The unexpected announcement late this evening by John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville) that he would drop his fledgling campaign for Assembly Speaker and support Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange) is a clear sign that key North Jersey Democrats will back Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford) for Senate President, Oliver for Speaker, and possible Democratic State Chairman Joseph Cryan (D-Union) for Assembly Majority Leader.
Support for Oliver, a relatively obscure Essex County Democrat, is reminiscent of the surprise move in 2001 to dump Joseph Doria (D-Bayonne) as the likely Speaker and replace him with freshman Albio Sires (D-West New York). Oliver is a protégé of Newark Democratic leader Stephen Adubato, who is a close political ally of South Jersey Democratic leader George Norcross. She is the Assistant Essex County Administrator.
If there is a deal with South Jersey, Oliver could potentially start the race with between sixteen and eighteen votes, depending on who wins the hotly contested first district Assembly race. And if there is a deal with Cryan, Oliver could add four more votes out of Union County. Wisniewski could put her at 21.
On Friday, Wisniewski won the backing of three Democratic Assemblymen from Middlesex and one from Somerset County. If the Sayreville Democrat was indeed a stalking horse of sorts (he may not have known that he was), and if Cryan does indeed forgo a bid for Speaker, Oliver could pick up four more votes out of Middlesex – clearly enough to win election as Assembly Speaker.
The apparent deal for Oliver could bring votes from Essex County into the Sweeney coalition, a clear slap at the incumbent Senate President, Richard Codey (D-Roseland). And with South Jersey support, Oliver could quickly put another candidate, Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Ewing), out of contention for Speaker and out of her current job as Majority Leader.
Oliver would become the first woman Speaker since Marion West Higgins (R-Westwood) in 1965, the first African American since the Rev. S. Howard Woodson (D-Trenton) in 1975, and the first Essex County Speaker since Thomas Kean (R-Livingston) in 1973.
Codey appears to have seven solid votes in his bid for re-election: Shirley Turner (D-Lawrence), Joseph Vitale (D-Woodbridge), Ronald Rice (D-Newark), Nicholas Sacco (D-North Bergen), John Girgenti (D-Hawthorne), Robert Gordon (D-Fair Lawn), and his own. Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City) has been listed in the Codey camp by supporters of both candidates.
Sweeny also has seven certain votes: Jeff Van Drew (D-Middle Twp.), James Whelan (D-Atlantic City), Frederick Madden (D-Washington Twp.), Dana Redd (D-Camden), James Beach (D-Voorhees), Brian Stack (D-Union City), and his own. There is considerable speculation that Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge) is set to endorse Sweeney.
If Union County joins a Sweeney-Oliver deal, that would send two more votes to Sweeney: Raymond Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) and Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden). Scutari has been viewed as leaning toward Codey. The deal with Essex County for Oliver would likely include support from Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark) for Sweeney. It could also move Nia Gill (D-Montclair), Oliver's running mate, into the Sweeney camp. Robert Smith (D-Piscataway) is also reportedly leaning toward Sweeney. That potentially gives Sweeney thirteen of the 23 Senate Democrats.
Barbara Buono (D-Metuchen) is sending mixed signals. And Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck), the Democratic candidate for Lt. Governor, is trying desperately to stay out of the Senate leadership race. If she wins her statewide campaign, many Democrats say she will not participate in a Codey vs. Sweeney vote, if both candidates are still in the race. Weinberg is more likely to vote for Codey, but Gov. Jon Corzine, never a big Codey fan, could push her to support Sweeney.