Legal battle: three vie for chairmanship as Greenstein moves up to senate

TRENTON – One battle begets another in politics and Democratic Party victory in the 14th Legislative District unleashes yet one more struggle: this time within the ranks of the majority party as at least three assembly people vie to replace state Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Plainsboro) as chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Elizabeth), Assemblyman Peter Barnes (D-Edison) and Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Princeton), all attorneys, contrast starkly as they jockey to take the leadership position Greenstein held for nearly ten years before defeating state Sen. Tom Goodwin (R-Hamilton) in last week’s election.

The chair presides over a committee that serves as a legislative catch-all for all changes in criminal and civil law and court decision reviews.

The greenest of the trio, Quijano landed in the assembly two years ago to fill the unexpired term of former Assemblyman Neil Cohen (D-Roselle). A former counsel to Gov. Jon Corzine, she served as vice chair of Greenstein’s judiciary committee.  

An attorney in private practice and former member of the judiciary committee, Barnes describes himself as a social conservative, while municipal prosecutor Gusciora is a proud progressive with veteran credentials, and the only openly gay member of the legislature.

“It’s experience,” Gusciora told PolitickerNJ.com, who also argues that Mercer County’s absence of chairmanships should likewise put him in contention, in addition to his independence from the two biggest machines in North and South Jersey politics right now.

“I’m out of that political fray of North Jersey that’s grid locking our caucus and I’m capable of really uniting a loyal opposition to the governor,” said Gusciora, who would prioritize streamlining municipal court surcharges.

A past president of the Middlesex County Bar Association, Barnes voted to repeal the death penalty but opposes abortion and gay marriage.

“I think the one priority I would look at as chair of the committee would be funding for legal services,” he told PolitickerNJ.com. “Their funding has been slashed and services are down. With the number of foreclosures and landlord tenant cases out there in a downbeat economy, they really need attorneys. We need to take up a funding source for legal services.”

Ultimately, the decision comes down to Democratic Leadership in the lower house, which is divided right now between Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange) and Assembly Majority Leader Joe Cryan (D-Union Twp).  

Finally, little happens without a substantial gutcheck with South Jersey, whose lockstep members can make or break the caucus.

Politically, Barnes arguably stands in the best position as the Edison-based assemblyman in Democratic Party stronghold Middlesex, a county almost as big (400,000 voters) as Union (Quijano) and Mercer (Gusciora) combined (450,000 voters).

Quijano is the district-mate of Cryan, and if the Oliver-Cryan rift is indeed unnavigable at this point, the speaker would be hard pressed to reward an ally cocooned into Cryan’s inner political circle.

On the outskirts not only with the South-North Jersey machinery that made Oliver, Gusciora also never endeared himself to Cryan. But Gusciora argues that his status as a 14-year member of the judiciary committee and legal expertise combine significantly with his status as a gay leader.

“When you consider that (Senate President Steve) Sweeney bypassed marriage equality, assigning me the chairmanship would be a way to help a very important part of the Democratic Party base,” said Gusciora, whose backing of Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Ewing) over Oliver in the speaker’s battle last year made him collateral damage as he lost his commerce committee chairmanship.
 
Other Democrats on the judiciary committee – Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D-Voorhees) and Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Belleville) – aren’t pursuing the job.

Greenwald already stands on a power projection platform as chair of the budget committee, and Caputo now serves on three committees and doesn’t have a law degree (not that that’s a disqualifier; see Paul Sarlo’s chairmanship of the senate judiciary committee).

“I would be interested if someone asked me, but I’m not seeking it,” Caputo told PolitickerNJ.com.

So Barnes, Gusciora and Quijano make the play.

“I think there are three good candidates and I don’t envy leadership with the decision they have to make,” Greenstein said.

Legal battle: three vie for chairmanship as Greenstein moves up to senate