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New Jersey State Assembly Chambers in Trenton, New Jersey. (Photo: Courtesy of the New Jersey Office of Legislative Services).

Eight Assembly committee chairs not returning next year

Speaker Craig Coughlin will need to overhaul leadership of key Assembly panels

By David Wildstein, November 08 2021 6:38 am

As a result of retirements and electoral defeats, the New Jersey State Assembly will likely have eight committee chairmanship vacancies when the legislature reorganizes in January.

Four committee chairs lost their seats in last week’s election, two are moving up to the State Senate, and another two lost Senate bids this year.

That opens up more than a quarter of the committees: Aging and Senior Services, Agriculture; Appropriations; Commerce and Economic Development; Human Services; Law and Public Safety; Science, Innovation and Technology; and State and Local Government.

The task of naming new committee chairs falls to Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, who also has the autonomous authority to add, reduce or reconstitute legislative committees for the next session.   Coughlin also has the power to replace a sitting committee chair.

In New Jersey, seniority has not traditionally played a key role in determining chairmanships.  Committee vice chairs are a largely honorific and don’t automatically advance.

Some current committee chairs might posture for a different committee after Appropriations Chairman John Burzichelli (and Budget Committee vice chair) was defeated for re-election; Appropriations chair has also served as Budget Committee vice chair — and State and Local Government Chairman Vince Mazzeo lost his bid for the State Senate.

Three of the four Democrats on the Assembly Agriculture Committee, including Chairman Eric Houghtaling, were defeated for re-election.   Rural Democrats were essentially wiped out over the last two elections and the only Democrat remaining on Agriculture is Lisa Swain, who represents a suburban district in Bergen County.

But Coughlin, who has focused on hunger issues faced by New Jersey families, also has the option of taking the panel in a different direction by rebuilding it as the Agriculture and Food Security Committee and putting an urban Democrat in charge.

Houghtaling’s running mate, Human Services Committee Chair Joann Downey, is 376 votes behind in her re-election bid and has a narrow path at best to keep her seat.  Law and Public Safety Committee Chairman Adam Taliaferro also lost in a district represented for 20 years by Burzichelli and Senate President Steve Sweeney.

Coughlin created the Science, Innovation and Technology Committee for Andrew Zwicker, a physicist at the Plasma Physics Laboratory at Princeton University.  With Zwicker going to the Senate, it’s not clear if Coughlin will keep the panel intact.

Gordon Johnson is the Commerce and Economic Development Committee chairman and Valerie Vainieri Huttle chairs the Aging and Senior Services Committee.  Both are departing the Assembly in January; Johnson won an open Senate seat after defeating Vainieri Huttle in the Democratic primary.

It’s also not clear how Coughlin will determine how many Democrats and Republicans will serve on each panel.  Republicans appear to have picked up six seats in the Assembly and that could tighten, but only if Coughlin allows it.  Some committees have 2-1 Democratic majorities, Republicans will now hold 42.5% of all committee seats.

The Republican committee assignments will be made by Minority Leader-designate John DiMaio, who won his leadership post last week by a 19-15 vote.  This will be the first time in nine years that Jon Bramnick, who is moving to the State Senate, won’t make GOP committee assignments.

Coughlin will also need to pick a new Majority Whip to replace Nicholas Chiaravalloti, a key member of his leadership team who didn’t seek re-election after Hudson County Democrats, at the urging of Bayonne Mayor Jimmy Davis, declined to support him.   Burzichelli’s largely ceremonial post as deputy speaker is also up for grabs.

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