(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Monday, Nov. 9, 2009.)
He could be the voice of the opposition, or he could be the chief negotiator.
State Sen. Stephen M. Sweeney, D-Salem, Cumberland, Gloucester, stands in line to become Senate president and the highest-ranking elected Democrat in state government next year with Gov. Jon S. Corzine’s re-election defeat.
Sweeney says if he wins the post, he will approach it as a pragmatist and negotiator first, not an obstructionist to Republican Gov.-elect Chris Christie.
“I’m going to try to find as many common areas as we can to get things done,” Sweeney said. “I don’t want to have a relationship that’s hostile by any means. I like Chris personally.”
Sweeney has spent seven years as a state senator, and his parallel role as a freeholder director and a relationship with Camden County political leader George Norcross that dates to childhood have given him a stronger cache in Democratic politics.
Those who work closely with him say his talk about friendly negotiation is more than just talk. Sweeney cites his own friendships with several Republican state senators, including state Sen. Tom Kean, R-Essex, Morris, Somerset, Union. As a union negotiator with the International Association of Ironworkers, he’s had to do that for years, and his supporters say he can handle the role of senate president.
“It’s going to put him center stage,” said state Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Salem, Cumberland, Gloucester. “He’s ready for it. His union days will help there. The art of the deal is everybody comes out in one piece.”
Cumberland County Freeholder Director Lou Magazzu is a Democrat who has seen that firsthand.
After initially working closely as allies, the two had an all-too-public dispute when Sweeney refused to back Magazzu for a spot on the Delaware River and Bay Authority in 2004. But they settled their differences over dinner at an Italian restaurant in Gloucester County, Magazzu said. Ever since then, they’ve worked together, and the experience has given Magazzu some insight into how Sweeney operates.
“I’d call him pragmatist in chief,” Magazzu said. “Steve will always find a way to get as much as he can without making the other person feel that they’ve walked away with nothing. Steve has an understanding that you got to let the other guy walk away with his self-respect, because he knows you’ll be back at the table again.”
All this, of course, assumes Sweeney wins the post in the next Legislature.
Democrats will have the majority in the Senate, so a united party would determine the next senate president. Sweeney says he has 14 Democratic votes locked up, while the current Senate president, state Sen. Richard Codey, D-Essex, has nine. Republicans hold 17 votes. Kean says his party’s members will vote as a block — and he has put forth his own candidacy for Senate president, despite his party being in the minority — but some in his party have indicated they may not unite if forced to back one of the Democrats. That fact alone keeps the race for the post in play.
All the political maneuvering for the position may give a sense of its importance. The senate president determines what legislation comes up to full senate votes as well as individual senators’ committee assignments.
“The senate president is an incredibly important position,” said Sharon Schulman, executive director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. “First of all, that’s where the budgets get done. What we all have to hope is that the new governor and Steve Sweeney put partisanship aside and work together.”
The role may not prove to be as high-profile as those some of his predecessors have enjoyed, however.
Next year, New Jersey will have its first lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno. That means the senate president will no longer serve as acting governor in the governor’s absence, something that had increased the profile of Codey and other previous senate presidents, such as Donald DiFrancesco and John Bennett.
“The governor is the only person who can command TV cameras in New York and Philadelphia,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “The senate president has to do something extraordinary to draw attention.
“I think Steve Sweeney, presuming he does become senate president, will have a voice,” Dworkin added, “but it will be drowned out by the governor.”