Social justice groups say N.J. needs a person of color as the next Senate president

New Jersey State Capitol building in Trenton. (Alan Tu/WHYY)

New Jersey State Capitol building in Trenton. (Alan Tu/WHYY)

Several social justice advocacy groups in New Jersey have called on lawmakers to elect a person of color as the Garden State’s next Senate president, the second most powerful position in state government.

Their pleas came Friday, as multiple reports indicated Union County Democrat Sen. Nicholas Scutari, who is white, will likely garner enough votes to assume the position from outgoing Sen. Steve Sweeney.

“Almost half of New Jersey’s residents are people of color. Our legislative leadership must reflect those demographics,” said Rev. Eric Dobson, deputy director of the Fair Share Housing Center. “We have a white, male governor and a white, male assembly speaker. We must not allow another white male to ascend to Senate President.”

Nearly 45% of New Jersey residents are people of color, according to the state’s Office Of Diversity and Inclusion. People of color will make up a majority of the state’s population before the end of the decade, some projections predict.

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The process for selecting a new Senate president plays out over the course of several months. The Democratic caucus meets in private to select a nominee, before the full Senate votes on Jan. 11, according to a spokesperson for Senate Democrats. A candidate for Senate president needs at least 21 votes (out of 40) to be elected.

At his weekly coronavirus briefing on Monday, Gov. Phil Murphy was asked about reports last week that he met with leaders about Scutari’s candidacy and whether he should push for a person of color to be elected.

“We’re the most diverse state in America. We should have a state that reflects that in terms of the leadership, there’s no question about it,” Murphy said. “We have the most diverse cabinet in our state’s history. That’s something that I have a fairly significant amount of control over. It’s just a fact, I don’t control the process of who is the Senate president, who is the speaker.

“I don’t want to imply that I can control a process, which is not mine to control,” Murphy said.

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Frank Argote-Freyere, director of the Latino Coalition, said it was wise for Murphy to distance himself from implications that he has control over Senate negotiations, but he said his organization was disappointed over the prospect of a Scutari Senate presidency.

“We thought it was an ideal opportunity to get someone in that position who would represent communities of color and look like them,” Argote-Freyere said. “So we were thinking of Sen. [Teresa] Ruiz, out of Newark, or Sen. [Nellie] Pou — someone like that.”

Essex County Sen. Nia Gill, a member of the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus, announced her candidacy for Senate president over the weekend, saying in a statement that Tuesday’s election results show many voters are rejecting “the business of politics as usual.”

The Legislative Black Caucus has not endorsed a particular candidate for Senate presidency, according to its chairperson Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, a Democrat who represents New Jersey’s 35th legislative district.

“The names that have been elevated for Senate president that are minorities are strong and have the experience to excel in that role,” she said.

Sweeney, the longest-tenured Senate president in state history, is expected to be ousted by political novice Ed Durr, a trucker from Logan, Gloucester County. The Associated Press called the race for Durr on Thursday; Sweeney has not yet conceded.

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