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Former New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Sweeney dumped from Democratic legislative redistricting commission

Dem State Chairman LeRoy Jones removes ex-senate president, appoints Laura Matos to fill the seat

By David Wildstein, January 26 2022 9:15 am

Senate President Steve Sweeney has been tossed from the redistricting commission that is redrawing New Jersey’s legislative districts by Democratic State Chairman LeRoy Jones, Jr.

Jones filed a letter with New Jersey Acting Secretary of State Tahesha Way on Wednesday morning, replacing Sweeney on the Apportionment Commission with Laura Matos, the new chair of the Pinelands Commission and now the only Latina on the commission.

The move comes one month after infighting between two South Jersey Democrats on the Congressional Redistricting Commission – both Sweeney appointees — and four other Democrats threatened to derail the process.

“No person or organization’s goals and ambitions are above the interests of our party and the people of this state,” Jones said.

Sweeney’s ouster signals the intent of Democratic Party leaders to move on from Sweeney, who lost his own bid for re-election last November to Republican Edward R. Durr (R-Swedesboro), ending a 12-year reign as senate president.

As the legislative redistricting process enters the final stretch – the deadline to complete the map is March 1 – Democrats have become increasingly concerned that Sweeney could become a free agent, potentially working his own deal with the five Republican members.

“This decision comes as the result of careful consideration, with much deliberation, and in concert with a number of party leaders across the state,” Jones said.  “As chair of the Democratic State Committee, it is my responsibility and duty to select standard bearers who will best represent the Democratic Party’s interests on the Commission and ensure a strong and representative party moving forward.”

South Jersey Democratic leaders are also facing retribution for their early and unsuccessful bid to weaken the re-election prospects of Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-Montclair), a close ally of Jones, the Essex County Democratic chairman.  Sherrill was viewed as a possible statewide rival to Sweeney, an announced candidate for the 2025 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, or Rep. Donald Norcross (D-Camden).

“It is in that spirit and in reflection on input that the Apportionment Commission has received, that I have exercised my authority to make this change to the Democratic delegation,” stated Jones.  “This decision was necessary to protect the future of the Democratic Party, and the integrity of the commission as a whole.”

Sweeney could challenge his ouster in court, but that’s something Jones is preparing for.  He has retained two nationally prominent, high-powered election law experts, Marc Elias and Jonathan Berkon from the Elias Law Group, to guide him through any legal battle.

The former senate president would need to get a judge to find that Jones could not replace him, and order Way to reverse her certification.

Democrats allied with Jones maintain that the state party chairman has the sole authority to remove and appoint members of the Apportionment Commission.

Sweeney has dealt with a similar, though not identical, issue before.

After assuming the senate presidency in 2010, Sweeney removed a member of the Congressional Redistricting Commission that had been named by his predecessor, Richard J. Codey.

“I don’t think it’s fair to bind me as the incoming Senate president,” Sweeney said at the time.

Sweeney received an opinion from the Office of Legislative Services he could remove Eldridge Hawkins, Jr., the mayor of Orange, since the work of the commission had not yet begun.

Laura Matos

The appointment of Matos, who worked for three Democratic governors and now runs the New Jersey office of Kivvit, a national public affairs firm, is expected to be certified by Way sometime today.  That will allow her to participate in a public hearing of the Apportionment Commission scheduled at 6 PM this evening.

Sweeney was originally appointed to the commission by then-Democratic State Chairman John Currie in November 2020 as part of a deal the previous year that led to Jones dropping his challenge to Currie in exchange for a commitment by Gov. Phil Murphy to support him for state chairman in June 2021.   South Jersey Democrats were not involved in that deal.

To clear his path for re-election, Currie agreed to allow Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin to each pick one member, with the additional seats going to Bergen, Essex and Hudson counties.

Sweeney picked himself and Currie, a political foe, resisted appointing him until the day before the commission members were announced.  At the time, Sweeney had secured enough votes to assure his re-election as senate president.  Few people, if any, anticipated that Sweeney might not get re-elected in his own South Jersey district.

Coughlin chose Gary Taffet, while the other seats went to Fairview Borough Administrator Diane Testa, who was the choice of Bergen County Democratic Chairman Paul Juliano, West New York Commissioner Cosmo Cirillo, a close ally of North Bergen Mayor/State Sen. Nichola Sacco, and Jones.

Some Latinx leaders, including Matos, sharply criticized Democrats for failing to name any Hispanic members.

“In appointing Laura Matos today, we are also taking a long overdue step to bring broader, more diverse voices and perspectives to the work that we have on the Apportionment Commission,” said Jones.  “In New Jersey, our diversity is our strength, and we must continue to build a party that reflects our great state.”

Matos, a Monmouth County resident who grew up in Burlington County, would also become the only member of the Jersey Shore region on the commission.    She also expands the number of Democratic women on the panel from one to two.

There have been changes to the commission before.

In his final days as Democratic State Chairman in 2010, Joseph Cryan named three of the five Democratic commissioners on the Legislative Apportionment Commission, and one of the two seats reserved for the state party chairman.  After John Wisniewski assumed the chairmanship, he retained some of Cryan’s appointees while others willingly stepped aside.

In early 2001, Senate President Donald DiFrancesco resigned from the commission after he succeeded to the governorship.  While DiFrancesco simultaneously served as senate president, his seat on the Legislative Apportionment Commission went to Senate Majority Leader John O. Bennett III.

The decisive event triggering the removal of Sweeney came during the weekend the two parties spent at the Cherry Hill Crowne Plaza Hotel in December.

South Jersey had wanted to peel off parts of Burlington County and shed portions of Gloucester, which would have shifted to Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-Dennis) in the 2nd district.  It would have made the 3rd district seat of Rep. Andy Kim (R-Moorestown) more difficult, while making Norcross’ district, solidly Democratic since the 1970s, even more Democratic.

That led to internal conflicts between Senate President Steve Sweeney and two commissioners he picked, Camden County Commissioner Jeff Nash and former Camden Mayor Dana Redd.   Sweeney didn’t want Van Drew heading the ticket in Gloucester in a year when county government could flip to the GOP.

After some maneuvering, Nash and Redd accepted the Democratic map.

The deadline for members of the public to address the commission at tonight’s meeting was yesterday afternoon.

In a state with one million more Democrats than Republicans, Democrats have controlled the Senate since 2003 and the Assembly since 2001.

Redistricting, postponed for two years following delays in the U.S. Census as a result of COVID-19, will remap the state’s 40 legislative districts.

Democrats have a 24-16 majority in the Senate and a 46-34 hold over the Assembly.

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