As the final vote on pension and health benefits approaches, discussion among politicos has turned to the fallout from the months-long battle over legislation that is decidedly unpopular among Trenton’s majority party.
Sources in the Democratic caucuses in both houses say there is discontent with leadership over the bill, which was sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) in the Senate and supported by Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-34) in the lower chamber.
How could Democrats control both houses and allow the passage of legislation that has riled the party’s base just five months before mid-term elections, is the question many Democrats are asking.
“There are definitely leadership questions being asked,” said one Democratic source. “Right now, nobody seems to have an answer.”
Oliver’s future is dominating the leadership conversation as she faces a more divided caucus, waffled in her initial reticence about posting the bill and is seen by some Democrats as a pawn because of her day job as an administrator in Essex County, where County Executive Joe DiVincenzo makes up one third of a statewide power troika that includes South Jersey insurance executive George Norcross and Gov. Chris Christie.
But sources inside the Democrats’ camp say an Assembly power shift in the short term is unlikely if not impossible as no potential contender has anywhere near the votes to oust Oliver from her perch. Several sources spoken to relayed versions of the old saw that if you try to kill the king, you’d better succeed or pay the price.
“No matter how you count them, (her opponents) don’t have the votes,” said one highly placed Democrat. “I think come June 30, this one peters out without much fanfare.”
One name that emerged as a potential challenger to Oliver is Majority Leader Joe Cryan, (D-20). Rumors were rampant earlier this month that Cryan was preparing to take a shot at Oliver and call for a “no confidence vote” based on the speaker’s support for the pension and health benefits bill.
Cryan has denied he has any intention of going after Oliver and publicly called the rumor a complete fabrication.
Even her opponents in the caucus, still fuming over her decision to post the pension and health reform bill for a vote, say there is no movement to oust Oliver before her term ends in January. But at that point, they say, she could be in trouble. Traditionally, both chambers vote for their leadership in November, just after Election Day.
Depending on how things shake out in November, one lawmaker said, Oliver could face a challenge then.
“There was a great deal of dissatisfaction even before this vote,” said a Democratic lawmaker. “It’s not new.”
But just who could emerge as a challenger remains to be seen. Oliver was ensconced in the speaker’s chair through a North-South power sharing agreement that also saw Sweeney wrest control of the Senate from former Gov. Dick Codey, (D-27). Finding another member acceptable to all sides would be a challenge, sources say.
Among the potential names being kicked around are Bonnie Watson Coleman, (D-15), John McKeon, (D-27), Democratic State Chair John Wisniewski, (D- 19), and Cryan.
“The other possibility is someone not on the radar who emerges as a consensus candidate,” said one Democrat, citing Oliver’s emergence from nowhere to take the seat.
Republicans might also present a roadblock to a leadership change. Sources say Republicans would likely back Oliver in the event of a coup, making her ouster even more remote.
“I think what you’ll probably see is June 30 will come and go,” said a Democratic source. “After that anyone with an eye on the speakership will go away and start working their connections for November.”