The surging south got a seat at the table today, with third district state Sen. Stephen Sweeney chosen as majority leader after a hard fought, emotional battle with state Sen. Paul Sarlo.
Although the decision-making process was closed and the official decision was unanimous, sources say that Sweeney had the support of 14 of the 23 member caucus. Backing Sweeney were the expected south Jersey contingent — Jeff Van Drew, Jim Whelan, Fred Madden, Dana Redd and John Adler. But he also had support from Senators from the rest of the state — Brian Stack, Sandra Bolden Cunningham, Barbara Buono, Nicholas Scutari, Bob Smith, Ray Lesniak, Joe Vitale and Loretta Weinberg.
Lesniak, who said he hadn’t decided who to support until this morning, was particularly influential in swinging the Middlesex County senators towards Sweeney. He said that he thought both candidates would make good majority leaders, but that the south’s success in turning two seats blue meant that they deserved representation in a leadership position.
“I thought I was in a very difficult position because Paul Sarlo is a very dear friend of mine,” said Lesniak. “I may have lost a friend, and that makes me very sad.”
Weinberg also found herself in a tough position. The outspoken anti-machine senator had to choose between two candidates with close ties to political bosses – Sarlo to Bergen County Democratic Organization Chairman Joe Ferriero, who she’s warring with, and Sweeney to South Jersey boss George Norcross.
Sarlo was said to be angry with Weinberg, considering that the two are from the same county. Weinberg, however, would not discuss her vote.
“It was a strictly closed party vote. And as I said I’m very pleased we all came together and made it unanimous,” said Weinberg.
Although no challenge was posed to Senate President Codey as majority leader, Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray speculated that this may be the beginning of a coalition of Democrats working with Sweeney to reach across the isle to moderate incoming Republicans like Jennifer Beck and Bill Baroni. That way, they may put pressure Codey to put up legislation that he otherwise would not consider.
“Maybe it’s less a sense than a hope that there could be something different about this legislature in the sense of bipartisanship,” said Murray, who noted that Sweeney, a union leader himself, had made gone against a traditionally Democratic constituency when he supported cuts to state worker salaries and benefits last year.
“I think that Steve Sweeney has shown that he’s willing to go against the vested Democratic interest groups,” said Muray.
Other sources note that Sweeney’s status puts him next in line for the Senate presidency – giving south Jersey control of the body should Codey become governor again, or perhaps challenge him two years from now.
Sweeney could not be reached for comment. And while sources say that Sarlo was upset, he gave a carefully worded statement.
“I congratulate Sen. Codey on his election as Senate President, and on Sen. Sweeney on his election as Majority Leader. I’m proud to have supported both of them and I look forward to continuing as an active member of the Senate Democratic Leadership to ensure that our caucus remains focus on the issues important to New Jersey.”
Sarlo is now expected to seek the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee, where Buono, a three-term Democrat from Middlesex County, appears to be a leading candidate.