With all eyes on Oliver, backchatter about potential successors persists: Handicapping the field

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver’s public wrangle this week with Gov. Chris Christie over his characterizations of protecting her during the pension and healthcare fight lit up the backrooms of Trenton where Democrats continue to consider the potential of Oliver’s departure from leadership.

Sources say the speakership remains Oliver’s to lose at the party’s post-November election reorganization meeting later this year. The official, public vote of the Assembly doesn’t take place until January.

“If she wants it, it’s hers,” said a Democratic Party source, acknowledging the alliance of power between powerful Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and South Jersey Democratic leader George Norcross III that catapulted Oliver to power in the first place in 2009.

But, “No one sees Sheila out there working for the job,” the source added. “She’s not acting right now like she wants it again. Of course, that could just be her temperament.”

While caucus members who hoped the speaker would reject Christie’s pension and healthcare reform package quietly seek a replacement for the speaker, no one will admit to taking a frontal assault at the first African American woman to hold the job.

The closest public peep over Oliver came in the form of a June letter written by another African-American woman, Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-15), Ewing, calling into question Democratic Party leadership.

“How are we allowing ourselves to be dragged down this Governor’s right wing alley of pain and devastation that is targeting the middle class, frail, elderly and poor, and support an agenda that upholds and indeed lifts the wealthiest?” wrote the veteran assemblywoman. “At what point do we stand up for the majority of New Jersey’s residents and repudiate the middle class dismantling that this Administration so arrogantly defends? At what point do we distinguish ourselves from the Republican agenda whose principles we have long rejected as unfair and hurtful to so many people?”

A meeting of the county Democratic Party chairs is scheduled for Monday evening and insiders said at least one topic of conversation is Oliver’s future. Sources close to powerful Passaic County Democratic Chairman John Currie – who has a friendship with the speaker – say if talk turns to Oliver’s ouster, Currie plans to make the strongest case for why she needs to stay.

Oliver did not respond to calls for comment, but sources close to leadership say her return for another two-year term as speaker is probably around 50-50.

Since word surfaced earlier this week that Assembly Republicans were prepared to back Oliver in the event of an intra-party coup, sources have speculated over the potential for the GOP to play a role in any potential battle for the speakership.

Assembly Minority Conference Leader Jon Bramnick points out that every day is a new day in New Jersey politics. If deals are being cut, the GOP will play, Bramnick said, but that’s an unlikely scenario.

“In the unlikely event we’re not in the majority, if the Republican caucus is choosing the speaker then the Democratic Party has failed,” Bramnick said.

The following are the prospective replacements that have generated the most buzz in recent days, including likelihood of ascension:


Assembly Majority Leader Joe Cryan (D-20), Union

Strengths: His animated opposition to Christie’s pension and benefits reform makes him the most obvious figurehead of the caucus’s resistance to the Christie/DiVincenzo/Norcross triumvirate. A sneaky smart intriguer and former state party chairman, he has a dedicated following and embodies the just-up-from-under-the-hood, classic pro-working man’s Democrat.

Weaknesses: He’s a lightning rod and Christie’s avowed enemy. They detest each other, according to multiple sources. His very presence in the room would permanently uncap Christie’s red pen. Others say at least some in his own party share Christie’s view. He can’t be the guy, in the words of sources on all sides of the issues, and those same sources say Cryan himself recognizes this fact. Consequentially, the majority leader has even approached others about making a run for the self-professed real Democratic Party.

Potential: Long shot


Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-15), Ewing

Strengths: She is an African-American woman with leadership experience as the former majority leader and former state party chair. She is also on record as an outspoken opponent of the Christie administration and a strong advocate on party issues.

Weaknesses: Sources say she’s burned out by falling short in her bid for the speaker’s job the first time in 2009 and doesn’t relish an enervating fight for the post. She also comes from traditionally weak Mercer County.  She also has had her share of run-ins with the governor, including one earlier this year when the two traded barbs over Christie’s assertion that early prison release legislation she sponsored led to a murder by a released inmate.

Potential: Will be in the mix if she wants it


Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle (D-37), Englewood

Strengths: She’s a Bergen woman. The argument is if you’re going to go after a woman you need a woman to stand in her place and Huttle, by most accounts, has the charisma and likeability to match her strident Democratic Party stands on the issues.

Weaknesses: She lacks financial acumen and suffers from the same branding that also hobbles Cryan and Watson Coleman as a perceived too-left-leaning champion of lost causes. Her Bergen cred is also deceptive, for Huttle is a Loretta Weinberg Democrat, and has a history of gnawing at the edges of power in the county and never being front and center of the state’s biggest county.

Potential: Unlikely


Assemblyman John McKeon (D-27), West Orange

Strengths: The suburban Essex Democrat is respected in the caucus as someone who can bridge gaps and create productive discussions rather than factionalized debate. He is a recognized leader on environmental issues. He also critically voted against pension and healthcare benefits.

Weaknesses: In a divided Essex County, he is perceived as an ally of dethroned Senate President Richard Codey (D-27), a shrewd player who a jittery party opposition does not want to re-empower. Sources close to McKeon say he has done enough to diplomatically eschew the notion of being Codey-controlled with the likes of DiVincenzo, but it remains his biggest political hurdle.

Potential: He’s got a shot


Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-29), Newark

Strengths: A natural ally of Joe D. with a pro-business centrist record. As a Portuguese American, he represents a minority and has forged alliances out of his native Ironbound with the powerful Newark North Ward Democratic Organization. In voting for the budget and health and pension benefits reform, he has built good relations with the governor; moreover, he thrives in the Joe D. orbit without being reliant on the Joe D. paycheck

Weaknesses: He voted for pension and benefit reform, the actual issue that is driving this whole debate. He is a compromise for machine Democrats to consider but he also falls on the wrong side of the issue the bosses know would propel the party past its current division.

Potential: Unlikely


Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-19), Sayreville

Strengths: The sitting state party chairman (and chairman of the powerful Transportation Committee) comes out of Middlesex County, a key sprawling political piece that Republicans are intent on putting in their win column. Quick on his feet and politically artful, as state party chairman Wisniewski has shown an incredible ability to be an attack dog while also playing by Marquis of Queensbury rules. He has a reputation as a hard worker and tries to be where he needs to be at all times.

Weaknesses: Whether it’s jealousy or an innate Jersey trait to nurse paranoia over the smartest guy in the room, sources continually talk of Wisniewski’s ambition. “I guess we’re all ambitious,” one Middlesex source admitted to PolitickerNJ, “but with Wiz, it seems that’s all he’s about.” The bottom line is the chairman’s close relations with Norcross and Essex County Democrats have fed the perception that he is not tactful in disguising his ambition. When he floated a map during the redistricting process that pitted two sitting Democratic senators against each other, he further fractured his own base. One source also questioned Wisniewski’s gubernatorial ambitions and the advisability of running against Christie from the most visible chair in the statehouse.

Potential: Could be a compromise candidate


Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-3), Paulsboro

Strengths: He’s perceived as highly intelligent and politically savvy with private sector street cred. He can finesse complex issues (see his work on Atlantic City, for example) but also knows how to get appropriately aggressive, as demonstrated by his recent press release howls over NJTV quality, something everyone else was grumbling about but not saying publicly. He is wired into the inner circuitry of the Norcross machine.

Weaknesses: He’s in the same district as Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), West Deptford, and short of a coup in the upper house that puts a North Jersey senator in charge of that chamber it is inconceivable to picture Burzichelli climbing into the speaker’s chair this cycle. His dual office holding (he’s mayor of Paulsboro) may present a problem.

Potential: Very unlikely


Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-6), Voorhees

Strengths: As the natty, longstanding budget chairman with strong South Jersey ties, he obligatorily appears on any leadership list. He can hold his own with policy and politics, but has been caught in an inescapable middle ground in leadership discussions and promotion planning.

Weaknesses: Like Burzichelli (above) he won’t go anywhere if Sweeney – or another Norcross regional ally – remains in the upper chamber seat of power. He also holds the third most powerful seat as budget chair already.

Potential: Very unlikely – unless he moves to Essex


Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-16), South Plainfield

Strengths: The universally respected assemblyman serves as the chamber’s affable parliamentarian. He took a frontline position in the fight against health and pension benefits reform, and in the post-Lynch era of Middlesex County politics, Diegnan also lacks the obvious shackles of being dominated by a boss.

Weaknesses: Like others on the list who may be tapped for power in the immediate aftermath of an African-American woman, Diegnan has the handicap of being a white male. There’s also potentially a balance of power issue. His ticket mate, state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-19), currently serves as Senate majority leader. If Diegnan moves up, that may mean moving Buono down. Would leadership really swap in a white male for a second political decapitation of a woman?

Potential: A name sources keep coming back to


Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36), Passaic

Strengths: He knows the budget almost as well as Greenwald and is intimately familiar with the private sector as a Wall Street player. Schaer is the first Orthodox Jew in the Assembly. His base is urban Passaic County, but he has built strong political ties to Bergen and Essex and has friendships with South Jersey Democrats going back to his Pennsauken childhood. Likeable and diplomatic, he would have the added advantage of a strong chairman in Passaic County Democratic Chair John Currie (in the event that Oliver leaves of her own accord).  

Weaknesses: He’s still from Passaic County, which is a durable but hardly imposing Democratic Party stronghold. While smart, Schaer isn’t sound-bitable and carries baggage as a double dipper, serving both as an assemblyman and local city council president in the City of Passaic.

Potential: Another name that comes up constantly, look for Schaer to be in the mix until the end


Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell (D-31), Bayonne

Strengths: He’s from Democratic Party heaven Hudson County and shows early signs of enthusiasm and natural political acumen. His favorite movie scene is the Alec Baldwin monologue from Glengarry Glen Ross, which tells you something about his mindset when it comes to politics. He’s a Jersey guy through and through and puts the same working class mentality into the mix as Cryan. At a time when U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) is searching for ways to beef up his base in Hudson County, O’Donnell could play that role as speaker.

Weaknesses: He’s green, just about as green as they come. Appointed to his seat after the implosion of Assemblyman Tony Chiappone (D-31), O’Donnell has less than 12 months in office. Whatever his future leadership prospects, he’s also a white male, which at the moment doesn’t help. Although a source close to this leadership debate points out that O’Donnell met with disgraced developer Solomon Dwek and could carry the grime of Hudson County dirt devil politics, O’Donnell, for the record, did tell Dwek to get lost.

Potential: Strong contender if old-timers are willing to give him a shot

With all eyes on Oliver, backchatter about potential successors persists: Handicapping the field