Because of his role as Senate President, state Senator Steve Sweeney (D-2) has become wedged in the middle of the battle between Governor Chris Christie and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-32) on how to proceed with the takeover of Atlantic City. Sweeney has sided with Christie and is pushing a takeover bill that already passed in the Senate but has stalled in the Assembly. Prieto has voiced concerns that the bill gives the governor too much power and lacks sufficient collective bargaining, something the Speaker says will harm public sector unions.
Sweeney is a likely candidate for governor in 2017 in what is shaping up to be a messy Democratic primary. In addition to Sweeney, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, former Ambassador Phil Murphy, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-19), state Senator Ray Lesniak (D-20) and Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo have also expressed gubernatorial considerations for 2017. Unlike his competition, however, the aftermath of what happens in Atlantic City will fall squarely on Sweeney’s shoulders, especially if the city’s financial situation worsens or if that takeover fails or falls through.
According to Matthew Hale, an Associate Professor in the Seton Hall Department of Political Science and Public Affairs, Sweeney’s role in the Atlantic City negotiations may be a benefit for the gubernatorial hopeful in 2017.
“I think that Steve Sweeney has done his best to try to be the adult in the room about Atlantic City while Governor Christie and Vincent Prieto are fighting like kids,” Hale said. “So I think that, eventually, he has the potential to be a peace broker between the two in some respects. Ultimately I think that could help him as long as there is a favorable outcome with Atlantic City.”
The Atlantic City negotiations have been a major sticking point between Christie and Prieto in the past weeks as Friday (when the city will run out of money) draws closer. Christie has also brought Jersey City Mayor Fulop, another gubernatorial hopeful, into the mix by claiming that he has been playing “boss” and telling Prieto what to do in an effort to discredit Sweeney as the two compete for governor. Fulop has denied those accusations.
“I think Steve Fulop is going to pick the winning side no matter what it is,” Hale said. “If Steve Sweeney ends up winning the Atlantic City fight, Steve Fulop is going to say ‘Look I wasn’t really a part of this fight.’ If Steve Sweeney and Governor Christie end up losing this fight he is going to say, ‘Yes, I was right there with Vincent Prieto leading the charge to protect public sector unions.’ I think he has positioned himself to try and wait it out and say that he was on the right side no matter what happens.”
A large part of the issue with Atlantic City comes from issues with union groups. While the building trades are with Sweeney, the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations) is standing with Prieto has he calls for more collective bargaining. According to Hale, Sweeney will likely be able to repair the rancor he is generating among unions much like he did after he worked with Governor Christie to increase public employee pension and healthcare contributions in 2011.
“In terms of his relationship to unions, I think it is important to note that at his core he is a union man,” said Hale referring to the fact that Sweeney is an ironworker by trade. “The issue with the pensions is that he took a stance—and I think a pretty courageous stance—from a union background. I think it did backfire on him but I do think that he managed to repair his status with unions. He has shown that he can do that because he is an ironworker, a union guy.”
At Governor Christie’s Wednesday press conference, the governor mentioned that the Atlantic City takeover legislation had already passed in the Senate with the support of 15 Democrats including Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37) and Lesniak, both historically strong supporters of labor. The issue of collective bargaining did not arise until the bill left the Senate and it became Prieto’s duty to post. Because of the backing from labor-friendly Senators—not to mention the support of building trades unions—Sweeney may be able to downplay the criticism from the AFL-CIO if it continues to be antagonistic heading to the 2017 gubernatorial race.
One thing that Sweeney’s opponents might cling to as 2017 draws nearer is the relationship of the Senate President to a Republican governor whose approval ratings continue to tumble.
“I think it is a potentially effective thing for Senator Sweeney to say that he can be the adult and work across the aisle instead of fighting over partisan differences,” Hale said. “That being said, he does have to make it through a Democratic primary that will be mean and vicious and Chris Christie will be target number one so I imagine all of his opponents will do everything they can to latch Sweeney to Chris Christie.”
According to Hale, however, the criticism that could be waged against Sweeney by his gubernatorial adversaries for working with Christie simply comes from the nature of his role as Senate President.
“Solving Atlantic City is a really tough thing to do. It is not easy and Senator Sweeney is in a position where he is the one making decisions,” Hale said. “None of his opponents are making decisions so that is a tougher spot for him. But he is making his decisions and he is standing up for them.”