Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto has convened a meeting of Democratic lawmakers and county chairs from Essex, Bergen, Hudson and Passaic counties for Friday, a half-dozen sources told the Observer on Thursday.
The summit of North Jersey’s Democratic chieftains and lawmakers will cap a busy week for Prieto, the chairman of the Hudson County Democratic Organization, who has been pounding the phones to lock down support for another term at the helm of the Assembly.
Two sources said this was described to the legislators as an “emergency meeting” — at least one lawmaker canceled a long-scheduled previous engagement to be able to attend, reflecting the seriousness of the matter. Prieto is all in on another bid for speaker, people close to him have said all week, and the topic is bound to come up at the meeting, according to two sources.
At the same time, some attendees are expected to make the case that the north should keep its powder dry and hold off on legislative leadership decisions until after the November elections, one source said. Another source said an Observer story sparked the meeting — this afternoon’s piece in which Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) announced that Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) had locked down enough votes for another term as the leader of the upper house.
The news from the Senate represented a setback for the “Quad County Alliance,” the ad hoc group of North Jersey Democratic leaders that has tried to become a counterweight to the well-oiled machine in South Jersey led by Sweeney and George Norcross. The northern alliance coalesced in early 2015 as an effort to push back on the seven South Jersey counties, whose Democratic lawmakers nearly always vote in lockstep, even when it appears that their interests diverge.
With Sweeney apparently coasting to another term as Senate president, the big question is who gets the Assembly. The traditional power-sharing agreement in New Jersey has been to split the chambers between the north and south.
But the X factor this year is Middlesex County, whose Democratic chairman, Kevin McCabe, has been mounting an aggressive bid to get central Jersey into the leadership equation. Assemblyman Craig Coughlin is McCabe’s standard-bearer and has been lining up his own support for the speaker’s chair.
The Quad County Alliance scored its biggest political coup in October, when Prieto, Bergen County Democratic Chairman Lou Stellato and Passaic County Democratic Chairman John Currie came together to endorse Phil Murphy for the governorship. The endorsements — which came with the coveted Democratic county lines in New Jersey’s most populous cities — within hours forced Sweeney to end his bid for the governor’s office.
It’s up in the air whether Prieto can secure the speaker’s gavel for another two-year term. When Sweeney proposed a state takeover of Atlantic City last year, the speaker led the charge against the South Jersey faction with a competing plan. But he could not muster the 41 votes he needed to pass his own bill in the Assembly and was forced to eat some humble pie. To claim the prize this year, Prieto will need to get the north solidly behind him and avoid losing support to Coughlin.