Pressure builds around Oliver as Assembly moves on reform

TRENTON – Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, (D-34), of East Orange, is under increasing pressure from various quarters as landmark pension and benefit reform legislation is scheduled to be heard in an Assembly committee next week.

Today, the head of the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey sent an email to one former state Democratic chairman to defend Oliver, and an email from another former state chair surfaced challenging Oliver’s direction of the caucus.

In an open letter sent yesterday, obtained and verified by State Street Wire, Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, (D-15), of Ewing, told her colleagues, “We are currently addressing several legislative proposals, that are a mirror reflection of the right wing agenda and the opposite of what the Democratic Party is supposed to represent.”

Watson Coleman referred to proposals such as the transfer of operations at state-owned New Jersey Network; education reform; and pension and benefit reform, including the bill Oliver announced this afternoon she was posting in the Assembly Budget Committee even though a reported majority of her caucus is opposed to it.

Watson Coleman continued: “How are we allowing ourselves to be dragged down this Governor’s right wing alley of pain and devastation that is targeting the middle class, frail, elderly and poor, and support an agenda that upholds and indeed lifts the wealthiest? At what point do we stand up for the majority of New Jersey’s residents and repudiate the middle class dismantling that this Administration so arrogantly defends? At what point do we distinguish ourselves from the Republican agenda whose principles we have long rejected as unfair and hurtful to so many people? When do we stand up to the bullying and accusing and represent what we know in our intellect and believe in our hearts?

“We can begin by refusing to vote on any legislation that eliminates the hard-fought right to collectively negotiate as, again, these issues should be at the bargaining table not in the Legislative chambers. And we should diligently fulfill our responsibility to scrutinize and reject any effort to privatize education and weaken the safety net for the poorest among us. I am asking you to stand up and for us to stand together on these issues that so clearly define who and what we stand for as a Democratic caucus.”

In a response sent to State Street, Oliver said Demcorats have not and will not abandon the people they represent.

“I am fully cognizant of the complexities facing the Legislature during this extremely difficult economic climate,” Oliver said. “Despite that difficult economic climate, it will always be the priority of the Democratically controlled Legislature to protect as best we can the millions of working class New Jersey families facing daily struggles to make ends meet. We will never waver in that commitment. That’s why I’ve been working as hard as I can to build as much consensus as possible on one difficult issue after another, with the constant goal being to preserve jobs,  improve our economy and provide as much property tax relief as possible while at the same time providing resources to protect the interests of the broad cross section of constituencies the Assembly Democrats represent.”

In another incident relating to the Assembly Democratic Caucus, the Rev. Reginald Jackson, executive director of the Black Ministers’ Council of New Jersey, sent an email today to Majority Leader Joe Cryan, (D-20), of Union Township, forcing the legislator to defend himself against a rumor of uprising in the chamber.

Jackson told State Street Wire that he heard from two sources not in the legislature that Cryan was planning to conduct a no-confidence vote for Oliver next Monday in caucus. (The Assembly voting session has since been cancelled to conduct a hearing on the reform bill.)

Pulled from a meeting to respond to the allegations, Cryan said, “I would ask the Reverend to publicly name any member who has had any conversation with me or my staff in this regard.”

Jackson said he hopes the rumors aren’t true, but wanted to head the situation off at the pass should they prove to be.

“He was state (Democratic) chairman for five years and built this party up,” said Joshua Hodes, Cryan’s chief of staff. “He has no plans to bring this party down.”

In his email, Jackson wrote to Cryan: “While I am confident this (no-confidence) vote would fail, its consequences would be hurtful to the Democratic Caucus, polarize and alienate the Democratic Party, particularly its strongest base and hurt the State of New Jersey.

“Even more, I am troubled that anyone in the caucus would make such a move,” Jackson wrote. “I have not agreed with Speaker Oliver on every issue, specifically education issues, but I do not question her competence or leadership ability. If what I am hearing is true, this is a power play that is unfortunate and destructive. Two weeks ago I spoke at a press conference endorsing Sen. (Raymond) Lesniak, yourself, and Assemblywoman (Annette) Quijano. I hope that I do not have to regret that endorsement, but if I have to I am prepared to publicly do so and have my colleagues join me.”

Statehouse sources have said for weeks that Cryan had an alternate pension proposal at the ready, but kept it off the table to allow Oliver to conduct negotiations with state Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-3), of West Deptford, and Gov. Chris Christie without the distraction of another piece of legislation out there, in a show of respect for the Speaker.

Pressure builds around Oliver as Assembly moves on reform