speaker could add or delete committees next year, and remove incumbent chairs from their current posts. The Vice Chairman of the Health Committee is Herbert Conaway, Jr., a practicing physician and as a South Jersey ally of Roberts, perhaps the front runner for the powerful committee post. Another possible candidate is Joan Quigley, a hospital executive who currently chairs the Homeland Security and State Preparedness Committee. If Quigley were to get the Health chair, her current post would likely go to John Burzichelli. Should Conaway get passed over for Health, he would likely replace Smith at Agriculture instead of the most likely contender, Douglas Fisher. Conaway, elected in 1997, is the senior member of the Assembly without a committee chairmanship or top leadership post. Fisher is also a possible choice to replace Eagler at Regulated Professions, although Assembly Democratic insiders suggest that Brian Stack wants the job. Previte’s committee, Family, Women and Children’s Services, has two other Democrats — Weinberg and Joseph Egan, the Labor Chairman; her chair will almost certainly be filled by someone not currently on the committee. The Vice Chairman of the Commerce Committee is Upendra Chivukula, who has not always been viewed as a team player within the Democratic Caucus. Leadership could go with another committee member, like David Mayer, who is very close to Roberts. Caraballo is viewed as the front runner for Majority Leader; two of the other three Democrats on the Telecommunications panel are not returning (Eagler and Anthony Chiappone), leaving Chivukula as the only Democrat with committee experience — hardly a critical factor in picking chairmen. Statehouse insiders say that Telecommunications, should it become available, would go to someone in need of a chairmanship. If Caraballo loses the leadership contest, he could go shopping for another committee. If Watson Coleman becomes Majority Leader, she would give up one of the Legislature’s important chairmanships: Appropriations. While leadership would have the option of merging the Budget Committee into Appropriations under the control of Louis Greenwald, one Assembly Democratic staffer suggested that will not happen. Look for Joseph Cryan, who has been paying his partisan dues as Vice Chairman of the Democratic State Committee, to emerge as a strong candidate to replace Watson Coleman. Should Cohen be the new Majority Leader, chances are strong that Jack Conners, a Camden County Democrat, will succeed him as head of the banking and insurance panel. That would open up Conners’ chairmanship of the Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. With Weinberg’s departure, none of the six Democrats expected to represent Bergen County in the Assembly next year have committee chairmanships. Sires, the outgoing Speaker, could also be looking for a chairmanship next year, especially if his campaign for Congress does not work out.