Murphy Endorses Prieto for NJ Assembly

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto. Max Pizarro for Observer

Phil Murphy has endorsed an ally, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, for re-election to his seat in the lower house.

The endorsement is mostly symbolic; Democrats run the show in Hudson County. Prieto, a construction code official who chairs the Hudson County Democratic Organization, was first elected to the Assembly in 2004 and became speaker in 2014.

Murphy did not endorse Prieto for another term as speaker, and Prieto has not announced another leadership bid. But he has been making calls to other Assembly Democrats and his supporters say he wants to keep the speaker’s chair.

“Vinnie Prieto has become a good friend to me and a valued voice on legislation,” Murphy, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for governor, said in a statement Friday afternoon. “Whether it is his support for raising the minimum wage or for organized labor, his commitment to New Jersey’s working families is without qualification.

“He speaks openly and honestly, which is something we need given the challenges we face. I am hopeful that we will be able to work together in the next legislative session to move New Jersey forward.”

Murphy also has endorsed Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) for re-election to his seat and has publicly kept himself out of the early tug-of-war for legislative leadership positions.

Depending on the results from November’s elections, when all 120 seats and the governorship will be on the ballot, Prieto may face a challenge from Assemblyman Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) for the speaker’s gavel.

The traditional power-sharing agreement among Democrats has been to split the leadership positions between north and south, but that has left some Democrats in central Jersey feeling left out of the action in recent years. Middlesex County Democrats have been flexing their political muscle and making the case for Coughlin as speaker in recent months.

In October, after Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop dropped his plans to run for the Democratic nomination for governor, Prieto and other Democratic leaders in the north came together to deliver a wave of endorsements for Murphy’s campaign. That support came with the coveted county lines in vote-rich North Jersey, making Murphy the odds-on favorite to win the nomination.

Sweeney, meanwhile, is running publicly for another term as Senate president and appears to have the support in his caucus.

“It’s looking more and more likely that Steve Sweeney is going to be Senate president, and nobody has stood up to him like Vinnie Prieto has,” a person close to Prieto said. The speaker, a Cuban immigrant and former bodybuilder, has fought Sweeney over a plan to take over Atlantic City’s finances. And the two leaders have also disagreed on how to rejigger the state’s school-funding formula in recent months.

If the end result of the elections is to have Coughlin and Sweeney in the top legislative spots and Murphy in the governor’s mansion, some Democrats could be turned off, according to the Prieto camp.

“New Jersey in 2017 being run by three middle-aged Irish guys is certainly an off-putting idea to a lot of people,” according to the Prieto source.

On Sunday, Prieto and Murphy “seemed very, very comfortable in the room,” having a long chat at a brunch hosted by state Sen. Nick Sacco (D-Hudson), this person said.