Winners and Losers: Battle for the Speaker’s Gavel

Who's up and who's down in New Jersey politics.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, center, with Assemblyman Jerry Green, left, and Majority Leader Lou Greenwald. Alyana Alfaro for Observer

The governor’s race took a back seat this week to the palace intrigue in the state Assembly, where a battle for the speaker’s gavel broke out into the open on Wednesday when Assemblyman Craig Coughlin announced he had the votes to overthrow Speaker Vincent Prieto. A former bodybuilder with a fighter’s streak, Prieto punched back by demoting a committee chair who defected to the Coughlin camp and asserting total control over the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee.


The Middlesex County assemblyman seems poised to ascend to the speakership of the General Assembly if Democrats perform as expected in the November elections. Coughlin released a letter of support with 26 signatures from Democratic incumbents and two signatures from candidates virtually assured of winning in November. But at least three of his supporters are in competitive races; a defeat for them could spell defeat for Coughlin. And Prieto is not down for the count yet.

The Middlesex County Democratic chairman was key to Coughlin’s rise and is on the verge of seeing Central Jersey in control of one of the chambers of the Legislature, which would break years of north-south rule and give one of the keys to the kingdom to Democrats long used to playing supporting roles.

The South Jersey Democrat worked the phones to help get Coughlin enough support to knock Prieto from the speakership. If Coughlin’s bid is successful, Norcross will have prominent allies in both houses of the Legislature and, perhaps more satisfyingly, will have kicked another powerful foe to the curb if Prieto loses. Senate President Steve Sweeney, a childhood friend of Norcross’s, already has announced enough support for another term as the leader of the upper house.

A pair of Stockton University polls released this week showed the lieutenant governor with all the post-debate momentum, polling at 37 percent among likely Republican primary voters. The cross-tabs showed that Guadagno captured almost all the undecided Republicans who made their minds up after the two debates with Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli. But one-third of GOP voters remain undecided, the Stockton poll showed, leaving Ciattarelli a few rays of hope in the home stretch.


One week ago, Prieto announced he would be pursuing a third term as speaker. But with Coughlin’s announcement of support from so many members of the Democratic caucus, the speaker is heading into the political fight of his life with the odds stacked against him. He is fighting to stay in the big chair, and he has his work more than cut out for him considering all the forces arrayed against him.

One of the casualties of the speakership scuffle was Johnson, who lost his role as chairman of the Commerce and Economic Development Committee. After Johnson backed Coughlin, Prieto ousted the Bergen County Democrat from his committee chair and supplanted him with a more loyal supporter, Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Passaic).

The Congressional Budget Office finally came out with a report on the MacArthur-amended American Health Care Act. And things don’t look so good under the cold light of the CBO’s number-crunching. While MacArthur argued that his amendment wouldn’t hurt those with pre-existing conditions, the CBO’s report says otherwise. MacArthur also resigned as co-chair of the moderate Tuesday Group, a decision he attributed to disagreements from members on the AHCA.

The one thing that unites Assembly Democrats these days is their opposition to Christie’s plan to raid Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield’s reserves. The plan won’t get a hearing in the Assembly, Prieto announced, and Christie had no response other than to say that the speaker often changes his mind.

Winners and Losers: Battle for the Speaker’s Gavel