A coalition of liberal groups spoke out in support of Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto on Tuesday, arguing that Democrats need more diverse leaders in New Jersey and that ousting Prieto from the speakership would remove the only minority official with real clout in Trenton.
Prieto (D-Hudson), who hails from Cuba, has announced he’s seeking a third term as speaker after the November elections. But a challenger, Assemblyman Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), has the edge right now and appears on track to defeat Prieto if Democrats perform as expected in races for all 80 Assembly seats this fall.
Coughlin is of Irish heritage, as is Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who has the votes for another term as the leader of the upper house. And the front-runner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination is Phil Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador who also comes from Irish stock.
“The time of counting on the support of diverse communities in order to win an election but completely ignore it when it matters is over in New Jersey,” said Chris Estevez, president of the Latino Action Network. “Our demand is simple, take us into account or lose our support when it counts.”
“We reject a system that produces homogenous leadership and targets the one diverse member in a leadership body created to represent the voices and interests of diverse constituents,” said William Colon, head of the Latino Institute.
Democratic leaders in the Legislature have plenty of work to do on the state’s economy and health care issues without getting sidetracked on the leadership horse race six months before the elections, others said.
“Our state is in crisis and those at the helm are sadly unfocused, unperturbed and seemingly unconcerned,” said Richard Smith, president of the New Jersey NAACP. “We stand united in the demand that our leaders not only represent our interests, they represent the broad diversity of our state in both makeup and progressive values.”
Analilia Mejia, director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, said “the rest of the state has looked in horror at the push to roll back health care coverage” in Washington while in New Jersey “mostly white and mostly male ‘leaders’ have been busy dividing up Senate and Assembly leadership in order to oust the one person of color in one of the most diverse states in the nation.”
Prieto said he was heartened by the support and added that the state’s leadership “should reflect the multitude of people who make New Jersey such a vibrant and exciting place.”
“It also means championing the issues that matter to working families of all backgrounds, like raising the minimum wage, lifting families out of poverty and creating educational opportunities,” he said. “That’s what I have done as speaker and I’m honored to see that work recognized. It’s unfortunate that some do not seem to understand this, even in our Democratic Party which should pride itself on embracing progressive ideals like inclusion, diversity and opportunity.”