Prieto charts course through choppy party waters in speaker bid

By David Cruz

A speaker’s work is never done. Fresh off his announcement a few days ago that he would be seeking re-election as speaker of the Assembly, Vincent Prieto was working the chamber before taking his position at the podium.

The two-term speaker has worked hard to build bridges with Republicans and hold his own caucus together for big votes, not always successfully, but almost always with collegiality and respect. It’s gone a long way in making him popular with many colleagues but will it be enough to keep him as speaker?

“I’ll leave that up to the Democrats. He’s a friend of mine, he’s kept his word with me. I may disagree with him, but I think he’s an honorable person and I think he’s a decent person, a good guy. I like him,” said Minority Leader Assemblyman Jon Bramnick.

But Prieto can be fiery, as well, and sometimes quite stubborn, digging in his heels to bring negotiations to – if not a halt then certainly to a crawl – on big issues like the Atlantic City bailout, the Transportation Trust Fund and the sales tax to name but a few. It’s earned him praise and some criticism, but he says it’s always been about putting the people’s house on equal footing with the Senate and the executive branch.

When asked if he feels he’s accomplished that Prieto said, “I think we have and you can ask all the members. And I would event tell you on the other side of the aisle will tell you the same thing. It’s been part of the conversation, and we’re a co-equal branch of government that has to be listened to because without us nothing gets accomplished.”

“I disagree with digging his heels in and making us relevant,” said Assemblyman Lou Greenwald. “I think that’s disrespectful to Sheila Oliver, Joe Roberts and Albio Sires. I don’t think it’s ever an issue that we have to fight for relevance. I come back to I think we’re most relevant when we’re working together, when we’re in meetings together, when we’re bridging gaps from north and south, when we’re not divided by geographical lines and when we come together on public policy.”

Right. North and South. That geographic point of divergent interests. Democrats, who are hoping to see someone from their own party in the governor’s office next year, are also starting to maneuver for leadership roles. And with powerful political brokers in the south looking to keep their influence, word is that there could be a challenge to Prieto, specifically from Assemblyman Craig Coughlin. There was reluctance on the part of some Democrats to talk about that prospect today. Still, there were inklings.

“He hasn’t asked me for his support,” Greenwald said. “He hasn’t spoken to me about it so I’ll wait to hear from him.”

“I will have a conversation with him but I actually have not gone out there and solicited for anyone’s vote. But I would hope that being in the leadership he would want to stay supportive of me, but time will tell,” Prieto said.

“Fights within the family are the most vicious fights,” said Bramnick.

But a lot can happen between now and then, including a governor’s race, which, depending on the outcome, could create an entirely different dynamic.