The New Jersey State Legislature swore in 21 new members today to mark the beginning of the 220th legislative session, following last year’s election that saw Republicans make significant gains across the state.
Among the new members are three Asian American women, the first to ever serve in the legislature, and eight Republicans who flipped Democratic seats in November; one of those eight is State Sen. Ed Durr (R-Swedesboro), who achieved instant fame when he upset Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) in the 3rd legislative district.
At the Senate ceremony, State Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden) was formally chosen as Sweeney’s successor, with State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark) joining him as Senate Majority Leader – the first person of color ever to serve in that role.
“Anybody in a position this important has to be a little nervous,” Scutari said in his remarks. “And, as John F. Kennedy said, we don’t do these things because they’re easy. We do them because they are hard. The day that I don’t come and pull up to this building and get inspired by the gold dome, I’ll leave. You won’t have to ask me, I’ll go home.”
Scutari locked down the support of his caucus months ago, but State Sen. Nia Gill (D-Montclair) nevertheless challenged him for the Senate’s top position, saying that “there has never been diversity in the Senate Presidency. Now is the time.” In a voice vote, Gill received support from herself and from State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Newark).
Senate Republicans also got a new leader: State Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Franklin), taking up the torch from now-former Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. (R-Westfield), who is running for Congress. Like Scutari, Oroho won his caucus’ leadership election months ago, defeating State Sens. Joe Pennacchio (R-Montville) and Robert Singer (R-Lakewood).
“It will be no surprise to my colleagues in the Senate that the Senate Republicans are going to be strong advocates for restoring the legislature as a coequal branch of government,” Oroho said. “We have a huge opportunity in this new session to lead New Jersey to brighter days. Let’s commit to doing what our constituents sent us to Trenton to do: to work hard, to help, and to make a difference.”
In total, five new senators – Durr, State Sen. Jean Stanfield (R-Westampton), State Sen. Andrew Zwicker (D-South Brunswick), State Sen. Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield), and State Sen. Gordon Johnson (D-Englewood) – were sworn in; all but Durr previously served in the Assembly.
Zwicker’s victory means that there will be no Somerset County Republicans in the legislature for the first time since 1905, while Johnson is the first-ever Black senator from Bergen County.
On the Assembly side, 16 new members took the oath of office, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-South Amboy) won a third term unopposed, Assemblyman John DiMaio (R-Hackettstown) was formally selected as Assembly Minority Leader, and Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Paterson) replaced Johnson as Assembly Speaker pro tempore.
Coughlin, who tested positive for Covid on Sunday, was sworn in remotely and delivered his remarks from a large screen in the center of the Trenton War Memorial auditorium.
“In a state as great and as wealthy as ours, it’s imperative that we do better – much better,” Coughlin said. “That we address the vulnerabilities that so many of our citizens feel, and that we be relevant in their daily challenges. We have a moral obligation to strengthen the ground beneath their feet.”
DiMaio, who is succeeding now-State Sen. Bramnick after outmaneuvering Assemblywoman Nancy Muñoz (R-Summit), said in his own remarks that the 2021 election results should send a message to Democrats hoping to pursue a liberal policy agenda.
“The message was clear in the so-called ‘red wave’ that rolled through last November,” DiMaio said. “We must make New Jersey more affordable. It seems the majority party has heard that call, and I’m encouraged by that.”
Eleven of the Assembly’s 16 new members are Republicans, including six – Assemblymembers Don Guardian (R-Atlantic City), Claire Swift (R-Margate), Beth Sawyer (R-Woolwich), Bethanne McCarthy Patrick (R-Mannington), Kim Eulner (R-Shrewsbury), and Marilyn Piperno (R-Colts Neck) – who flipped seats from Democrats in November. Guardian will also be the legislature’s only openly gay member.
Other notable freshmen are Assemblywomen Sadaf Jaffer (D-Montgomery), Shama Haider (D-Tenafly), and Ellen Park (D-Englewood Cliffs), who are the state’s first Asian American women legislators; Assemblymen Brandon Umba (R-Medford) and Christian Barranco (R-Jefferson), who join Assemblyman Antwan McClellan (R-Ocean City) as the few Republicans of color in the legislature; and Assemblyman William Sampson IV (D-Bayonne), who as a crane operator with no history of voting in Democratic primaries is possibly the new legislature’s most mysterious member.
Also sworn in today were Assemblymembers Michael Torrissi (R-Hammonton), Vicky Flynn (R-Holmdel), Reginald Atkins (D-Roselle), and Michele Matsikoudis (R-New Providence).
Though the 220th legislature has now formally started, it may take a while for the action to begin. Gov. Phil Murphy will deliver his virtual State of the State address at 5 p.m. today and will be sworn in next Tuesday, but the official legislative website indicates there will be no legislative activity until January 27.