Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, colleagues, friends and family. Thank you very, very much.
It goes without saying that this is an overwhelming and historic day, both for me personally and for our beloved state of New Jersey.
I am grateful to my Assembly colleagues for the confidence they have placed in me.
Their faith in me is humbling.
I don’t know exactly what will happen in the coming years, but I can tell you this much – I will work hard every day for the people of New Jersey, and I vow to make certain that your faith in me will be rewarded.
Before I continue, I want to extend my best wishes to Governor Jon Corzine and to Governor-elect Chris Christie who are here with us today.
To Governor Corzine, I thank you for your commitment to public service and for your dedication to protecting our most vulnerable residents during these very difficult times.
Your compassion – both as a U.S. senator and a governor – will long be remembered.
Thank you for your service and we all wish you well in your future endeavors.
To our Governor-elect, Chris Christie, one week from today you will begin your work under the Golden Dome.
I am here to say on behalf of my colleagues on this stage that we wish you the best and that we hope to work in partnership with you to further our shared goal of making this state the best it can be.
I also offer my congratulations to our first lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno.
New Jersey historically has had few women in major government roles, but now, at least two of the key roles in our state will be held by women. I know this will help motivate women throughout our state who aspire to the highest levels of public service.
Our new Senate president, Stephen Sweeney, is not with us because the Senate is having its reorganization. We look forward to working with Senator Sweeney and his colleagues to make New Jersey a better place for all to live and work.
To the members of the Democratic leadership team:
First, Assemblyman Joseph Cryan, our new Majority Leader…
Joe, your keen interest in public policy and government is already legendary. Your reputation as a workhorse is noteworthy.
I look forward to working with you in your capacity as Majority Leader and as a partner as we move forward in the years ahead.
To my friend, Jerry Green, as our Speaker Pro Tempore…
When I first came to Trenton in 2004, you were one of the first veteran legislators that I developed a relationship with — and I remember you telling me: “You are going to do just fine.”
Thank you for your guidance and friendship throughout the years.
To Minority Leader DeCroce…
Alex, I congratulate you as you begin another two years as the leader of your caucus. I look forward to working together.
And let me just acknowledge a few other important people who work so tirelessly on our behalf:
…On behalf of the Democratic caucus, our executive director, Bill Caruso.
…On behalf of the Republican staff, Rick Wright, their executive director.
…And the non-partisan Office of Legislative Services, led by Albert Porroni.
There are so many friends and family who have meant so much to me through the years. Some are here with us today and others are no longer with us but they are here close to my heart.
To my mother Jennie Oliver, I want to thank you for passing on your tenacity and that fighting spirit.
To my late father Charles, I know you would have been so very proud and I want to thank you for teaching me the fine art of debate.
To my brother Charles and his wife Sylvia and children Renee and Charles, thank you for lending me your support over the years.
I’m also thankful to share this day with my cousins – the Rev. Lawton Nelson Jr. and Monet Webb.
And we certainly wouldn’t be here today if my late maternal grandparents hadn’t left their rural Carolina roots in the late 1920s for the promise that the north held for economic equality…
…As well as my paternal grandparents who settled in New England in the pursuit of freedom and democracy.
I also want to acknowledge Congressman Donald Payne who inspired me when I was a youth. He organized the young girls and boys in our community and I was fortunate to be one of them. I learned a number of skills that I use today, including how to convene meetings and how to use Robert’s Rules of Order.
And special thanks to the students who are here with us today …
From the East Orange school district, we have 22 young leaders – the council president from each school – who wanted to be part of this special day.
From the Cicely Tyson Community School of Performing and Fine Arts in East Orange, we have our very talented Morgan Gill and Armani Woolridge who are taking part in the program.
And thank you to the Montclair State University Jazz Ensemble for the beautiful music we all heard as we walked into the War Memorial.
You all represent our present and our future, and you inspire us to work even harder in our roles as public servants.
We have a lot of special people here today and I wish I could name them all, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Sarah Carter Perry Brown from South Jersey. She’s known to many as Aunt Sarah and she recently celebrated her 106th birthday.
She has seen 19 presidents going back to Teddy Roosevelt and she proudly cast her vote for President Barack Obama. I am honored to have her here today with us. Thank you Sarah for joining us on this momentous occasion.
I also must mention the man from whom I am accepting the Speaker’s gavel – Joe Roberts.
He leaves behind a tremendous legacy.
His efforts to help those suffering from autism will reverberate through the coming generations as we improve our detection, analysis and treatments.
New Jersey is better for his efforts, and we are prepared to build on his past successes.
Thank you, Speaker Roberts.
I hope you now take some time and enjoy an extra Jimmy Buffet concert or two.
So here we are New Jersey.
This is a time of great change no matter where we look.
From President Obama’s election a bit more than a year ago to the changes we see here today in the state capitol as we begin a new decade…
Our world as we knew it, and as our parents and grandparents knew it, is no more.
I know this is a significant day, and as I have said, I am grateful for the confidence my colleagues have placed in me.
I never thought that — for someone like me — this day would ever happen.
And when I say that, I mean I am not an Assembly Speaker who plays golf.
But in all seriousness, the only woman Speaker before just a few minutes ago was Marion West Higgins in 1965.
And the only African-American Speaker until just a few minutes ago was the Rev. S. Howard Woodson in 1974 and 1975.
Speakers West Higgins and Woodson broke historic barriers, and I am honored to follow in their footsteps.
And I am also truly honored that we are joined here today by members of their families.
I want to extend a very warm welcome to Speaker West Higgin’s son, Bill Higgins. Welcome Bill.
And a very warm welcome to Speaker Woodson’s son and daughter: S. Howard Woodson the Third and Jean Mitchell. They are joined by other family members Gennifer Jones and Renee McKitchen, and family friend Ollie Green.
We share your pride in their accomplishments, which will never be forgotten.
To our young women and young men, let me say this…
I am an unabashed believer that everyone has the potential — no matter your circumstance, no matter your color, no matter your hometown to aspire to be the best you can be, to lead, to be a catalyst for change.
I’ve already touched on some of the people from my youth that planted seeds that resulted in my standing before you here today as Assembly Speaker and as your public servant. Allow me to elaborate a bit more about the circumstances that led me on this road to Trenton.
Quite frankly, I wasn’t like a lot of other school-age kids that I knew. As a youngster, I was influenced by public policy debates. In 1961, there I was, plopped down in front of our television, watching the news and fixated on the Bay of Pigs invasion and wondering if President Kennedy was going to declare war on Cuba.
When other girls and boys were out playing on beautiful summer evenings, there I was, watching nationally televised presidential conventions. There really wasn’t anything else on during those times so I said, let me see what these people are talking about.
I remember learning about one Mississippi black woman – Fannie Lou Hamer – who was barred from being seated at the 1964 Democratic National Party convention, which was being held in Atlantic City.
But she didn’t take it sitting down.
On national television, she spoke before the Credentials Committee and her words resounded throughout the country. And they reached a young girl sitting in her Essex County livingroom.
Being exposed to these things I began to understand you need to hear the voices of all people.
But yet – as an activist – I still wasn’t that crazy about politicians. I didn’t think much of politics.
So after attending Lincoln and Columbia universities, I returned to my beloved New Jersey to work on community development issues.
And as I matured, I began to understand that not only is it important to hear the voices of all people, you also need voices of all kinds to articulate the needs of people from the many communities that make up our state and our country.
One of those voices that helped bring me to that realization was Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. Congress.
She was a passionate and effective advocate for the needs of historically under-represented communities, women and children, and she changed the nation’s perception about the capabilities of women and African-Americans.
It was Congresswoman Chisholm who said, ‘You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas.”
That is a theme and tradition I want to reinforce at the State House.
During the Two Hundred and Fourteenth Session, the Assembly will seek to change the paradigm.
I have always believed that government can be conducted differently.
As we begin this session with a new leadership team, we will be looking for ways for the public to experience transparency in how our government operates.
We want to hear from the men and women who live in the Garden State about the issues – regional and otherwise – that affect them directly. It is my intent to visit our 40 legislative districts.
And in addition to these visits, today I am pleased to announce that we will schedule special public hearings to allow the public to speak directly with legislators on possible solutions to New Jersey’s problems. The hearings will be hosted by bipartisan Assembly leaders, held at a time convenient to the public and with a focus on hearing from our constituents.
And I also don’t believe in this stark and combative partisanship that has gripped so much of our public debate in recent years, especially here in our State House.
Former Governor and Chief Justice Richard Hughes offers profound lessons in his biography called “The Life and Times of Richard J. Hughes: The Politics of Civility”. This book looks at his two terms as Governor and speaks to his tenure as the last vestige of civility and proper protocol.
I agree with the distinguished gentleman that adversarial partisanship does not solve problems.
As Assembly Speaker, I want to create an environment where we can in a bipartisan nature address problems that face real people.
After all, that’s what the people of New Jersey clearly want.
They know we share their values of a quality education, access to health care, worker rights, creating a business friendly environment and providing as much tax relief as possible.
But we have a lot of work to do.
No one denies that.
And it’s going to be hard work.
Everyone acknowledges that we are in the throes of a recession and we can only fight so much against this global tide. But in New Jersey, our Legislature will seek to create a climate and an environment where we can sustain our businesses, create jobs and support homeowners in maintaining the investments they have made.
That remains our goal.
And here, as clearly as I can state them, are our priorities.
…Reviving our economy and ensuring New Jersey reclaims its title as an economic engine for America.
…Job creation in every part of our great state.
…Establishing a business environment where companies already here in New Jersey want to stay and companies from other parts of the country want to join them.
…Attacking property taxes, although we know this can take many years.
Last year, following our 2006 and 2007 focus on property taxes, we saw the lowest increase in nearly a decade – 3.7 percent.
That is progress, but we certainly don’t want to wear this change as a badge of honor.
We need to do more, so we will, among other things, look to the unfinished business from our special session on property taxes.
These will be our priorities in the coming months, along with our constitutional duty to adopt a balanced budget, which as we all know will be a great challenge.
On that note, our focus in this legislative session will involve early Assembly Budget Committee hearings to begin finding ways to save money and cut costs without hurting our children, our less fortunate, our middle-class and our senior citizens.
As a matter of fact, I expect our focus on property taxes, jobs, the economy and the budget will be our singular focus in the months ahead.
And we will also reinstate the Assembly Regulatory Oversight Committee, which will be charged with the goal of reducing burdensome regulations on New Jersey’s business communities. This panel will also hear gaming issues.
Additionally, the Assembly Tourism and Gaming Committee will now become the Assembly Tourism and Arts Committee to put more focus on our state’s arts programs.
We know we have many things to take care of — but nothing is more important than the people of New Jersey and nothing is more important to them and to me than jobs, the economy and property taxes.
Those issues deserve our attention and they will get our attention.
And we’ve seen the positive changes that can happen when the Legislature and the Governor’s Office works in a nonpartisan manner.
Our state has the second highest ranking in the nation in per-capita personal income.
I am proud of our accomplishments in higher education. More of our high school graduates go on to higher education than any other state.
SAT scores are going up.
We have a pharmaceutical industry that is second to none.
New Jersey has worked to create a healthcare system that ensures care, including investing in Federally qualified health centers.
And we have so much more to celebrate here in the Garden State…
New Jersey is one of the most ethnically diverse states in the United States. Just look around you today at this gathering and see a reflection of our population.
New Jersey also has one of the largest business communities in the nation, with many major corporations calling it home.
New Jersey is home to some of the finest universities in the world.
New Jersey has been home to famous inventors, writers, civil rights leaders and musical artists.
I have said it before, and before I close here today, I will say it again…
…If you want to be a catalyst for change, you have to be in the driver’s seat.
A better day is ahead, now and for future generations.
If you live in a city, a small town or a sprawling rural township,
If you live in North Jersey, Central Jersey or South Jersey.
If you’re liberal or conservative.
If you’re rich or poor.
If you’re a senior citizen or a child.
Know this – the New Jersey General Assembly is here to work on your behalf.
We are your public servants and in this Two Hundred and Fourteenth Legislative Session our priority will continue to be you.
Thank you very much.