Kean Remains Senate Minority Leader Despite Challenge; Prieto Takes Over as Assembly Speaker

By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent

The action at the Statehouse today was mainly behind closed doors.

In the Senate Republican caucus, minority leader Tom Kean was met with a surprise challenge to his leadership from fellow Republicans led by Kevin O’Toole.

“Tom Kean will be our leader and we fully support him,” O’Toole said, adding there was a lot of debate about the decision. When asked if anyone else put their name in, O’Toole said, “I did. It was 10-6, Tom got the vote. So he’s a winner, it was a unanimous supporting Tom so a spirited discussion and we move on.”

Kean became vulnerable Tuesday when he failed to gain a single seat in the Senate election, despite much effort and his own predictions.

“The caucus had a very good conversation. I was reelected as the Senate Republican leader of the caucus,” Kean said. When asked how he felt about O’Toole’s challenge, Kean said, “We had a great conversation. Caucus is strong. We’re unified. We’ve got tremendous people of integrity.”

Even though the vote was 10-6, Kean said, “The vote at the end was by acclimation.”

It’s not clear where Gov. Chris Christie stood on this.

He met individually with some Republican senators this morning.

Kean has had a strained relationship with Senate President Steve Sweeney for some time, and yesterday Christie heaped praise on Sweeney while declining to comment on Kean’s future.

Meanwhile, in the Assembly Democratic caucus room, they legitimized a deal announced weeks ago to make Vincent Prieto of Secaucus the next speaker.

His first goal, he said, is to finally lower property taxes.

“We have done a lot of things to curtail the growth, but we have not gotten to the root of the problem that is basically lowering the property taxes. They’ve kept going up steadily a lot less now but that’s something we need to focus on,” Prieto said.

Lou Greenwald will continue as majority leader.

“The one thing that’s very clear to us is that we want to make sure that down the hall they understand this is an equal branch of government, and we believe leadership is done by tackling problems. We look at ourselves as problem-solvers,” Greenwald said.

Prieto succeeds Sheila Oliver, who sounds perfectly fine about giving way.

“I think that we’ve accomplished some good things during my two-term tenure, and I have no reservation whatsoever about passing the gavel to a new speaker,” Oliver said.

Palace intrigue is pretty common at the Statehouse after a gubernatorial election. Kean survived today’s only real challenge. Prieto takes over as Speaker Jan. 14.