Senate Democrats pick Scutari as leader after Sweeney's loss

·3 min read

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Democrats in the New Jersey Senate picked state Sen. Nicholas Scutari on Friday to be their new leader after current President Steve Sweeney lost reelection to a Republican newcomer.

The selection is the first changing of the guard in the second most powerful spot in state government since Sweeney assumed the post more than a decade ago. Scutari's election as Senate leader was made official Friday after Democratic lawmakers met behind closed doors at the statehouse. He will assume the post at the start of the new legislative session.

“This is truly a humbling experience, that a poor kid from Linden raised by a single mom could one day be selected as the Senate president-elect is really awe inspiring, and it is a true testament that the American dream is alive and well here in New Jersey," Scutari said after the selection.

As for what the agenda will look like in January when the new term begins, Scutari said, it's too early to say.

Lawmakers leaving the closed-door session said he was approved by a voice vote, with Democratic Sen. Nia Gill abstaining.

Sweeney's loss shook New Jersey's political order and suggested that a GOP-leaning “red wave” — as Sweeney put it —- is crashing on the state where Democrats have 1 million more registered voters than Republicans. Still, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy won reelection by nearly 3 points over his GOP challenger, Jack Ciattarelli, and has said he will continue to pursue the progressive policy aims he adopted in his first term.

Scutari has served in the Senate since 2004 and currently leads the powerful 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.

Sweeney said this week that he won't be fading from politics, but he stopped short of saying whether he would run again for the Senate or pursue the governorship in 2025. He remains on the legislative redistricting commission, the panel that redraws the Legislature's district lines after the U.S. census.

Democrats lost two seats in the Senate this year, including Sweeney's, but they picked up a seat in the 16th District, where Assembly member Andrew Zwicker defeated former U.S. Rep. Michael Pappas in a seat held by a retiring Republican.

Democrats will remain in control of the Legislature in the new term, which begins in January, but they will have fewer seats. In the Senate, their lead shrank to 24 from 25 seats, out of 40. In the Assembly, Republicans picked up at least four new seats and were leading in two others that the Associated Press has not called.

Gill told reporters that she plans put her name forward in January when the new leadership is formally voted on in the full Senate chamber. She raised concerns that the governor, Assembly speaker and Senate president will once again be only white men.

“When the doors close on those discussions there will not be a voice of a woman. There will not be a voice of a minority there. There will be a voice of all white men,” Gill said. “I want to be a Senate president of all the people."

Scutari responded asking that people should judge him for who he is and what he's done and “not necessarily by skin color or what I look like."

“I'll vow to represent all New Jerseyans," he said.

Scutari represents the 22nd District, which includes parts of Middlesex, Somerset and Union counties. An attorney, Scutari serves as the municipal prosecutor in Linden, Union County.

Standing alongside Scutari on Friday were Majority Leader-elect Sen. Teresa Ruiz and President Pro Tempore-elect Sen. Sandra Cunningham. Ruiz said she was the first Latina to hold the position and called her selection an honor.

Mike Catalini, The Associated Press

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