As PolitickerNJ.com begins a subjective tournament to choose New Jersey’s Smartest Legislator, state Sen. Leonard Lance could be the early front runner. Lance has faced some criticism from members of his own party for being more of a statesman than a politician, but several statehouse watchers and former legislators say he may be one of the brightest people in Trenton.
“Leonard Lance is the one guy who sits in the legislature today that could have sat in the Senate in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s,” said lobbyist/public relations executive Alan Marcus, who served as Clerk of the General Assembly in 1969, at age 21. “Leonard is a throwback to that era of the noblesse oblige, of quiet brilliance — of people who don’t speak on every issue, but who become conversant on every issue.”
Lance isn’t the only name that comes up in discussions about smart legislators. In the Senate, the most repeated names were Raymond Lesniak, Nia Gill, Kevin O’Toole, Bill Baroni, John Adler, Dick Codey, and Barbara Buono.
In the Assembly, Joe Roberts, Michael Patrick Carroll, Joe Malone, David Russo, and John Wisniewski were frequently mentioned as among the brainiest.
Carroll was once a contestant on Jeopardy – he came within $1 of winning.
“He’s one of the most interesting and funny, and sometimes outrageous – but certainly an individual who has spent a lot of time studying concepts down there – understanding bills and articulating them,” said former Assemblyman Guy Gregg.
Adler is frequently cited for his educational pedigree – he went to Harvard University for undergrad and law school.
“You can look at his background and certainly point to that and say there’s evidence certainly in his ability to reason and articulate his position,” said former state Sen. Ellen Karcher.
Some of the legislators brought up, like Malone, are far from high profile. But while quiet, observers say that the ranking Republican member of the budget committee has shown an almost unparalleled expertise on financial issues.
Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray plugged his fellow professor, Amy Handlin. While she’s faced hurtles in getting legislation passed as a minority member of the Assembly, she’s found ways around it by implementing pilot programs within her own district.
For instance, when she couldn’t get legislation moved to require more training for teen drivers, she contacted high schools about adding a similar program to their curriculums.
“It’s not that she’s just really good at that kind of strategy of putting things together – they come from big thoughts about the way things ought to be,” said Murray.
Gregg said that, as one of his most staunch adversaries during the time they served together in the Assembly, Nia Gill impressed him with her intelligence.
“When we debated, that’s a person that I put on a competitive level. Some people you don’t put on that level, and it almost becomes one-sided on the floor in debates”, he said. “She’s one who was incredible because of her knowledge and toughness.”
According to former state Sen. Bill Gormley, the number of bills a legislator’s name is attached to has nothing to do with intelligence. It’s how effective you are.
“If you’re willing to give somebody else credit, not put your name in the paper and achieve other peoples’ goals so they can allege they’re the father or mother of the legislation, that’s how you get things done,” he said. “Everything else is incidental.”
Indeed, with some of the higher profile politicians, observers find it harder to cut through the political hype to examine how they operate. Codey and Lesniak, who both wield lots of political clout, are examples.
“They analytically look at the merits of the legislation and find the points of it that will bring folks together,” said former Assemblyman Dick Kamin. “They’re able to either minimize the negative parts of legislation or emphasize the positive points.”
There are plenty of freshman legislators who didn’t make the cut – only because they haven’t had the opportunity to prove themselves. Montclair State political science professor Brigid Harrison said that 33-year-old Teresa Ruiz shows a lot of potential.
“I haven’t had a lot of opportunity to see policy expertise, but she demonstrates a clear understanding of her own place and her role as a woman and representative of Latinos,” said Harrison.