Trenton drama ends with Coughlin criticizing GOP, State Police

By MATT FRIEDMAN 12/02/2021

Politico

New Jersey Assemblymember Brian Bergen, left, stands with fellow GOP Assemblymember Erik Peterson, right, who speaks and gestures toward New Jersey State troopers blocking GOP lawmakers from entering the Assembly chamber one Dec. 2.

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TRENTON — A chaotic scene unfolded in the Assembly on Thursday as Republican members who refused to comply with a new vaccine-or-test mandate staged a sit-in in the Assembly chambers, delaying the start of the first lame-duck voting session by two-and-a-half hours before Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin relented, gaveled it in and gave an angry speech.

“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 (D-Middlesex) said. ”I’m outraged. ... Twenty-eight members of the minority caucus could not be bothered to exhibit the decency or humanity, all to have a couple minutes on the TV news.”

The standoff, which did not occur in a Senate session down the hall, was an unusual test for Coughlin and raised difficult questions about whether state troopers had the authority to physically block Republicans who refused to comply with the mandate from entering the Statehouse and Assembly chamber. (Despite Coughlin's statement, at least some some members from the 28-member Assembly Republican caucus did comply with the mandate).

Coughlin, typically mild-mannered, took the extraordinary step of criticizing the State Police, who are in charge of Statehouse security — albeit not by name.

“There’s been a colossal failure of security here at the Statehouse. This is something we cannot tolerate,” Coughlin said of the troopers, who earlier in the day allowed some lawmakers who refused to comply with the newly-instituted mandate to pass through security

The Assembly then proceeded to vote on just a small portion of the several dozen bills on its agenda.

The controversy began with a mandate enacted by the State Capitol Joint Management Commission, which voted 5-2 to require all entrants to the Statehouse, including lawmakers, to either show proof of a Covid-19 vaccine or a negative test. Rapid Covid tests were also on offer at Statehouse entrances.

Lawmakers who refused to comply were given the option of voting remotely.

The incoming Republican minority leaders filed suit in state court to block the mandate, arguing among other things that it violates the state Constitution and that the commission didn’t have the authority to enact the mandate. The lawsuit is pending, but Coughlin and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) on Thursday issued their own directive outlining similar vaccine or test requirements.

While the lawsuit remained unresolved, several Republican members of the Assembly refused to comply with the mandate. Assemblymember Brian Bergen (R-Morris) invited reporters to accompany him as he entered the Statehouse, where troopers allowed him to pass without proof of vaccine or a test, though they required them of the reporters who accompanied him. At least a few GOP lawmakers followed suit.

In a statement Thursday morning, Coughlin spokesperson Kevin McArdle said legislative leaders had been in touch with the state police and attorney general’s office and that “we anticipate that those who have not followed the protocols will not be permitted in the chamber.”

That would be tested just a little while later. At the scheduled 1 p.m. start of the Assembly session, several GOP lawmakers attempted to enter the Assembly chamber, most not wearing required masks, but were blocked by troopers.

“You see this, folks? Denying us entry into our house. This is America,” Assemblymember Erik Peterson (R-Hunterdon) told reporters and others who watched the scrum at the front entrance to the chamber.

“This is what happens in China and Russia when they try to silence their critics,” Assemblymember Hal Wirths (R-Sussex) said.

But after a roughly 10-minute standoff at the door, the lawmakers walked past the troopers.

“They’re not going to physically restrain us. We can walk right in,” Bergen told his colleagues.

Coughlin then ordered a security sweep of the chamber to get lawmakers off the floor but they stayed put. At one point, the New Jersey State Police’s second-in-command, Lt. Col. Geoff Noble, walked into the Assembly chamber.

Assemblymember Serena DiMaso (R-Monmouth) tweeted that Coughlin “said if we do not vacate the chambers in two hours we will be physically removed and/or carried out.”

That didn’t happen.

“There wasn’t a whole lot that happened, honestly. It was just us sitting here,” Bergen said.

As the drama unfolded in the Assembly, the state Senate went about its business as usual, with some Republican members speaking out against the vaccine mandate but none engaging in civil disobedience.

“Look at the difference in the houses. And I give the Republicans in the Senate all the respect in the world,” Sweeney said. “They didn't agree with the policy, but they didn't do the theatrics and theater.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-12-03 03:42:55 -0800