Essex Democratic Leaders Line Up Behind Coughlin for Assembly Speaker

Newark Democrats in the state Assembly endorsed Democratic Assemblyman Craig Coughlin of Woodbridge to be the next Assembly Speaker.

Essex County Democratic Chairman Leroy Jones, Jr. announced today that the entire Essex County delegation of the state General Assembly, including those whose districts include parts of Newark, will back Assemblyman Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) to be Assembly Speaker for the next legislative session.

After several months of deliberation, Jones said all of the Assembly members who represent legislative districts that exclusively or partially include Essex County municipalities will support Coughlin, a move away from the current Speaker, Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson). 

"It is my belief that, as Speaker, Assemblyman Coughlin will provide strong leadership to the New Jersey General Assembly and will work in partnership with our Democratic nominee for Governor, Ambassador Phil Murphy, and his running mate for Lt. Governor, Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver," Jones said.

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"Together, along with our Essex Delegation in the Assembly, we will be able to address the challenges of fiscal responsibility, quality education, strengthening our middle class, job creation and improving the overall quality of life for all our residents that our state faces in the immediate future," the chairman said. 

The Essex endorsers of Coughlin, all Democrats, include Assembly members Ralph Caputo and Cleopatra Tucker from District 28, which includes parts of Newark as well as Bloomfield, Glen Ridge, Irvington and Nutley. Eliana Pintor and Democratic candidate Shanique Speight from District 29, which includes parts of Newark as well as Belleville, will also back Coughlin. 

Assembly members Mila M. Jasey and John F. McKeon from District 27, and Thomas Giblin from District 34 will also support Coughlin for Speaker. 

Jones noted that Oliver (D-East Orange), a Newark native who currently represents District 34, was not included in these consensus-building discussions behind the endorsement of Coughlin because of her position as the Democratic lieutenant gubernatorial candidate on the ticket with Murphy.

The unified Essex Assembly member endorsement of Coughlin, a Middlesex County native whose 19th Legislative District includes his hometown of Woodbridge, draws a clear line on the ever-shifting strategic map of New Jersey politics. 

Coughlin's selection signifies a power shift away from the North Jersey Democratic bastions of Bergen and Hudson Counties, whose Democratic party apparatus were early supporters of one potential Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop.

Fulop suddenly and unexpectedly declared last September that he would not run for governor. His announcement was followed within days in early October by the Essex County Democratic Party's endorsement of Murphy in front the Essex County Historic Courthouse in Newark, a fitting location for the political coup de grace that essentially removed Murphy's major rivals for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination race.

Murphy, who in May 2016 became the first Democratic candidate to declare a run for governor, campaigned early and often in Newark in the summer and fall of 2016. Newark, New Jersey's largest city, has the largest number of Democratic votes in the state. 

The choice of Oliver as the lieutenant gubernatorial candidate was a recognition of Essex County's continued impact on Garden State politics. But the power balance has now shifted to South Jersey, where influential power broker George Norcross III's reported support of Coughlin has cleared the way for his apparent accession to Speaker. 

But according to Matthew Hale, associate professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University, Coughlin's approval by the Essex Assembly delegation could be seen as a sign of accommodation, not usurpation. 

"Essex could see Coughlin as someone needed at a time of change with an anticipated Democratic sweep coming in November, and at a moment where there is a need for cooperation among Democrats," Hale said. 

Hale pointed to the speculation by political observers that if U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) loses his seat in the wake of federal corruption changes, Donald Norcross, George's brother, could move from his South Jersey Congressional seat into Menendez's Senate spot. 

State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), a longtime Norcross ally, could take then over the Congressional seat potentially vacated by Donald Norcross, leaving his Legislature leadership position open. 

"Essex will be able to work with Coughlin," Hale added. "Meanwhile, they could be potentially looking for the Senate president spot to come north." 

For the time being, Jones, a strong Essex advocate, chose to focus on Assembly facts, not potential future Senate friction. 

"Now that this issue has been put to bed in Essex County, our mission will be sharply focused on producing the largest democratic plurality in the state for Phil Murphy, Sheila Oliver, all our candidates for the Senate and the Assembly as well as our candidates for local office," Jones said.

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