Prieto’s Revenge: NJ Speaker Asserts Power After Coughlin Endorsements

Prieto took over the hiring and spending decisions of the Assembly Democrats' campaign arm as he works to fend off a challenger.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, left, and Senate President Steve Sweeney. Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto is closing ranks and consolidating his power in the fight for control of the lower house of the Legislature.

Assemblyman Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) announced Wednesday that he had enough support to oust Prieto from the speakership next year, provided that Democrats win several close races and hold on to their 52-vote majority after the November elections, when all 80 Assembly seats will be on the ballot.

In a pair of meetings Friday, an on-the-ropes Prieto (D-Hudson) demoted a committee chairman who endorsed Coughlin, and then took over the bank account, payroll and staffing decisions of the Democrats’ campaign arm for state Assembly races.

Prieto’s move to take over the finances of the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee substantially sidelined one of the party’s top strategists in New Jersey, Michael Muller, whose wife, Carol Murphy, is an Assembly candidate in South Jersey who backed Coughlin’s bid for speaker on Wednesday.

Muller and his team have been running the DACC since 2002, notching wins every cycle and helping to increase the Democrats’ majority from 48 to 52 Assembly seats in 2015. They have had one of the best records nationwide, especially during the Obama years, when Democrats lost control of 31 state legislative chambers and nearly 1,000 seats.

Craig Coughlin. NJTV

In an unprecedented move, the speaker informed Muller at a meeting Friday that he would be taking over all spending, hiring and payroll decisions, Muller confirmed after two sources told Observer of the meeting.

“For 15 years, I’ve been so proud to have been entrusted with the autonomy to direct the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee through a historically golden era,” Muller said in a statement. “We have been able to grow the majority to the largest point in 40 years, and have secured the most Democratic gains of any chamber in America since President Obama won the White House. The leaks from a private meeting between Speaker Prieto and myself are quite disturbing, and I will reserve judgment as to my next steps because the success of the Democratic Party must come first.”

He added, “As the individual responsible for spearheading campaigns for the state Senate and Assembly my moral obligation is to protect our members and candidates, along with the hard-working men and women on staff threatened to face economic uncertainty.”

A spokesman for Prieto, Phil Swibinski, said the speaker was committed to helping elect Democrats “who share his vision of a more progressive New Jersey.”

“The Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee’s activities have always been ultimately directed by the speaker of the General Assembly and that has not changed,” Swibinski said in a statement. “Speaker Prieto is committed to helping elect Democrats who share his vision of a more progressive New Jersey that fights for working families and he will be supporting candidates in the fall who will stand with him in that mission.”

The committee typically spends around $2 million during major election cycles every two years ($1.9 million in 2015, $2.27 million in 2013) and is regarded as a financial firewall for Democrats in competitive districts. It can raise much more than individual candidates — maximum contributions are set by law at $25,000 — and can spend unlimited amounts.

However, state campaign finance regulators often point out that the DACC and similar committees have been falling slightly out of use as super PACs and outside groups ramp up fundraising and spending on New Jersey legislative races.

Coughlin released a list of supporters signed by 26 incumbent Assembly Democrats and two candidates considered shoo-ins to win. That would give him a narrow edge to topple Prieto in the leadership elections for the next legislative session. But three incumbents on the list — Assemblywoman Joann Downey (D-Monmouth) and Assemblymen Eric Houghtaling (D-Monmouth) and Andrew Zwicker (D-Mercer) — are in close races and, should they lose, Prieto would be able to thwart Coughlin’s bid if every undecided Democrat in the Assembly were to back him. (Prieto has not released a list of supporters.)

“The unprecedented speculation this week that our own Democratic casualties could positively influence political positioning is disheartening and deeply concerning,” Muller said.

Gordon Johnson. Assembly Democrats

Prieto also removed Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen), a Coughlin backer, from the chairmanship of the Commerce and Economic Development Committee in a move widely seen as retribution. Prieto named Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Passaic) the new committee chairman in a statement that did not mention Johnson.

“I read a long time ago — Colin Powell in one of his books said, ‘Never tie your ego to your position,’” Johnson said. “It’s politics. It’s the way it is.”

Coughlin in a statement Friday said he was “disappointed” by Prieto’s move.

“This is beneath how our speaker should act,” Coughlin said. “Gordon is a good man, a dedicated member of our caucus and a terrific public servant. He deserves much better than this.”

In endorsing Coughlin, Johnson broke ranks with leaders in Bergen County, where the Democratic chairman, Lou Stellato, has been a Prieto ally.

A source close to the speaker, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that removing committee chairmen is not an uncommon move in Trenton when trust is lost. Senate President Steve Sweeney ousted Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex) as chair of the Senate Commerce Committee last year and also removed former Sen. Barbara Buono from the Senate majority leader position in 2011 and from a committee chairmanship the next year.

Reacting to Prieto’s moves, some Democrats groused on Friday that the speaker has not cut a check to the DACC since the middle of 2015. Instead, the committee has been getting contributions from members such as Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-Camden) and Assemblymen Joe Egan (D-Middlesex), Dan Benson and Wayne DeAngelo (both D-Mercer).

Those members have other ways of routing money to candidates in tight races.

Muller remains the head of Senate Democratic Majority, the campaign arm under Sweeney’s auspices that also raises big dollars for New Jersey Democrats. (There’s no bar on using SDM funds on Assembly races.) And a super PAC aligned with South Jersey power broker George Norcross that has spent millions of dollars on state legislative races since 2013 is about to host a fundraiser with Alec Baldwin that is expected to rake in big dollars.

Update (6:48 p.m.): Prieto’s spokesman issued a statement about the DACC move. Prieto’s Revenge: NJ Speaker Asserts Power After Coughlin Endorsements