NJ Dems pick leaders, vow to take on Christie

| 15 Feb 2012 | 10:15

    TRENTON — Democrats who control the New Jersey Senate and Assembly swapped out party leaders on Thursday, and the new leadership team vowed to stand up to Gov. Chris Christie and Republican policies with which they disagree. Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver received unanimous support from fellow Democrats to remain as caucus leaders. An earlier threat of a coup against Oliver came up empty. However, the No. 2 post in each house, that of majority leader, changed hands. Sweeney and Oliver vowed to put up a united front against Christie and to push back with renewed vigor on a public education overhaul, which Christie has made a signature issue, a millionaires' tax and other issues. "What you will see in the next several months is an aggressive rollout of the Democratic legislative agenda," she said. "And we are not going to continue to allow the disrespect that this governor directed toward our respective bodies. That is over." The legislative Democrats said they were emboldened by the results of Tuesday's election. Democrats retained their majorities in the Senate and Assembly, picking up one seat in the lower house. Their majorities are not veto-proof, however. Asked about the Democrats' new feistiness later Thursday, Christie took a more conciliatory tone. "I believe we're going to find common ground to get things done," he said. "Pronouncements that happen two days after an election, after what was obviously a fractious and difficult leadership fight inside both caucuses, I don't think those should be taken as gospel, in-stone truth." The new party leadership has Sen. Loretta Weinberg of Bergen County as Senate majority leader and Assemblyman Lou Greenwald of Camden County moving up to majority leader in the lower house. Weinberg, a self-described feisty Jewish grandmother, ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor with Gov. Jon Corzine in 2009. She replaces Sen. Barbara Buono of Middlesex County, the first woman to hold the position of majority leader in New Jersey. Buono, who has clashed with Sweeney, decided not to seek a second term rather than share power with Weinberg as co-leader. "Sweeney made me an offer I couldn't accept," Buono told The Associated Press on Thursday. "They may have control over who gets the title, but true leadership doesn't require permission." She just won re-election and is now be a rank-and-file lawmaker. The National Women's Political Caucus issued a statement saying it was an "insulting insinuation that it takes two women to effectively hold a typically man's job." Buono's name, and Sweeney's, are often mentioned as possible opponents to Gov. Chris Christie in 2013. Sweeney wouldn't discuss Buono's departure from leadership Thursday. Critics say Buono began polling fellow Democrats last week and realized she didn't have enough support to remain the second most powerful member of the Democratic Senate caucus. Buono said her supporters could have faced retribution that included jeopardizing their committee assignments. Greenwald was tapped to succeed Assemblyman Joe Cryan of Union County. A former Democratic State Committee chairman, Cryan sparred frequently with Christie and made a play to unseat Oliver. Assemblyman Vincent Prieto of Hudson County will replace Greenwald as chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee. Christie offered his congratulations to the new leaders, including Weinberg, with whom he has clashed over women's health care and other issues. In one infamous exchange last spring, Christie suggested the media ``take a bat'' to Weinberg. The remark came after Weinberg criticized Christie for being too soft on Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo Jr. and Cabinet Secretary Lou Goetting for collecting retirement benefits and a government salary, while she also was receiving a pension and a paycheck. "Loretta and I have our back-and-forths but I don't think it's ever been personal," Christie said. "We differ on issues. She feels passionately about those issues and so do I. I certainly don't dislike Loretta in any way. In fact, I like her. I think she's got a lot of spunk."