Senate Democrats pick Scutari for president in symbolic vote

Ruiz tapped for majority leader, while Cunningham takes president pro tem

By: - November 12, 2021 1:02 pm

Sen. Nicholas Scutari speaks with reporters after his caucus appointed him Senate President in a symbolic vote on Nov. 12, 2021. (Dana DiFilippo for the New Jersey Monitor)

Senate Democrats picked Nicholas Scutari as their next president in a symbolic vote Friday, the Judiciary Committee chairman left unopposed after Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex) backed out of the race.

Scutari, also the Union County Democratic chairman, will need to win a formal vote at the chamber’s reorganization in early January to become New Jersey’s most powerful legislator.

“Being chosen by this august group is truly a humbling experience,” Scutari said at a brief press conference following the caucus vote. “That a poor kid from Linden raised by a single mom could one day be selected as the Senate president-elect is really just awe-inspiring, and it is a true testament that the American dream is alive here in New Jersey.”

The Senate majority caucus picked Scutari as Senate president by voice vote. Of the 22 members in attendance, only Gill abstained.

Scutari’s ascent to the highest ranks of Senate leadership follows Senate President Steve Sweeney’s (D-Gloucester) stunning electoral loss to Republican Ed Durr, whose low-dollar campaign won a surprise 2,200-vote victory over a well-moneyed incumbent who appeared assured to win a second term before election day.

The South Jersey lawmaker was so sure of his victory that he announced his leadership slate days before the election. Sweeney, the longest-serving Senate president in New Jersey’s history, conceded his loss Wednesday.

The victory upended leadership in the Senate majority caucus and has complicated the chamber’s lame duck agenda, with some bills likely to be delayed until the coming legislative session to give Scutari the chance to weigh in.

The incoming Senate president said he had yet to weigh in on lame duck legislation, adding that he expected those talks to begin in the coming days.

“I have not been presumptuous that today would occur, so to be completely honest with you, that’s a conversation that will now (be) going forward and has not occurred yet,” he said, referring to lame duck legislation.

He said that he had not spoken with Gov. Phil Murphy prior to Friday’s caucus vote, adding he was not yet sure whether the results of last week’s elections, which saw Democrats’ Senate and Assembly majorities thin for the second consecutive cycle, would create new roadblocks for the governor’s progressive agenda.

“We’re not ready to stake out a position just yet,” Scutari said. “This is the first 45 minutes of what we hope to be a long and prosperous leadership team, and we’ll take it one step at a time, one decision at a time, after we have an opportunity to work collectively to come up with our plan.”

An attorney by trade, Scutari began his political career more than a quarter-century ago as a member of Linden’s Board of Education. He became a county freeholder in 1997 and joined the Senate in 2004.

He has served as Senate Judiciary chairman for more than a decade and has forged ties with Murphy and his staff over work to advance gubernatorial nominees and was a driving force behind the state’s effort to legalize recreational marijuana use.

Scutari quickly emerged as the favorite for the Senate presidency in the days after the election as regional blocs each began their own push for power.

South Jersey Democrats moved quickly, seeing Scutari — a frequent Sweeney ally — as the pick that would most reliably maintain the region’s power.

Sen. Joe Cryan (D-Union), Senate Education Chairwoman Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark), and Senate Budget Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) briefly sought the Senate presidency but backed down after forces aligned behind Scutari.

The caucus voted to elect Ruiz as majority leader, while Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson) was tapped to take the education chairwoman’s post as Senate president pro tem.

Ruiz, who is set to become the first woman of color to hold the majority leader post, said she does not expect to stay on as chair of the Education Committee, noting Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), who will retire at the end of the current legislative session, chairs no panels. But she expects her priorities to stay largely unchanged.

“My focus will always be on children and women, as it has been in the policy work that I have done,” she said. “Education and the learning loss that has impacted all of our families in the entire state will remain a cornerstone.”

Scutari said he would discuss his broader policy agenda with Ruiz and Cunningham in the coming days.

Gill, an often-independent senator with a history of bucking the chamber’s leadership, entered the race after Scutari appeared a lock for the position. Her withdrawal from Friday’s vote was first reported by the New Jersey Globe.

She said she intends to run for the presidency at the formal vote in January. In a press gaggle Friday morning, she criticized the caucus vote, calling it opaque and noting Scutari’s selection wouldn’t be official until January, when senators from both sides of the aisle cast votes for the chamber’s president.

“The community and public can weigh in. We can have a transparent, robust discussion and then in public let people put their positions on the record so that the public knows, so by continuing, it allows the public to have input,” she said. “It seems to me last Tuesday the public said, ‘We will not tolerate business as usual.’”

Gill said she intended to speak with Republican senators about the Senate presidency. It’s not likely GOP members will rally behind Gill, a civil rights attorney who has often broken with her party’s leadership.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.