NJ Legislative Black Caucus to Leadership: Ignore Us at Your Own Risk

By David Cruz

There are 18 members of the Legislative Black Caucus and most of them were in attendance for its annual listing of budget priorities. Absent, however, were members of the legislative leadership, which held its own press conference on a separate matter, in the same room — right after, perhaps best illustrating caucus chairman Ron Rice’s point.

“One thing I can say is that the relationship overall is good, but it needs to be enhanced,” he said.

The caucus’ list of budget priorities include restoration of funding for the Earned Income Tax Credit program, the Equal Opportunity Fund, Charity Care and the public workers’ pension. All would seem to be a part of the Legislature’s priorities — controlled, as it is, by Democrats. But there was an undertone to today’s press conference that Rice tried — sometimes in vain — to control.

“I must publicly restate as I have in the past — with emphasis — to the governor and the leadership of both political parties in the Legislature that communication with the members of the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus is the key to cooperation,” he added. “Cooperation with the leadership and member of the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus is the key to our collective ability to be reasonably successful in overcoming any major differences we may have during this tough, difficult economic period.”

Former Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver noted, “You know, we are all Democrats in the Legislative Black Caucus and we are supportive of our Democratic leadership. I think what Sen. Rice is addressing is that many of the issues that he alluded to today have not been identified as priorities by our colleagues in the Legislature.”

And that perceived lack of reciprocation could pose a challenge when it comes to counting votes on tough issues — be they pension deals or casino expansion referenda. Oliver — the state’s first black female Assembly speaker who was pushed aside as part of an intra party tussle — noted that on a number of key issues to the caucus — be it the governor’s attempted raid on affordable housing funds or cuts to the state nutrition assistance program — the legislative leadership was less than stand up.

“There’s no outcry by our comrades,” she said.

There are, in fact, no black faces in the party’s main leadership any more. And — say caucus members — in a state where the demographics are changing so rapidly, Democrats would be advised to open their eyes and recognize that going along to get along is no way to lead.

“The things that Sen. Rice has talked about today [are] long overdue,” said Assemblyman Jerry Green. “There are some people that like to go with the flow and because they have chosen to go with the flow, we are losing.”

Rice says the caucus’ priorities are generally in line with that of the leadership. The problem, he warns, is when the leadership begins to mistake “in line” for “in the back of the line.” That’s a distinction he expects to clarify in the weeks ahead.