It’s that most prized Democratic Party establishment quality of leadership among elected officials in New Jersey.
Much like the infant who is fed, burped, and gently rocked to sleep, those members of the legislature who display that vulnerable, even helpless need for the loving care of a boss endear themselves to their benefactors and ultimately stand the best chance of seeing their names burnished (at least until they’re scraped in a certain economic downturn) on the side of a bridge or atop a casino.
It’s an easy enough quality for bosses to cultivate and exact.
All they have to do is give the person in leadership a public job that the person comes to depend on for sustenance. It’s a tacit transaction: you do what you’re told and you get to keep your job. You don’t do what you’re told, you’re gone.
On the cusp of the 2017 gubernatorial contest, most insiders see the tenure of sitting Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-32) coming to an end after next year, a consequence of the reapportionment of the spoils of a statewide war. It is assumed that Prieto, who doubles as chairman of the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO), will move to Jersey City and take the golf clubs off the shoulder of retiring U.S. Rep. Albio Sires (D-West New York) come 2018.
He can’t leave fast enough for those members of the South Jersey Democratic Party establishment who had every assurance (in part based on the fact that Prieto gets a paycheck as a public construction code official) that the Democrat from Secaucus would get the joke that “leadership” in Trenton means a person expresses no opinions, keeps his mouth shut, introduces all the monarch butterfly bills he wants, and otherwise does what the hell he’s told.
Prieto’s initiation into the speakership (whether spoken or unspoken) must have gone something like this: “All right, kid, now look… you don’t like to be called kid? What’s your name again? All right. Vinny. Here’s the deal, Vinny… Ok, wiseguy, if you insist. Mister Speaker. Listen, Mr. Speaker, all you gotta do is let Steve Sweeney and Chris Christie sequester themselves in the front office and do the heavy lifting while you and the assembly play darts or pool or bet on the horses, or whatever you want to do. You can take a nap for all we care. The point is we don’t care. Just as long as you do nothing until those two guys let you know. They’re the adults here and you’re the kid. Got it, k – er… Mister Speaker?”
We don’t know what Prieto’s response was at the time, but over time he certainly didn’t prove a pliant player, fighting Sweeney and Christie on multiple critical pieces of legislation, including – significantly – the Atlantic City takeover and North Jersey casinos. He routinely insisted on the relevance of the Assembly even if meant monkey-wrenching the locker room camaraderie of Chris and Steve. It got him into a lot of trouble, too.
“Disloyal,” seethed an establishment Democrat when referring to the sitting speaker.
Prieto’s run is the second time in as many speakers that South Jersey Democratic Shogun George Norcross III found himself burned by North Jersey.
On the Essex county payroll, Prieto predecessor Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange) was supposed to be another overgrown dependent content as a matter of personal ego fulfillment to spring from the back of the chamber and – like a kid in a high chair – sit high above her fellows. But again, like Prieto, Oliver was much more than that – an intellect, in point of cold fact, with very specific views about public education, who went off script and refused to fall in line, bucking Norcross and her own county boss, Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, most notably on the issue of charter schools. Oliver is a fix public schools first advocate who refused to get pushed around, and staved off one attempt by South Jersey to get rid of her only to finally fall to Prieto.
It was a bumpy ride for Oliver, who launched her own rogue bid for the U.S. Senate at the end of it, discomfiting those establishment allies of U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) before getting buried.
Significantly outnumbered by the North, the only reason that South Jersey Democrats are even in the conversation is because they are far better organized than Northern Democrats. They don’t tolerate the kind of recalcitrance that is part of what it means to be a loudmouthed stereotypical North Jerseyan with attitude. The South’s longtime strategy has been to let Northern Democrats yak all they want, pitting them against one another and allowing a prevailing atmosphere of cacophony, while they stick together like a Roman phalanx.
That’s a strategy that works well – until it comes time to reward the North for its support by giving them a speaker or senate president to balance the leadership equation.
Then those blandest of subservient water carriers again find themselves up against another “theatrical personality.”
Where do they go next?
Been there and done that.
Don’t get me started, Norcross must be thinking.
So where now?
Where is that individual on the Trenton political landscape with the least power, the most timid and subdued voice, the most obvious encumbrances of public jobs or contracts that will paralyze that person in a pinch and all but guarantee a reliable pattern of cowed and respectful behavior, who can gab about infernal property taxes and secretly not give a damn about how much they go up so long as the trough’s intact, in short, who possesses those most coveted qualities of legislative leadership in New Jersey?
Surely, that lawmaker whose name you forgot is first in line to be the next speaker, if the past is any indication, and given what happened with Prieto and Oliver the vetting process will prove far more rigorous. The word will go out to the Joe D and Nick Sacco wannabes of the world: You want to play, you better put someone up who’s wholly subservient.
Look for someone whose entire family is on a public payroll, or who is so beset by public duties, that he or she allows those benevolent backroom rulers to assume total control of his or her private financial interests.