With new lawmakers taking office, attorneys still overrepresented in Legislature

Number of business owners ticks down, GOP victories fuel private sector gains

By: - January 31, 2022 6:39 am

Sen. Pat Diegnan (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

New Jersey’s new class of legislators features fewer business owners, one less lawyer, and a greater number of private-sector workers, but the number of lawmakers with jobs in local and county government remained level after election victors were sworn in on Jan. 11.

Sen. Pat Diegnan views the changes as a positive.

“The Legislature should reflect every aspect from society,” said Diegnan (D-Middlesex), one of the Senate’s 13 practicing attorneys. “That might sound strange coming from a lawyer.”

Attorneys continue to account for the largest share of lawmakers’ day jobs in the new legislative session, and now the two most powerful figures in the Legislature — new Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) — are both lawyers.

The number of practicing attorneys in the 120-member body fell from 28 to 27 when new legislators were sworn in. That figure does not include lawmakers like Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-Burlington) who have law degrees but are not currently practicing.

To a degree, the concentration of jurists is to be expected. Similar to other types of white-collar work, employment as an attorney can provide flexible hours that accommodate the Legislature’s schedule, and attorneys are likelier than others to have familiarity with state law.

“I always had an interest from when I was a kid, and I think even back in that time it was kind of normal for folks who had political interest to go to law school,” Diegnan said. “Making the laws and enforcing the laws are kind the same goal, so I think there’s a natural connection between the two.”

The number of lawmakers who own a business fell from 16 to 14 after the ousters of three Assembly Democrats, Valerie Vainieri Huttle, John Burzichelli, and Vince Mazzeo.

The number of legislators who hold private sector jobs outside of regulated industries, like insurance, rose from 17 to 19, the increases fueled mostly by the election of Republican Assembly members.

Diegnan said this all broadens the Legislature’s areas of expertise.

“I worked at the post office when I was in law school. I know what’s it’s like to be walking outside in cold weather. Somebody who didn’t do that won’t have that ability. I taught at Middlesex County College when I got out of law school at first, and I know how great our county colleges are,” he said. “You bring to the table your life’s experiences.”

The number of lawmakers with jobs in the insurance industry ticked up from five to six after the election of Assemblywoman Ellen Park (D-Bergen).

Another eight lawmakers work for county governments, and nine hold municipal office or a local government job, unchanged from the previous session.

The number of union officials also remains unchanged at four. The lower chamber added one — Assemblyman William Sampson (D-Hudson) is a member of the International Longshoremen’s Association — but now the Senate is without any following the ouster of former Senate President Steve Sweeney by new Sen. Ed Durr, a Republican truck driver from Gloucester County.

The number of legislators who hold day jobs with local school districts or in health care stayed steady at three each, and Assemblywomen Angela McKnight (D-Hudson) and Britnee Timberlake (D-Essex) continue to be the only members employed by a nonprofit.

As is the case in all but 10 states, New Jersey’s legislators work part time. They receive an annual salary of $49,000 and are eligible for some form of pension.

They don’t receive health benefits — a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Joe Danielsen (D-Somerset) that has yet to receive a Senate companion would change that — and some lawmakers view that as a barrier to would-be office-seekers.

“If we want to help attract and continue to attract a wider candidate pool, it would be helpful to offer supporting benefits that you would get in other employment because you’re asking someone, for health insurance, ‘go get it elsewhere,’ which generally requires being employed elsewhere,” said Assemblyman Roy Freiman (D-Somerset), a former Prudential Financial executive.

Freiman said he would support research to determine whether the New Jersey Legislature should move to a full-time schedule, adding lawmakers’ part-time employment has the potential to create conflicts of interest.

The part-time schedule has other effects. Though the $49,000 legislative salary is higher than the state’s per-capita income of $42,745, the Legislature’s schedule can strain career advancement in fields with inflexible hours, potentially discouraging younger New Jerseyans from seeking office.

The Legislature’s membership skews older. Sampson, at 33, is its youngest member.

“Let me tell you: My biggest concern is how young people are just not interested in running for political office,” Diegnan said.


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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.