Chaotic day in Trenton as Republicans cry ‘tyranny’ over vax rules

Dem leader denounces GOP actions as ‘political theater’

Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Hunterdon) speaking to the media about the Statehouse’s vaccination policy on Dec. 2. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

Republican lawmakers had a heated standoff with state troopers in the Statehouse Thursday after flouting a new policy requiring them to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test to enter the legislative chambers.

The ruckus began when lawmakers were getting ready to take their seats ahead of their 1 p.m. session. Eight troopers blocked the Assembly doors when about half a dozen Republican lawmakers tried to enter without complying with the vaccine rules.

The legislators had entered the Statehouse earlier Thursday morning without incident, with security permitting anyone with building passes to enter without showing proof of vaccination.

Several of the lawmakers — the group included Assemblymen Parker Space (R-Warren), Brian Bergen (R-Morris), Hal Wirths (R-Warren), Serena DiMaso (R-Monmouth), Erik Peterson (R-Hunterdon), and Christopher DePhillips (R-Bergen) — shouted at the troopers as journalists crowded behind trying to document the drama.

“This is tyranny!” one yelled.

After several tense minutes, the troopers allowed the Republicans to enter the chambers, but initially barred reporters and photographers, even though all had their vaccine cards in hand. Reporters were eventually let into the room and the voting session began at about 3:30 p.m.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) did not attempt to kick any of the Republicans out of the chambers — DiMaso had tweeted earlier that he planned to — though he decried their actions as “political theater.” Coughlin also lamented what he called a “colossal failure in security here at the Statehouse.”

“The only thing that was asked of legislators here today to do is care about the people in the chamber,” Coughlin said. “I’m outraged that in the midst of the sacrifice, 28 members of the minority caucus did not comply and exhibit the common decency or humanity, all because they would rather have a couple minutes on TV news.”

Lawmakers being denied access to the Assembly due to Covid-19 protocols at the statehouse in Trenton on Dec. 2. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

On the Senate side, a handful of GOP senators walked into the chamber after a minor back-and-forth with troopers. But it appeared the senators relented, showed their vaccine cards, and were permitted entry.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) praised the Republican senators who “didn’t do the theatrics and the theater.”

“The reason why we said we wanted to have this policy, one, it’s getting bad again, and we’re inside again. We still want to do voting sessions in-person. We could have cancelled the in-person voting sessions and done them virtual. That’s not what we wanted to do, but the political theater is, like I said, it’s sad,” Sweeney said.

The kerfuffle came one day after Republicans from both chambers filed a lawsuit against the State Capitol Joint Management Commission in an effort to block the new vaccine policy, which the commission approved in October.

“I think it’s an assault on the people’s house. Enough already,” DiMaso said. “I’m not against keeping people safe — of course I want everybody to be safe — but we’ve been coming in, we’ve had a deal. We wear masks around the building. When we’re in our seats, we take them off. What changed?”

Peterson had plenty to say, as well.

“This is really not about COVID, folks. This is about denying the minority their right to speak out against policies that Phil Murphy and his minions in this house think that they want to shove down your throats, whether you like it or not. We have a Constitution, which I know is about Phil Murphy’s pay grade, but you know what, we need a governor who reads the Constitution, understands and respects it.”

He also took issue with the Senate starting their session while the Assembly delayed for hours.

“You can’t have two classes of Legislature,” Peterson said. “You can’t have one class on the floor and one not. There’s nothing in the Constitution saying I need to be vaccinated or pass a test. All it says is I have to be a certain age, live in my district a year, and get enough votes. And I’m allowed to come down here and represent my folks and speak out on issues that affect them.”


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.

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.

Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.