Experts: ‘more seasoned leadership might have gotten better concessions’

TRENTON – Mercenaries in the pay of the English crown once got their butts kicked in Trenton, but this time London came calling and made Trenton kneel.

Ensconsed in her office throughout the morning, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange) wanted face-to-face time with Gov. Chris Christie, who finally managed a phone call with her before crossing the Hudson to meet Queen Elizabeth II.

Now, a day before Oliver heads into a caucus room, analysts say she goes with a chunk taken out of her as a consequence of not landing stronger concessions from Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who sooner squeezed a queen into his schedule then double back on the Democratic speaker of the assembly.

But Senate President Steve Sweeney’s (D-West Deptford) willingness to bargain with the governor on Saturday and bear hug an agreement on a 2.0% property tax cap without the participation of his own caucus likewise signals a less than effective approach, according to the same experts.

“I don’t know if the Democrats would be in this situation if former Gov. Codey and Joe Roberts were still senate president and speaker,” said Dr. Brigid Harrison, professor of political science at Montclair University. “It seems as if Steve Sweeney has given the governor pretty much everything he wanted.

“It’s a different leadership style – Codey and Sweeney,” Harrison added. “Sweeney seems more comfortable in front of a podium, while Codey was most effective making the backroom deal.”

This is not the first time Democratic leadership appeared outflanked by Christie.

“More seasoned leadership might have gotten some better concessions on the budget,” said Prof. Joe Marbach of Seton Hall University.

As soon as the governor backed off of his initial proposal of a constitutional hard cap of 2.5% and endorsed Sweeney’s statutory cap last Thursday, and then subsequently sealed a deal with Sweeney, Democrats attempted to act as if they had already owned the issue.

“The agreement announced by Senate President Sweeney sounds a lot like what Democrats in New Jersey have stood for for several years and have recently passed legislation on – a statutory cap with reasonable exceptions for factors local governments can’t really control,” said Democratic State Chairman John Wisniewski. “While the amount by which taxes are allowed to increase may be different, it’s a small difference – but it’s significant progress and I look forward to reviewing it right after the Fourth with my colleagues.”

“Not only are we supportive of this, but we helped advance the issue to where it is today,” said Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-Voorhees). “This plan is a giant step forward. We will carefully review it and move on it as soon as possible in the interest of true tax reform for our citizens.”  

But Harrison said Christie has been the driver here, despite Democrats’ efforts to take credit.

“It’s almost laughable for them to claim that this is a Democratic agenda,” she said. “This is Gov. Christie’s agenda. The strategy of the loyal opposition in pointing out how the governor’s plan will hurt municipalities and the services they provide is potentially a strong one, but the Democrats have to figure out which side they want to be on. Right now, they appear disjointed and weak.”

Although not prepared to praise anyone but Christie in terms of ground gained, Patrick Murray, political scientist and pollster for Monmouth University, said Oliver looked weaker then Sweeney in not being at the bargaining table on Saturday. 

“She hasn’t been a power player,” said Murray. “I don’t think it’s yet at the point where her caucus overthrows her, but it’s bubbling under the surface. She has to feel out her political future before she approaches the governor, which is something that Sweeney doesn’t have to do.”

“When you see three out of the four leaders at that press conference on Saturday, Speaker Oliver was conspicuous by her absence,” said Marbach. “Being from Essex, she has a strong geographical base, but if you’re not effective, it doesn’t matter where you’re from. People aren’t going to follow you if you’re not effective.”

A Democratic Party insider was unprepared to give an edge to Sweeney, saying people were more inclined to give him “a pass because he gained entry to the backroom, when in reality his complicity was far more destructive than the speaker’s half-hearted efforts.” 

Experts: ‘more seasoned leadership might have gotten better concessions’