There is strength in numbers, and leaders of the legislature’s black caucus say they aren’t above using that strength to force Senate President Steve Sweeny (D-3) and Assembly Speaker Vinny Prieto (D-32) to acknowledge their concerns.
They don’t want to do it. But 18 votes is more than enough to derail a few of the party’s legislative efforts, they noted.
“It will be,” said state Senator Ron Rice (D-28), the caucus’ chairman, when asked whether the caucus’ organizational strength could become a factor in heading off legislation they disagree with in the future. “See, one thing about our caucus is we’ve done that already. We just don’t believe in abusing our authority or power. But we know who we are. We know what we have. And we will shut it down if we have to.”
It was just one of the messages Rice and other members of the caucus had for leaders of both houses at a press conference this morning, when they unveiled their latest budget and legislative priorities agenda for the 2015 year. The presser saw Trenton’s African American lawmakers, led by Rice, decrying what they felt has been a lack of respect among Democratic leaders for their own policy initiatives and concerns, including funding for education and legislation to expand affordable housing stocks in the state’s urban areas.
“It’s really a matter of communications, but the right kinds of communications,” Rice said. “Agree to disagree, but also understand that if you mess with one member of the legislative black caucus, who is actually doing their job the best they can, if you mess with them, then you mess with all of us. If you mess with Ben Wimberly, then as far as I’m concerned, you’re messing with 10 others. If you mess with Jerry Green — we can disagree on the politics, but I’m talking about the work we’re doing down here. ”
But voting as a bloc wasn’t the only strategy those in the room proposed as a way to get their agenda recognized. Assembly Jerry Green (D-22), who also serves as chairman of Union County’s Democratic Party, has bigger plans — which could have statewide implications, he argued.
“That’s old school. I’m going to take you to new school,” Green said of worrying about individual votes in Trenton. “New school is my ability to be able to communicate with the chairman in Middlesex, to communicate with the chairman in Mercer County, which has never happened before. Because all three of those counties will have a major impact on who’s going to occupy the front office.”
Green has made the case for a Central Jersey alliance before, and political observers note that together the three Democratic-leaning counties could be a force in the 2017 race for governor.
Green said it could also be a force in Trenton.
“So we all can come together and deal with the issues the Senator has talked about all day long, that has more impact than worrying about if Jerry Green is going to vote this way or what,” he said. “Now we have three counties, and how they are going to go into the voting booth, how they are going to vote for the next president, how they are going to vote for next governor. So now you’re working outside the box. Often they had you in one box, and it was OK. But now you’re out.”
One of the candidates weighing a run for the nomination next year, of course, is Sweeney himself — who joined other leaders in the Assembly and Senate at a press conference following Rice’s.
Rice complained that he wasn’t consulted on plans for that press conference either, though Sweeney told PolitickerNJ that he’s open to improved communications between the caucus and the party’s leadership, and that he and Rice have agreed to meet at least once a month to discuss the group’s concerns.
“I said to Senator Rice last night, I spoke to him for an hour, I said there’s always room to improve communication,” he said. “I said we should schedule monthly, weekly whatever, and talk about issues that are important to the African American caucus. I said I’d be glad to have those discussions. And we both agreed we need to talk more. So we can complain about needing to do more, or we could just do more.”