TRENTON – There was no one more irriated by Monday’s subpoena power fizzle-out than Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-Metuchen), who heading into the senate session believed she had the votes in her caucus to be able to summon former Education Commissioner Bret Schundler and consultant Wireless Generation under court order.
This would be a big win for Buono, a party leader who has repeatedly defined herself as the Democrats’ progressive movement go-to person and fearless critic of the governor and his administration, as when she cut out on Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno’s government task force, citing concern for environmental protection.
Now she again tried to exert fierce opposition, but found herself outside the power hug of Gov. Chris Christie and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford).
“There is no substitute for putting someone under oath and any U.S. Attorney worth his salt knows that,” said Buono, bothered by the deal Christie finally cut with Sweeney to short-circuit her resolution and comply with requests for information – but in a limited way, one severely hampered – in Buono’s view – by the governor’s insistence that he reserve the right of executive privilege.
It amounted to a watered down beat down.
“I needed to have Schundler and wireless,” said Buono, head of the Legislative Oversight Committee, as she sought information about how the Christie administration lost $400 million in federal Race to the Top funds.
She does not now intend to give up. Sources close to the majority leader say she initially believed her caucus lost the momentum to get subpoena power – momentum blunted, in fact, by Sweeney’s willingness to placate the governor. But despite the tenuous nature of Sweeney’s and Buono’s relationship, the majority leader is confident the senate president will work with her to muster the votes and court-order Schundler to appear before her.
In raw political terms, it wasn’t clear on Monday that Sweeney wanted this battle. Ambitious like Buono, sources said the senate president had his own reasons to diffuse the issue.
Alert to the majority leader’s movements on his left and her potential rise to statewide status and worried about infuriating the combustible Christie, sources close to Sweeney insist he had the 21 votes to back up Buono’s resolution, and confirmed that to PolitickerNJ.com.
“We had 21 votes Monday,” Sweeney said today.
It was hard not to see the senate president’s double political advantage of compromising with the governor: dim Buono and quell Christie.
Others who did not have to inhabit the frontline of Christie’s rage zone didn’t have the same calculations.
“We’ll have the votes,” state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge) told PolitickerNJ.com in the Monday a.m.
But closer to the 1 p.m. session, the caucus hardly projected unity, as Sarlo worked with Buono to try to corral the caucus.
If Sweeney’s allies say the prez had the votes, the situation was – at best – still very fluid for the Dems behind closed doors in the p.m., as Republicans – bored, by all appearances, waiting for the majority party -milled about in public view on the floor of the senate chamber, at least one of them showing another an animated golf swing.
“Our 17,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. (R-Westfield) would pronounce later in stating his caucus’s to a man (and woman) opposition to state Sen. Loretta Weinberg’s (D-Teaneck) family planning funding bill.
The GOP’s Christie era regimentation contrasted starkly with unraveling on the other side. In their second story cocoon, and much to Buono’s chagrin, some Democratic senators started outright grunting discomfort with the prospect of embarrassing a willful governor with a subpoena. Could a prickly Christie resist political vengeance with those kinds of suggestive headlines?
Siding with Buono in the caucus, veteran state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) waved off those fearful concerns, trying to convince other Democrats this wasn’t a big deal – though important, given Christie’s resistance to providing key documentation to Buono’s committee.
“I’m a lawyer, I subpoena people all the time,” he told his colleagues.
“Our job is oversight and inquiry as to how things are being implemented, and you would like to think it’s coming in the spirit of cooperation,” agreed state Sen. Ronald L. Rice (D-Newark). “We need the tools to compel the administration to respond to us.”
But others disagreed, and while Senate Democrats debated, Sweeney as leader jockeyed between his caucus and the governor’s office.
Downstairs in his office, Christie inevitably worked two fronts: his face-to-face communications with Sweeney; and back channels to individual legislators, either through intermediaries from his office or the unspoken tug of evolving, cross-the-aisle relationships. State Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden), for example, had just spent Sunday in Christie’s luxury box as a witness to the exhilarating spectacle of the once lowly New York Jets bully the New England Patriots.
But that was Sunday’s game. This was Monday’s.
The governor made clear to Sweeney that if the senate prez got behind a subpoena to go after the Race to the Top story, he’d go nuclear. What that means is open to interpretation, but presumably the governor at the very least would expose every soft Democratic Party underbelly in the legislature.
Sweeney went back to his caucus to report the score. Already wobbly, skeptical senators started retreating from the resolution, with state Sen. Nia Gill (D-Montclair) in especially impassioned tones, and others directing a simple question at Buono, “Are you ready to go to war over this?”
State Sen. Richard Codey (D-Roseland) nursed his own doubts from the outset. The most machiavellian interpretation of Codey’s opposition would be that – like Christie – the wounded, former senate president benefits from Sweeney and Buono killing each other, but Codey said no. He just didn’t like the strategy.
“My opposition was just on the issue,” said the Essex Democrat, who reminded the caucus – triggering at least one exhausted roll of the eyes – of his status as a former governor.
“When you’re going after the governor’s office, it’s got to be a strong case,” Codey said. “Where there’s a semblance of criminal conduct, don’t use arrows, use a cannonball.”
“Are you sure this is criminal?” concurred an equally doubtful Gill.
The double duo holdout of Codey and Gill represented an interesting pairing of organizational rivals. Gill’s employment with Essex County – like Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver’s (D-East Orange), of course – makes her an underling of Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, who as recently as last week on his re-election trail in Maplewood of all places (per capita one of the most Democratic municipalities in the state) told diehards in his own party – again – that he likes Christie’s leadership.
“Do I agree with him on every issue?” DiVincenzo asked an audience that rebelled early, back scattering curses in DiVincenzo and the absent Christie’s direction.
But the county exec and longtime Christie friend maintained his opinion that the Republican governor is doing an excellent first-year job.
Codey and Divincenzo are entrenched political enemies.
That convergence of Codey with at least one DiVincenzo senator (the other, state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark) was on board early with her sisterhood mentor Buono, but – again – hardly wearing war paint on the issue) coupled with Sweeney’s lack of enthusiasm for this cause, given Christie’s and Buono’s rival end game, put the resolution into meltdown mode.
The public story was Christie’s “compromise,” but Buono, fuming, nullified, thought the compromise of her own caucus was just as injurious.
“For an administration that prides itself on transparency, they haven’t lived up to their reputation,” said the legislative oversight chair, doubtful in the immediate aftermath of securing anything worthwhile from Christie on the Schundler subject – without a subpoena.
Despite the cloakroom drama – and whatever his intra-party moves mean in relationship to Buono and their mutual and maybe competing political designs – Sweeney said Democrats will move ahead with subpoena power if they must.
“We’re going to wait and see what documents we get, and if we don’t get what we need, we’ll pursue it (a floor vote on subpoena power),” Sweeney said.
After eating the loss Monday and weathering the whispered fractures with Sweeney, Buono was encouraged by the senate president’s words Wednesday, and convinced her loss was temporary.