Democratic caucus misery heading toward Monday

TRENTON – Where there wasn’t indifference to the whole matter, the off-the-record reports about Wednesday’s Assembly Democratic caucus oozed into with more misery than vengeance, more agony than spite.

“I don’t know what I’m doing here anymore,” said one assemblyperson. “I’m thinking it’s time to go make money.”

At least two camps collided in what sounded like a meaningful policy debate. But the sense that there were multiple players with the ability to contribute to policy decisions rapidly disintegrated as members realized – despite Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver’s (D-East Orange) resistance to signing her name to a cap agreement with Gov. Chris Christie and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) before speaking with her caucus – that all the debate would inevitably add up to an endorsement of a plan already signed.

Indeed, while Democrats haggled over what they thought would be a strategy going forward, a confident Gov. Chris Christie told reporters on a farm in Franklin Twp. in reference to Oliver, “She and I spoke on Saturday, we had a very positive conversation, and for those of you who are skeptical about my characterizations, I think her comments yesterday (to reporters, about agreeing with the plan) back that up – that she feels good about this arrangement and good about the deal.”

Not everyone did.

A block of Democratic women led by Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D-Fanwood) and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Englewood) wanted to withhold their support for the 2.0% property tax cap until Christie agreed to back restoration of family planning funding.

Assembly Majority Leader Joe Cryan (D-Union Twp.) didn’t support them.

It’s not that he was against family planning. He wanted that $7.5 million back in the budget – maybe as badly as they did – but he didn’t support the strategy of tying family planning to the cap.

To do so would mean embracing what Cryan believed was a terrible concept proposed by Christie and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford), which would he thought would unfairly impose spending strictures on cities up against crime and poverty, where on-the-ground conditions might require more money at any time.

No, if the caucus was to dig in and act like Democrats, as Cryan understood the obligation of the party, they should oppose the 2.0% cap already approved by Sweeney until they exacted other exemptions from the cap, including special education and state aid.

In another camp sat Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-Voorhees), Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Paulsboro) and the South Jersey Democrats. When Sweeney on Saturday announced he was backing the cap with the governor that included exemptions for health care and debt service, the lower house South Jersey Democrats warred internally over the desire to break out and firmly endorse the plan ahead of the rest of the caucus.

As Oliver refused to sign on until she spoke to her caucus, Greenwald settled on a statement praising the “right direction” of the agreement.

There was a marked divide between Greenwald and Burzichelli and the women from North Jersey (mostly Bergen and Union) and Cryan. Self-professed fiscal conservatives, Greenwald and company had argued that a cap concept was no novel Christie idea. A dud perhaps as a leader compared to the fiery Christie, former Gov. Jon Corzine nonetheless had driven a 4 percent cap to rein in spending. It was Corzine’s Democratic initiative, which successfully dropped average tax increases in towns statewide from 7 percent to 3.3%. Now Christie had simply presented the cap concept as his own, in the process eventually caving on the one real piece of reform that was in fact his contribution – a Constitutionaly mandated cap.

Behind the scenes, many Democrats hammered Sweeney for nibbling meekly from Christie’s proferred hand, but – and here the Greenwald and Burzichelli argument tried to find a mark in disconsolate Democrats – it was Christie who caved to Sweeney’s plan to impose the cap by statute rather than consititutional amendment.

Democrats were winning, was the argument. But few beyond the ranks of South Jersey Dems believed it when they considered Christie’s formidable presence.

As they attempted to maintain the outlook and organizational discipline of a lawmaker who built the South Jersey political structure (former Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts of Camden, with the considerable assistance of George Norcross), Greenwald and his southern ranks represented 9 – maybe 11 – votes on their own in a 47-member caucus.   

Still, the power of Norcross and his reach throughout the state – coupled with a sense of increasingly fractured and self-interested Democratic Party fiefdoms everywhere else – made the Southerners again the strong ones in the room. 

Cynicism gripped much of the rest of the caucus.

Some said it was difficult to digest the oratory of Assemblyman John McKeon (D-West Orange), for example, without recognizing that his political fate next year may depend on the largesse of party bosses in Essex whose ally – Oliver – he now strenuously defended.

The reassurances of Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville) – the State Democratic Party chairman – carried the inevitable reminder that he had no overpowering base in Middlesex County and sat in the state party power chair as a result of a deal negotiated by Norcross, members complained. Members who’d feared getting tapped for an “aye” vote on the Republican governor’s budget and tried to summon a sense of pride when Oliver – taking one for the team – voted “yes,” now grappled with the aftermath, bothered by the governor’s restoration of nearly $20 million to Essex County – where Oliver worked.

Those not already beaten, didn’t realize their voices were going nowhere until one of the most persistent family planning women in the caucus room was cut short by Oliver in the middle of an impassioned entreaty.

A few looked to Cryan, the political thinker and strategist and independent voice who had no access to Christie and wasn’t allowed in the governor’s presence, who wasn’t obviously welded to the interests of any one organization -who sat silent.

Maybe it was time to build an independent North Jersey coalition the way Roberts did in the South all those years ago, someone muttered as the caucus broke anti-climatically with only Oliver’s public statement about support for the 2.0% cap agreement later signaling a way forward, amid a deepened sense that back room dialogue in the new era was mostly meaningless.

Democratic caucus misery heading toward Monday