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State Sen. Sandra Cunningham. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Cunningham not expected to return to Senate as health issues continue

Legality of a court-appointed guardian signing a resignation letter fron the Senate is murky

By David Wildstein, November 29 2022 11:01 am

Facing a severe decline in her cognitive health, Senate President Pro-Tempore Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City) is unlikely to return to Trenton and is widely expected to resign her seat, the New Jersey Globe has learned.

But legal issues surrounding her ability to make major decisions, like a resignation, must still be resolved.

Cunningham was taken to Jersey City Medical Center by ambulance on October 4 for a non-life threatening health emergency and has been hospitalized for the last 56 days.

Since then, a Superior Court judge has placed Jersey City attorney Matthew Burns in charge of Cunningham’s personal affairs, since the five-term senator is no longer able to manage them herself.

Burns’ appointment came before former Gov. James E. McGreevey, Cunningham’s close friend, asked for another individual to take control of her finances and other private matters.   Court records in the matter are sealed and the proceedings are ongoing.

Sources have told the New Jersey Globe that John Minella, the chief of staff to Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, has emerged as a leading candidate to complete the remainder of Cunningham’s term, which expires on January 11, 2024 – if the senator resigns.  Minella would be a caretaker and not run for a full four-year term in 2023.

The Democratic candidate to replace Cunningham in the 31st legislative district has still not been determined, although Fulop will ultimately decide who gets the Hudson County Democratic organization line.   Possible candidates include Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-Jersey City), and two Hudson County Commissioners from Jersey City: Bill O’Dea and Jerry Walker.

Still unresolved is the issue of Cunningham’s competence to make major decisions, like signing a resignation letter, or if Burns can resign on Cunningham’ behalf.

The 72-year-old Cunningham has not been in the Senate since the passage of the state budget in June.

On September 29, she attempted to participate remotely in a Senate session where Matt Platkin was up for confirmation as attorney general.  Cunningham was recorded as a present vote in quorum call, but the Secretary of the Senate later changed the record to reflect that she was not present after Senate officers read a letter from Cunningham’s physician.

When Cunningham’s bill to set guidelines on the purchase of catalytic converter was approved by the Senate on October 17, she was not present to vote.  Despite her diminished capacities, a press release issues after the bill passed included a quote from Cunningham.

Gov. Phil Murphy has not nominated any Hudson County residents to any state post or judgeship since Cunningham’s hospitalization.  If he does, her ability to sign off on the nomination under the unwritten rule of senatorial courtesy could become an issue.

As Senate President Pro-Tempore, Cunningham is sixth in the line of succession to the governorship.

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