If Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford) is successful in his bid to replace Richard Codey (D-Roseland) as Senate President in November, Senate Democrats will have to decide who will replace Sweeney as Majority Leader. And if Sweeney challenges Codey and loses, he could face a fight to keep the job he has now. Either way, there could be a contested race for Senate Majority Leader.
Less than two years ago, Sweeney narrowly won the #2 Senate leadership post, defeating Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge) by a 14-9 vote after Bernard Kenney (D-Hoboken) did not seek re-election. Sarlo had Codey’s strong endorsement.
Sweeney won by assembling a coalition of six South Jersey Senators, along with support from Democratic Senators in Middlesex and Union, and Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City), Brian Stack (D-Union City), and Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck). Raymond Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) was Sweeney’s kingmaker; he helped deliver five votes on the day of the election.
But Sweeney would not necessarily have the same coalition against Codey as he did against Sarlo. He does not yet have the votes of Cunningham, Stack, Weinberg, and Joseph Vitale (D-Woodbridge), although Theresa Ruiz (D-Newark) is probably with him.
Don’t count out Vitale, the Chairman of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee, when discussing any leadership contest. He is well-liked in the Senate and has friends in both the Codey and Sweeney camp.
The conventional wisdom is that Sarlo, who became Senate Judiciary Chairman in January after John Adler (D-Cherry Hill) left to take his seat in Congress, will try again for Majority Leader. Sarlo has worked hard over the last two years to forge a stronger relationship with Lesniak. Vitale could also emerge as a candidate for Majority Leader; it would be tough for Sarlo to beat him.
If Sarlo or Vitale move up, it puts the chairmanship of Judiciary and Health, two of the Senate’s most powerful committees, in play. Look for Sweeney to pick Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden) for Judiciary – something that could happen anyway if Sarlo sticks with Codey. And if Vitale becomes Majority Leader, Weinberg could emerge as the leading contender to run the Health Committee (unless she is the Lt. Governor).
Sarlo might prefer to stay at Judiciary, which these days seems to be an enormously powerful post. Senators who view Majority Leader as being in the line of succession to the Senate Presidency might consider this: Codey has been the Senate Democratic leader for ten years, and Sweeney is not the kind of guy who gives things up easily – he has continued to hold his seat on the Gloucester County Board of Freeholders since his election to the Senate in 2001.
2007 Race for Senate Majority Leader
Sweeney (14): Van Drew, Whelan, Sweeney, Madden, Redd, Adler, Smith, Buono, Lesniak, Scutari, Cunningham, Stack, Weinberg
Sarlo (9): Turner, Codey, Rice, Ruiz, Sacco, Gill, Girgenti, Sarlo, Gordon