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Senate President Steve Sweeney. Photo by Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe

The history of the New Jersey Senate Presidency

Senate Presidents served a single one-year term until the 1970’s, now the job can last a decade — or more

By David Wildstein, August 06 2018 4:15 am

When New Jersey’s modern-day founding fathers created the most powerful governorship in the nation in 1947, it was based on an assumption that the old system of rotating legislative leaders would still be in effect.

Today, the three separate but equal branches of state government includes America’s most constitutionally powerful Governor and Chief Justice, as well as the most politically powerful legislative leader in the United States.

Prior to the adoption of the current State Constitution in 1947, governors served a three-year term and were ineligible to seek re-election.  The New Jersey General Assembly served one-year terms and legislative races typically followed the coattails of the top of the ticket.

Until the 1970’s, legislative leadership positions rotated, with Senate Presidents and Assembly Speakers serving a single one-year term.  The rotation system typically meant that a Senator would serve one-year stints as in leadership – Assistant Whip to Whip to Assistant Leader to Majority Leader, for example – before becoming the Senate President.  The Assembly had a similar rotation.

That meant no one legislator – with some exceptions, like Atlantic County’s Hap Farley — would amass outsized power, which effectively enhanced the clout of the governor.  In those days, legislative staffs were incredibly small.  If the Legislature needed to go to court on a particular matter, leadership would ask one of the legislators who was also an attorney to handle the issue for them on a pro bono basis.

Eventually the rotation switched from one year to two years.  Then from two to four.  Donald DiFrancesco (R-Scotch Plains) won the Senate Presidency in 1991 and stayed ten years, followed by eight years of Richard Codey (D-West Orange).  Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) is now in his ninth year.

Sweeney now has a lock on the Senate, where he has the power to set the board list – no legislation can be called for a vote unless he says ok – the ability to name all committee chairs and set all committee assignment, and the option of deciding which gubernatorial nominations are even considered.

While Gov. Phil Murphy’s powers are constitutional, Sweeney’s clout comes from a solid political coalition — it reflects the influence of county party organizations – and from the absence of term limits on legislative leaders.  Senators know that Murphy can’t remain in office past January 2026; they don’t have any idea how long Sweeney will stay around.  Ultimately, Senators would rather apologize to Murphy than to Sweeney.

After the 1969 elections, when Republican William Cahill was elected governor following sixteen years of a Democratic chief executive, Raymond Bateman (R-Branchburg), who had been Senate Majority Leader in 1969, was unanimously elected Senate President – the first to serve more than a year.  The move to extend the term of Senate leadership from one to two years after voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1968 creating two-year legislative sessions.  The Assembly opted to keep their one-year rotation in 1971.

In 1972, when Majority Leader Alfred Beadleston (R-Rumson) was expected to take his turn as Senate President, Bateman decided he wasn’t ready to give up the job.  Bateman beat Beadleston by a vote of 15-9 in the Republican caucus.  Beadleston then turned around and ran for another term as Majority Leader, defeating former Senate President Frank McDermott (R-Westfield) 15-9.  Cahill, who had established a strong working relationship with Bateman, helped convince the caucus to give the Senate President another term.

(That was the same year Democrats took control of the State Assembly, but GOP Majority Leader Thomas Kean (R-Livingston) became Speaker after cutting a legendary deal with four Democrats from Hudson and Union counties, including Jersey City Assemblyman David Friedland.)

Beadleston finally became Senate President in 1973, losing his job after just year when Republicans lost fourteen State Senate seats in the general election.  He spent the next two years as Senate Minority Leader.  Kean remained as Speaker in 1973, and then spent four years as Assembly Minority Leader after the Democrats captured 66 seats in the Watergate landslide.

Frank Dodd (D-West Orange) was Senate President in 1974-75, followed by Matthew Feldman (D-Teaneck), who had served as Majority Leader, in 1976-77.

In 1978, Joseph Merlino (D-Trenton) rotated from Majority Leader to his two-year term as Senate President.  But in December 1979, when Majority Leader John Russo (D-Toms River) got ready to take his turn, Merlino refused to go.  There was speculation that Gov. Brendan Byrne might leave during his second term to take a cabinet post in Jimmy Carter’s administration, and Merlino wanted to be governor.

Also briefly in the race for Senate President was Bernard Dwyer (D-Edison), but he made a deal with Merlino: the three Middlesex Senators stuck with Merlino and Dwyer became Majority Leader instead.  That blocked Russo from even keeping what he had.  Merlino beat Russo 23-3, with one Senator abstaining.

While Dwyer was in line for Senate President, he decided to seek an open congressional seat in 1980 instead.  Assistant Majority Leader Joseph Hirkala (D-Passaic) was in line to move up, but Carmen Orechio (D-Nutley) put together the votes and Hirkala didn’t contest it.

Orechio spent four years as Senate President; he was succeeded by Russo, who was able to build a coalition to finally get the job, albeit six years after he was supposed to.  Russo stayed for four years.

John Lynch (D-New Brunswick) became Senate President in 1990 and only got two years before the Jim Florio landslide gave Republicans their first majority in eighteen years.  Lynch became Minority Leader and DiFrancesco, who had leapfrogged the rotation system to become Senate Minority Leader after the 1981 election, came back and beat the current Minority Leader, John Dorsey (R-Boonton) to become the new Senate President.

It was DiFrancesco who defined the modern-day powers of a New Jersey Senate President.  He spent his 10th year as the leader of the Senate controlling two branches of government when he spent 11 months as Governor when Christine Todd Whitman resigned to join the cabinet.

In 2002, with the Senate at a 20-20 standstill, Codey (who had been Minority Leader for four years) and Majority Leader John Bennett (R-Little Silver) became Co-Senate Presidents.  When Democrats won control of the Senate in 2003, Codey became the sole Senate President.  In November 2004, following the resignation of Gov. Jim McGreevey, Codey also became governor – he held both posts for fourteen months.

After the 2009 elections, Sweeney put together a coalition to take Codey out – something he accomplished by a wide margin.  By the end of 2019, he will have tied DiFrancesco’s record as New Jersey’s longest serving Senate President.  If he’s re-elected – anything else is unlikely – he’ll break that record in January 2020.

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