POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

Sweeney Says Progress is Being Made On Filling Judicial Vacancies; Wants to Ensure Best Pricing for Sandy Contracts

In a gubernatorial election year, compromise between parties can be rare as both sides hope to control the governor’s position. But Gov. Chris Christie and New Jersey Democrats have come together to fill some of the vacant judge positions throughout the state. Senate President Steve Sweeney told NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider that discussions have progressed and both sides are compromising to fill the vacancies. Sweeney also discussed the Hurricane Sandy relief money and the race between Christie and Democratic nominee Sen. Barbara Buono.

Sweeney said Christie’s office and Democrats have been working together on the judicial vacancies issue. “The good news is we’re finally starting to move on these judges. It’s a little bit of give and take on all sides and we appreciate the way things are moving forward,” he said. “We desperately need to populate our benches.”

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The Senate president explained that Sen. Nicholas Scutari has been instrumental in brokering some of the deals. “But really it’s just an increased level of communication between the front office and ourselves,” Sweeney said. “Everyone’s doing much better than we were doing just a year ago, so I’m very happy that even in this election year that we’re moving forward on and repopulating a lot of these seats.”

Cooperation on issues is important, according to Sweeney. “I’ve always been willing to cooperate and get things done. In fact I’ve put the people of this state first and foremost at all times to try to work with the governor of the opposite party. We’ve done some great things in this state and they couldn’t have gotten done without us working together,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of talking a little bit further and talking through things. And you get more things done.”

While Christie has had harsh words for Sweeney, calling him a coward in the past, Sweeney said he doesn’t take offense to the governor’s name calling. “I don’t take exception to that. My focus is to get things done,” he said. “Where we can agree, I want to get things done. It’s very easy to find areas where you can’t get things done because they’re the obvious. The hard things are to search for the common areas and work together to get things done and that’s what I’ve done for the last three years here.”

Since the Hurricane Sandy relief aid package was approved by the House and Senate and signed by President Barack Obama, some in New Jersey have questioned a $100 million no-bid contract the state has signed with Florida-based debris removal company AshBritt. Sweeney has referred the contract to the Legislative Oversight Committee.

“The most important thing is to make sure that we’re getting the best pricing,” Sweeney said. He said in New Jersey, some local governments have saved significant money by using a company other than AshBritt for debris removal.

“We have to make sure … that lobbyists have to disclose when they’re lobbying municipal governments. They do it with the state, but they don’t do it when it gets down to the local level,” Sweeney said. “They’re going to have to do it especially when you see this kind of influence being moved locally.”

Buono officially kicked off her campaign for governor Saturday. Many thought Sweeney would have run for the position but he decided against it. “We’re going to work very hard and every Democrat in the state should work very hard to ensure Sen. Buono’s successful campaign,” he said.

Sweeney hasn’t ruled out a run for higher office, but said his focus remains in the Senate for now. “My next election is to regain my Senate seat and that’s what I’m focused on. Where the future lies, you gotta win this election first, Mike, before you worry about the next one,” he said. “We’ll see where we go from there.”