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Former Gov. Richard J. Codey, a state senator from Essex County. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

The karma of Steve Sweeney’s commission ouster

Former Senate President removed Codey’s pick for redistricting commission in 2010

By Joey Fox, January 26 2022 5:04 pm

Twelve years ago, Steve Sweeney got his way on the Congressional Redistricting Commission.

Fresh off of his victory over former Gov. Richard Codey for the presidency of the New Jersey State Senate, Sweeney decided that he wanted a say on the commission, which was set to draw the next decade’s congressional maps that year. So he removed Orange Mayor Eldridge Hawkins Jr., Codey’s pick for the commission, and replaced him with his own preferred South Jersey candidate.

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

This redistricting cycle, Sweeney was poised to have even more power over the redistricting process. Two of the six Democratic commissioners on the congressional commission were South Jersey acolytes, and Sweeney himself held one of the five seats on the Legislative Apportionment Commission.

Codey, meanwhile, has spent most of the last 12 years in the political wilderness, continuing to hold his seat in the Senate while locked out of any leadership role by Sweeney. 

Then, on November 2 of last year, Sweeney’s hold on state politics fell apart when he lost re-election to an unheralded Republican named Ed Durr. Durr raised next to no money, but in an unexpectedly good year for South Jersey Republicans, he and his Assembly running mates were swept into office against one of the most powerful legislative leaders in state history.

Senate Democrats quickly moved on, naming Senate Judiciary Chair Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden) to the presidency. And just today, Sweeney lost his last hold on formal political power when state Democratic Party chairman LeRoy Jones Jr. removed him from the legislative apportionment commission, echoing Sweeney’s own maneuvers in 2010.

Codey’s reaction? “If the roles were reversed, the south would have done that [to us] long before now.”

Jones and other Democrats were reportedly worried that Sweeney would collude with the five Republicans on the commission for his own political gain. Those fears may not have been unfounded; the two South Jersey Democrats on the Congressional Redistricting Commission previously attempted to target Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-Montclair)’s North Jersey seat and make her a less viable future candidate for statewide office.

But Codey, who led the Democratic legislative redistricting delegation in 2001, said that regardless of what Sweeney may or may not have done with the role, his loss of the Senate presidency made him an odd fit for the commission.

“He was there because he was the president… He no longer is, so [Jones] sought to put someone else on,” Codey said. “South Jersey’s run the party for the last decade or so. They had a hell of a run, that’s for sure.”

Sweeney’s replacement on the commission, Pinelands Commission Chair Laura Matos, was once a Codey staffer, working for the former governor as his appointment secretary. She will also be the commission’s only Latina member, which Codey said was important in such a diverse state.

“[Hispanics] are a big part of the population, and she also understands politics and she understands people,” he said. “So she should be very good at it.”

Ironically, Sweeney’s gambit back in 2010 probably didn’t affect the final result, since congressional redistricting tiebreaker John Farmer, Jr. chose the Republican-proposed map. But the substitution of Matos, a Monmouth County resident, for Sweeney could have major implications for South Jersey and beyond on this year’s legislative map.

“I think it’s going to be an interesting show,” Codey said.

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