New legislative session with focus on COVID-19 recovery

·4 min read

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey opened a new legislative session Tuesday, with lawmakers picking a new Senate president for the first time in a dozen years and setting their sights on economic and academic recovery from the COVID-19 outbreak as it approaches its second year.

State Sen. Nicholas Scutari was elected the first new Senate president in 12 years, succeeding fellow Democrat Steve Sweeney, who lost reelection to Republican Ed Durr in November.

In separate ceremonies, all 40 members of the Senate and 80 members of the Assembly were sworn in, with Democrats keeping their majority, though at slimmer margins.

Scutari said the public is tired of COVID-19 isolation and political polarization and residents want lawmakers to focus on economic and academic recovery, a nod to the small businesses that have shuttered and rising prices as well as the upheaval in schools affecting students and parents.

“It is not lost on most of us in this chamber today that as a state, as a country and a world people feel tired — tired of feeling scare, tired of feeling isolated, tired of having their jobs, their schools and their social enjoyment restricted and tired of the polarization," he said. “I believe our residents want to see a pathway forward."

The specter of the coronavirus hung over the swearing-in ceremonies, with lawmakers in masks, surrounded by see-through barriers and subject to testing or vaccine-proof mandates to enter the premises. At least one member was not there in person because of the outbreak: Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin took the oath of office remotely because he had announced he was positive for the virus.

After a halting oath evidently beset with technological troubles, Coughlin drew laughs.

“Well that went smoothly,” he said.

What lawmakers will do next to address the outbreak is still unclear. But there has been tension between the Legislature and Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy as recently as Monday when lawmakers did not take up his request to renew public health emergency powers. Murphy has said he would continue to keep a mask mandate in schools and daycares, though it's not clear how.

Scutari was elected on a voice vote, but not without opposition.

Democratic state Sen. Nia Gill put herself forward for the Senate presidency as well, saying the Legislature needed to assert itself as a coequal branch of government, railing against automatic gas tax increases and toll hikes. She also raised the Senate's history of picking only white men to lead it.

“In 177 years and a 114 men, there has never been diversity in the Senate presidency. Now is the time," she said.

Scutari did not explicitly address Gill's comment, but said “I am who I am" and pledged to work in as bipartisan a manner as he could.

Taking office along with Scutari was new Majority Leader Sen. Teresa Ruiz, who said she is the first Latina to occupy the post. In an emotional speech, delivered partly in Spanish, Ruiz spoke about what seemed like the improbability of her political rise. She called on addressing inequities made starker by the pandemic.

Scutari has served in the Senate since 2004 and until Tuesday chaired Judiciary Committee, which oversees hearings for the governor’s appointments to courts, boards and other offices across the state. He is known for championing the legalization of recreational marijuana, which he shepherded through the Legislature this year.

Scutari administered the oath of office to Durr, the political newcomer and furniture store delivery truck driver who ousted Sweeney in what the former Senate president called a “red wave" election. Durr did not speak, but said in a statement that he looks forward to serving his district.

Other new senators included former Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, who succeeded Tom Kean Jr., now a candidate for the U.S. House, and Democrat Andrew Zwicker, who moved up from the Assembly and succeeded retiring Republican Sen. Kip Bateman.

In the Senate, Democrats hold 24 Senate spots to the GOP’s 14. That’s down from 25-15 in the previous session. In the Assembly, the Democrats have 46 seats to the Republicans’ 34. Democrats previously had a 52-28 seat advantage.

Mike Catalini, The Associated Press

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