2017 Lines Drawn in Assembly Members’ A.C. Takeover Positions

The three to watch: Sweeney, Prieto and Governor Christie
Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto holds the fate of the Atlantic City takeover in his hands (Left to right: Senate President Sweeney, Prieto and Governor Christie)

This week saw Governor Chris Christie announce that he will withdraw his support for North Jersey casinos if Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto(D-Hudson/Bergen) continues to refuse to post an Assembly version of the Atlantic City takeover bill. Accusing Prieto of being a “waterboy” for Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop on New Jersey 101.5, Christie has maintained that Prieto’s objections to breaking union contracts through the takeover legislation is really a feint for damaging Fulop’s rival for the governorship: Senate President and takeover sponsor Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester).

“The fact remains that Gov. Christie has sufficient authority to save Atlantic City from financial catastrophe, but instead of action, he makes excuses, spouts conspiracy theories about the next gubernatorial election and makes up stories about alleged promises. He should focus on doing his job,” Prieto said of that accusation. “As for North Jersey gaming, Gov. Christie can campaign as he chooses. It wouldn’t be his first flip-flop, and he would just be risking hurting Atlantic City by denying it funding it sorely needs from North Jersey gaming to transition into a resort destination.”

Sweeney is now the only pro-takeover gubernatorial player apart from Senator Ray Lesniak (D-Union), who voted for it in the Senate when it passed earlier this month. Fulop, former U.S. ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy and John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) have all said they are opposed.

Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) and Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-Camden/Burlington) have both said that they expect the bill to pass if Prieto relents and posts it. With 23 of the Assembly’s 28 Republicans supporting the bill and a majority of the lower house’s coalition of Middlesex and South Jersey Democrats expected to fall in line with Sweeney, the last week’s groundswell of support for Prieto from many Assembly Democrats offers a sketch of whom Fulop or Murphy will be able to count on for support in the primary battle next spring.

Apart from anti-gaming expansion and anti-takeover torchbearer Chris Brown (R-Atlantic), the Assembly opposition has been characterized by calls for a Christie to at least negotiate with the lower house and recognize its autonomy. A laundry list of northern Democrats — James J. Kennedy (D-Middlesex/Somerset/Union), Marlene Caride (D-Bergen/Passaic), Angela V. McKnight and Nicholas Chiaravalloti (both D-Hudson), Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), Reed Gusciora and Elizabeth Maher Muoio (both D-Mercer/Hunterdon),  Angelica Jimenez (D-Bergen/Hudson), Annette Chaparro (D-Hudson), Annette Quijano (D-Union) — all stopped short of opposing the takeover point by point, but voiced their support for Prieto and city workers’ right to their collective bargaining agreements.

“I have known Speaker Prieto for over 25 years. Contrary to what has been printed in the media, he is no one’s puppet,” Caride said in a representative statement from that camp. “The Speaker has, time and time again, expressed his willingness to sit down and work out a compromise that protects the city and public workers, but his calls for responsible and fair negotiations have fallen on deaf ears. To oppose any dialogue with the Assembly given what’s at stake is irresponsible.”

Wisniewski, standing out from the crowd of likely Fulop supporters as a gubernatorial candidate himself, invoked Christie’s presidential endorsement for Donald Trump in his statement on the takeover.

“Sadly, we need look no further than the company the Governor keeps while he’s out of state – unabashedly arrogant company with a history of financial flops in Atlantic City – to validate reservations about his intentions to ‘rescue’ this municipality. His track record inspires little confidence that he would responsibly manage the city’s valuable assets, such as its airport and its water utility, and has led me to conclude that our governor, in holding one of the most powerful offices in the land, holds too much power.”

Speaker Pro Tempore Jerry Green (D-Middlesex/Somerset/Union) joined that clutch of Prieto supporters, a move that could mean the end of his long-held support for Sweeney as the gubernatorial race accelerates – or not.

“The better option would be for Gov. Christie to exercise the authority he already has to fix this problem. Why he hasn’t done so is a mystery to everybody,” Green said. “The disrespect for Speaker Prieto is beneath the office of the Governor.”

Others dove into the state’s record of arguably failed takeovers in majority-black city school districts. Shavonda Sumter and Benjie Wimberly (both D-Bergen/Passaic) joined the rising tide of opponents from the black caucus, arguing that state takeovers disenfranchise voters.

“We’ve all seen what transpires under a failed takeover,” Wimberly wrote. “The City of Paterson Board of Education understands how a state takeover without a solid, long-term plan and input from all parties affects a community, its residents, and, especially, its children.”

Mila Jasey (D-Essex/Morris) and Gary S. Schaer (D-Bergen/Passaic) echoed that sentiment, with Schaer saying that “[virtually] every time the state has taken over the finances of local school boards or municipal governments, it has not been the panacea promised by its supporters.”

But the most pointed criticisms of the Assembly version came from Ralph Caputo (D-Essex) and Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson), who took aim at the Senate amendment to the takeover legislation’s accompanying PILOT bill. Caputo told PolitickerNJ that he believes the amendment to allow casinos to opt out of that agreement if North Jersey casinos open defeats the purpose of the bill. The opt-out provision, he said, would “unravel the entire fabric of the PILOT bill and threaten to destabilize Atlantic City’s tax base all over again.”

Caputo has said that he believes gubernatorial politics should not enter into fraught negotiations like the stand-off North Jersey casinos, but defended Fulop’s right to be at the table during negotiations as the mayor of a possible site for a new location.

Mukherji, who could replace Fulop as mayor if his bid is successful, said in a statement that he will support Prieto in opposing both the takeover and the opt-out amendment.

“Speaker Prieto has offered the participation of the Assembly in crafting PILOT and takeover legislation that would allow Atlantic City – a vital economic contributor to our state – to avoid insolvency without an opt-out provision that would undermine the PILOT agreement if voters approve North Jersey casinos in order to keep the state’s gaming industry viable,” he wrote.

Newly elected Assembly members Joann Downey and Eric Houghtaling (both D-Monmouth) have stayed mum on the takeover, as has their Hunterdon/Mercer/Middlesex/Somerset counterpart Andrew Zwicker. All three will be wildcards as newly elected lawmakers caught in the middle of the regional divide between Fulop and Murphy in the North and Sweeney in the South. Downey, Houghtaling and Zwicker were unavailable for comment Friday. 2017 Lines Drawn in Assembly Members’ A.C. Takeover Positions