Brawling statewide, Sweeney and Kean debate on same stage in Morristown

MORRISTOWN – No one expected a submission lock at the Morris County Chamber of Commerce luncheon, but the same-stage presence of rivals Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) and Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. (R-21) definitely had pols contemplating more than brussels sprouts.

“Ready for the battle?” asked Assemblyman Tony Bucco (R-25) as Sweeney and Kean mounted the stage on the second floor of the Morristown Hyatt.

These two men are in the thick of a statewide rivalry in an election year defined in no small part by Kean’s aggressive efforts to pick up senate seats, including the one Sweeney occupies.

After acknowledging bipartisan accomplishments, Kean in his remarks immediately started throwing leather.

Democrats in the Legislature have not moved on meaningful ethics reform, he said. They haven’t moved on sick leave reform.

And he panned Sweeney for denying state Supreme Court nominees Dave Bauman and Bob Hanna a timely hearing.

“They deserve an up or down vote,” said the Senate minority leader.

Sweeney came off his stool bristling.

“Wow,” he said, saying the messaging must have been muddled on Gov. Chris Christie’s ad paying homage to the efforts of the GOP executive and the Democratic Legislature.

Bipartisan reformers,” Kean corrected, referring to the ad.

Democrat reformers,” Sweeney maintained, then stabbed a jab at Kean.

“There’s disagreement, not gridlock,” said the Democrat.

The Senate president said he supports ending sick leave payouts, and acknowledged a harder path to that reform in the lower house.

“We have 40 members, they have 80,” Sweeney said. “It’s much harder to do things over there. It took me a awhile but I figured it out.”

The Senate president embraced the comments of Jim Gilbert of Merrill Lynch, who from the audience admitted his disappointment over the governor killing the ARC tunnel.

“I can’t agree with you more,” Sweeney said.

Kean disagreed.

“New Jersey was on the hook for a billion dollars,” he said. “That was unfair.”

The two men spent time jousting over judges. Kean repeatedly criticized Sweeney’s decision to forego giving Christie’s Supreme Court nominees a hearing until after the election.

“It impacts their lives, it impacts their careers, it impacts the Supreme Court,” he said.

Sweeney mourned Christie’s decision to unseat his friend, former Justice John Wallace.

“It was the wrong thing to do,” the Senate president said.

Brawling statewide, Sweeney and Kean debate on same stage in Morristown