Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Prieto Shows off His Muscle

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Prieto Shows off His Muscle

Article excerpt

Vincent Prieto boasts of his ability to recall arcane numbers, like the building codes for his day job as Secaucus' top construction official or the line-item costs in legislation for his elected job as speaker of the New Jersey General Assembly.

Or the numbers notched into his memory from his 1960s childhood in Fidel Castro's Cuba -- the daily one-quarter loaf of bread rations, the 6 ounces of meat per person, the one pair of new shoes a year.

His elders sometimes turned to the black market or bartering for basic necessities. But they always started out with a bottom line: never come home empty-handed.

"That's why for me, in the negotiating process, I got to get something," the 55-year-old Prieto said last week after giving a talk to business leaders and lobbyists at a breakfast forum in East Windsor. "And it doesn't have to be my way or the highway. I'm a guy that will bend a lot to get things because I know what difficulties are."

That pragmatic credo of survival, which took root in Cuba and was later honed as an ambitious refugee being raised in Hudson County, lies at the heart of Prieto's stubborn opposition to a proposed state takeover of Atlantic City government. Almost singlehandedly, he has scuttled a bipartisan plan championed by Governor Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, infuriating both but winning the allegiance of the public-employee union members who he believes would be hurt by the takeover.

It's been a political star turn for Prieto, who has generally not sought out the limelight since he was elevated to the speaker's post in 2013. But his high-profile refusal to play ball this time -- and his emergence as the protector of the unions whose contracts with Atlantic City's government could be dissolved -- has thrust him into the role of newsmaker, and underscored his position as the third- most-powerful person in state government.

Sweeney, a fellow Democrat, and Christie, a Republican, have accused Prieto of bargaining in bad faith and cynically blocking the takeover bill to help his Hudson County ally, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop -- Sweeney's likely rival for the 2017 Democratic nomination for governor. Prieto has said he's simply holding out for a reasonable compromise that will rein in some of the "dictatorial" powers in the bill and give Atlantic City officials more time and leeway to cut costs and restore their finances.

For the moment, Prieto's no-budge posture has led to some minor victories. Sweeney has amended the plan to give Atlantic City four months to dramatically cut costs before the state seizes power. And Christie has toned down his tough talk and his insistence that he will sign only the current takeover bill. He now says he'll consider any compromise that Sweeney and Prieto work out.

For some North and Central Jersey Democrats, Prieto's decision to dig in his heels represents a refreshing, and long overdue, flexing of his power. For much of Christie's first term, many Democratic lawmakers resented being relegated to the role of rubber stamps for landmark agreements hashed out privately between Christie and Sweeney, with most of the spoils awarded to Sweeney's base in South Jersey.

"I look at it as a profile in courage," said Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, a Mercer County Democrat who opposed Prieto's elevation to speaker in 2013. "He is standing up to the administration [on] something that should not be rammed through the Assembly."

The battle also is giving Prieto a chance to dispel doubts that a municipal code-enforcement officer with limited experience in elected office was ready to take the speaker's gavel. To many, he was simply "Vinny," the amiable ex-bodybuilder who once captured the title of "Mr. New Jersey."

He didn't earn the speaker's title so much as it was bestowed upon him as part of regional power-sharing agreement among Democratic Party barons in 2013. Now he appears intent to prove that he has earned his stripes. …

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