Craig Coughlin was sworn in today as the 171st Speaker of the New Jersey General Assembly, presiding over the largest Democratic majority since 1978. He becomes the first Assembly Speaker from Middlesex County since Alan Karcher held the post from 1982 to 1985.
The following is the complete text of Coughlin’s remarks, as prepared for delivery.
Before I begin my remarks, I would like to mark the passing of one of New Jersey’s all-time greats, Governor Brendan Byrne.
Governor Byrne set the standard for integrity, for public service and for bold thinking.
We are a better place because of his service.
Thank you, Governor Byrne.
I want to thank each of you for coming out today as we open the 218TH Legislature and begin the challenge of taking back our State for the middle class.
I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Governor Elect- Phil Murphy…. and the Assembly’s very own, Lt Governor-Elect Sheila Oliver, along with the state senate and Senate President Steve Sweeney.
I wish each of them great success, as we work together to move New Jersey forward.
I would like to acknowledge Speaker Vincent Prieto.
Speaker, you led this body with class and dignity.
Thank you for your graciousness throughout this transition process.
I’d also like to acknowledge Majority Leader Lou Greenwald and Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, whose opinions I respect and someone I look forward to working with during the next two years.
I would also like to thank the people who have supported me over the years and helped make today possible.
To my late mother who, more than anyone, is most responsible for making me who I am or ever will be;
To Gary, Kevin, Artie, Laurie, Scott, Dan, Dan, Dave, Lou and Julie – the best team around: thank you for your hard work and your friendship.
To my amazing extended family and to the best family anyone could ever have, Craig, Vincent, Nicholas, Cathy, Robin and Melissa;
And, of course, to my wife Tish, who is nothing short of a force of nature.
You are the amazing foundation which has allowed me to stand here today and I love you.
Most of you know that I have been a member of this esteemed body since 2010, representing the great people of the 19th legislative district.
But beyond that, I suspect you don’t know very much about me unless you’ve read the political blogs, in which case, you know that I am a low key, relatively unknown, back bencher.
So, you can see how I got the job.
But who I really am is a guy who grew up in South Amboy, a proud product of the public school system and the son of Jack, who passed away when I was four, and Claire Coughlin.
It was a place where my sister Cindy and I were taught that if you were honest and worked hard, you would succeed, that if you took care of your family and looked out for your neighbors, they would do the same.
I grew up in a time when John F. Kennedy was President.
Our Country’s future was bright with idealism and dreams of what could be.
It was a time when public service was seen as a higher calling.
And that while our nation’s challenges were great, we believed we could fix them if we put our minds to it and worked together.
I still believe all of that is very true.
But too often when I speak to people in my district, working class communities like Woodbridge or Sayreville, I am saddened by how much faith people have lost in government.
I am taken aback by how many people have written us off as not being able or have the desire to help them in their daily anxieties.
Too many people seem convinced the system doesn’t care about them anymore.
But I know that’s not true.
And I know that everyone on this stage is here because we believe we can make a difference.
Each of us has something in our lives that led us to run for office, to get involved.
For me, it was election night, 1968. Nixon versus Humphrey.
As I recall it was very late in the evening. I was watching the returns with my Mom and I asked her who we wanted to win.
She explained her choice with an eloquence that was as understandable to her 10-year old son then as it is profound to her 59-year old son today.
She said she chose her candidate because he cared about people like us.
That simple statement — the basic notion of government helping people — has been my inspiration ever since.
I’m sure each of my 79 colleagues has an equally defining story.
That is why I know that each of us wants to make New Jersey a better place to live.
And with that guiding principal, I come before you today to thank you and offer congratulations to each of my colleagues.
Congratulations on your victory and thank you for your willingness to take on the responsibility of serving the people of this great state.
It was Al Perroni, the former head of OLS, who at the end of my orientation when I was first elected, brought home to me the enormity of the responsibility we have.
He said there are about nine million people in the state of New Jersey and 121 of them get to make the rules.
And you are one of them.
I think of those words today as I come before you to open this session of the legislature.
The power bestowed upon us by our neighbors gives us the opportunity that most people are never given:
The power to bring about change and to tackle real problems.
I’m not saying this is going to be easy.
In fact, I’m telling you that it is going to be very hard.
The challenges New Jersey faces are very real.
Whether you live in Carteret or Carlstadt, Paterson or Atlantic City, middle class residents and those aspiring to get into the middle class share the same concerns.
New Jersey has gotten too expensive.
College graduates worry they can’t find an affordable place to live even if they somehow find a job.
Parents and senior citizens worry that they can’t afford to stay here.
Families worry about paying for college.
Workers worry about a salary that can’t pay the rent or what happens if they get sick or have to take a day off to care for a family member.
Commuters worry about a mass transit system that can’t reliably get them to work on time.
Those challenges allow us to find our purpose, to define our legislative agenda, in addressing the anxieties, the economic insecurities that simmer in the everyday lives of our constituents.
Our work, will speak for our priorities and our work must focus on building a stronger system of opportunity and security for our middle class, while standing up for the least fortunate and encouraging success.
A quality public education.
Access to a good paying job.
An affordable place to live.
An equal wage for equal work.
And government that values their worries.
This is what we should be focused on.
Opportunity for the middle class begins with access to good education.
Full school funding is real property tax relief and a genuine middle class opportunity.
We must also recognize that a college education isn’t necessary or appropriate for every student.
In this state and others, high skills jobs cannot be filled because employers can’t find workers with the right training.
We must focus on job training and workforce development, which offer a path to middle class mobility.
We must also look for new ways to make our state vibrant.
Applying science and technologies to emerging industries is a source of jobs and economic development for our State.
That is why I have created a new Committee on Science, Innovation and Technology, to enable New Jersey to take advantage of our location and human capital.
At its core, government must be able to do the basics.
Few things are as basic to government as a dependable transportation system.
Right now, workers cannot rely on our buses and trains to get them to and from work.
Let’s pledge ourselves and this body to do all we can to get the Gateway tunnel built.
To fix New Jersey Transit and to get people to work on time.
Let’s also remember that while we tackle the big challenges, there are lots of little annoyances that defy common sense and are maddening to our constituents.
Too often these are governmental actions that seem to have no purpose other than to aggravate people.
Let’s take a look at what annoying and pointless rules we can help eliminate.
There is one item that is very personal to me I would like us to address – hunger.
In this wealthy state, too many people go to bed hungry.
In this wealthy state, too many communities don’t have access to a supermarket.
In this wealthy state, too many of our food banks who serve the least among us don’t have enough support.
We can, and we will, fix that.
Every session of the Legislature is important.
Every session of the Legislature offers the opportunity to do right by our neighbors.
But we are here at a unique time, when our fellow citizens need to see that government can help, that it can be a force for positive good in their lives.
Now I am not wise enough, nor foolish enough to think that I have all the answers.
But I am humble enough to know that it takes all of us to make the Assembly work.
I want your priorities and your opinions on the issues in front of us, because I recognize that each you are a fierce advocates for your district.
All voices in our chamber matter – whether Republican or Democrat; north, south or central, I will listen and respect each.
However, I do reserve the right to disagree.
Now, I will always look for collaboration with the Senate and with our Governor, but inevitably there will be times when the Assembly must set its own course and act as an independent and equal branch of government.
I will not be afraid to chart that path when it is necessary.
My overarching priority is to make sure we get the policy “right” and I can only do that with your help.
In deciding to go to the moon, President Kennedy told the nation that “We choose to go to the moon, not because it is easy but because it is hard.’
Let’s do hard things, and let’s do them together.
Let’s make the hallmark of the 218th Assembly that it was thorough and thoughtful, that it took on big challenges, and wasn’t afraid to be bold in its thinking or in the mountains it chose to scale.
And when we do, we will honor the awesome responsibility and humbling trust that nine million New Jerseyans gave us when they chose us to be the ones who get to make the rules.
Thank you for the trust and confidence in allowing me to serve as the Speaker. God bless you all and God bless the great State of New Jersey.