GOP cries 'tyranny' while Dems see anti-vax pandering during wild day in Trenton | Stile
Assemblyman Eric Peterson talks to the reporters after his fellow Republican officials and him were blocked by State Troopers from entering into the General Assembly Chamber in the Statehouse in Trenton on 12/02/21. A few minutes later, they were allowed to get into the Chamber. NorthJersey.com
Assembly Republicans succeeded in disobeying a new COVID-19 vaccine policy at the New Jersey Statehouse on Thursday, dealing a humiliating defeat to the Democrats who control state government after a daylong drama that included a tense 15-minute standoff with state police.
What originally promised to be a humdrum legislative session in Trenton instead descended into cycles of chaos and confusion. Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin and most of his 52 Democratic colleagues eventually ascended from their caucus room around 3:15 p.m. to hold a quick voting session — with the defiant yet victorious Republicans seated in their plexiglass cubicles on the Assembly floor.
Before the voting started, a somber yet seething Coughlin laced into the Republicans for refusing to endure a minor inconvenience — show proof of vaccination or results of a recent negative COVID test — despite a pandemic that has taken 800,000 lives in the United States and has unleashed a new, worrisome omicron variant.
"To be clear, in the midst of this sacrifice the only thing that was asked of the legislators here today to do was to show that they weren’t infected, to care about their colleagues and the people in the chamber,'' Coughlin said.
"I’m outraged … 28 members of the [Republican] minority caucus could not be bothered to exhibit decency or humanity, all to have a couple minutes on the TV news,'' he said.
But the Middlesex County Democrat also took the unusual step of criticizing the state police — without mentioning them by name — for failing to enforce the rule.
The requirement was adopted by the State Capitol Joint Management Commission, a hybrid of executive branch and legislative appointees who oversee the Statehouse complex. The rule went into effect on Wednesday.
"There’s been a colossal failure of security here at the Statehouse,'' Coughlin complained. "This is something we cannot tolerate.”
In fact, it was never entirely clear Thursday just what role the state police had played. The elite force, which provides security at the Statehouse, had been notified by an internal memo that troopers were “permitted to deny entry to the State House Complex to anyone who does not comply with the policy,'' including lawmakers.
State police officials did not respond to a series of questions about the troopers' enforcement role.
Some lawmakers were not required to show their proof of vaccination or testing when they entered the Statehouse annex around 10 a.m. — although several members of the press were required to do so.
But by 1 p.m., the state police took a different tack. Troopers blocked several Republicans from entering, setting off a tense confrontation and prompting several to lash out and rail in front of the scrum of reporters crowding at the Assembly Chamber door.
“This is tyranny, folks,” bellowed Assemblyman Erik Peterson, R-Hunterdon, as the legislators packed together at the door.
“They’re not letting the minority party vote,” he said, overlooking the option members had to cast votes remotely.
He added, "The same tyrant issuing executive order after executive order is now taking away my constituents' rights,'' directing his anti-mandate venom toward Gov. Phil Murphy, even though the policy was enacted jointly with appointees of the Legislature.
Yet, in a surprise turnabout, the troopers inexplicably let the 10 or so Republicans pass and seat themselves in the empty chamber, where Democrats had not yet convened. It was not clear why they relented, but there was also no clarity over just how far troopers could go in enforcing the new standard.
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While guidance gave them the authority to deny entry, it was never clear whether they could forcibly remove a lawmaker. The state constitution provides broad protections for lawmakers' ability to carry out their duties and cast votes, even while under arrest.
For the next two hours, the small group of Republicans sat inside the locked and mostly empty chamber while Coughlin and the Democrats huddled in their caucus room. Rumors circulated among the GOP members that Coughlin was planning to order troopers to remove the Republicans before starting the session.
That crackdown never materialized. Yet some Democrats considered their own counterprotest.
The plan was to come upstairs, initiate the session with a quorum call, and then retreat to the caucus room and vote remotely.
But Coughlin overruled the idea and conducted the session in person before chastising the GOP in a speech. Among the bills delayed was a vote to expand a tax credit to some 80,000 low- and moderate-income families. Despite the drama, the voting resumed a normal pace, with most of the GOP casting votes from their seats.
Democrats were livid. They accused the Republicans of recklessly putting extreme ideology ahead of the safety of their colleagues, staff and members of the public circulating under the Statehouse dome.
They also raised questions about the reliability of the state police, with Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, D-Essex, going so far as to suggest some troopers' reluctance was guided by sympathy for the Republican cause, not confusion over their role.
Others saw the Republicans pandering to their base voters, who are infused with anti-vaccine and anti-mandate anger, stoked by conservative media. It was that grassroots anger that fueled the "red wave" backlash that propelled Republican legislative gains last month, as well as gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli's closer-than-expected loss to Murphy.
"This is about trying to make a show to placate the anti-vaxxers,'' said Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti, D-Hudson.
Republicans, mostly conservative members from rural northwest part of the state, asserted that the vaccine-or-testing rule was a heavy-handed attempt by Democrats — who hold a 6-2 majority on the Statehouse management panel — to impose an unconstitutional and unnecessary mandate, solely for political reasons.
Assemblyman Brian Bergen, R-Denville, one of the more vocal rebels, seized on the language of the civil rights movement, asserting that the rule discriminated against those who are unvaccinated. He argued that the vaccinated are also capable of transmitting the disease.
"This was an attempt to make a policy that was discriminatory and not based on any science, and I'm saying that these mandates are not OK,'' Bergen said.
The flap is not over. An appellate judge had put a stay on the policy for the purposes of scheduling a court hearing on the challenge later this month. The panel adopted the rules last month.
Coughlin and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney also issued a revised set of rules on Wednesday that was slightly more lenient. It allowed lawmakers to enter as long as they verbally attested upon arriving that they had previously informed legislative leadership that they were vaccinated or tested negative. But that late move did little to quell the revolt.
Regardless, Republicans, who have long been in the minority in Trenton and largely sat on the sidelines during former Republican Gov. Chris Christie's eight years in office, crowed over their success in flouting the rule.
Assemblyman Roy Freiman, D-Mercer, saw no cause for celebration.
"How is that a victory?'' he said. "Defying a good public policy that protects people is not a victory."
Charlie Stile is a veteran political columnist. For unlimited access to his unique insights into New Jersey’s political power structure and his powerful watchdog work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.