Protest of COVID rules leads to marathon 11-hour Assembly session
TRENTON – State troopers enforced the vaccine-or-test rule Monday at the Statehouse, denying noncompliant Republican lawmakers access to the building for the sessions, forcing them to vote remotely and leading to a marathon meeting that was intentionally stretched out as a protest.
Around eight conservative Republicans threw sand in the gears of the legislative process all day and night – giving an unprecedented number of speeches on bills, even on ones that weren’t controversial or had passed earlier without comment, and forcing roll-call votes on typically simple procedures.
Between logistical challenges stemming from having 29 lawmakers taking part by phone and the Democrats’ simmering frustration with Republicans’ obstructive tactics, the emotions started high and escalated from there in a session that didn’t end until 12:13 a.m. Tuesday.
Assemblyman Erik Peterson, R-Hunterdon, missed the votes on the first few bills because of phone problems and said “I lost my constitutional right to vote because of this nonsense.”
“I’m still warming up from the state troopers holding me off,” Peterson said. “Took six of them to hold me back. Kind of proud of that.”
Peterson went on to give speeches about 37 of the next 54 bills, and many more after an evening recess, as Republicans spoke repeatedly in an obvious attempt to slow down the session. It took six hours to do the day’s first 56 bills, which was only about half the board list drawn up by Speaker Craig Coughlin.
“Mr. Speaker, with all due respect – ” Peterson said.
“That would be the first respect you’ve shown today,” said Coughlin, D-Middlesex.
Coughlin would on occasion interrupt Republicans if their brief but frequent filibusters strayed off the topic of the bill or came when they were supposed to be voting. He got frustrated and refused to let them speak if their requests were delayed or came after he’d called for a vote.
Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, D-Passaic, angered Republicans by not calling on them as they sought to drag out the proceedings.
“Anybody else on the bill?” Wimberly asked.
“Assemblyman Bergen on the bill,” said Assemblyman Brian Bergen, R-Morris, a bit faintly over a speakerphone being piped into the Assembly chamber.
Wimberly waited three or four seconds: “Madam Clerk, open the machine for a vote,” he said.
“Mr. Speaker, Assemblyman Bergen on the bill,” Bergen said, still faintly and now drowned out by the chimes of the digital board opening for votes to be cast.
Wimberly apologized, sort of, but barreled ahead as multiple lawmakers sought to be called on.
“I’m sorry, you guys have to speak up. I said ‘on the bill’ twice and nobody responded, so we’re in the roll call now,” he said.
“We’ve got to speak up? You’ve got to speak up,” said Assemblyman Hal Wirths, R-Sussex.
“We’re moving on,” Wimberly said. “Madam Clerk, please move on.”
A new policy for accessing the Statehouse took effect Dec. 1 requiring people to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test. There had been a vaccine mandate earlier, but it applied to staff, not lawmakers, and requiring them to show they’d been inoculated one time, not every day.
Earlier this month, after a nearly 15-minute standoff, Republicans sidestepped state troopers to enter the Assembly chamber without showing the required documents. Angry Democrats ended that day’s session after a handful of votes – meaning Monday’s agenda was quite long, with nearly 120 bills.
On Monday, state troopers entirely blocked access to most Statehouse entrances starting in mid-morning, to make it impossible for lawmakers to poke around for a door where they could get through.
Some Assembly Republican lawmakers went to court seeking to gain access to the building, but in mid-afternoon a Superior Court judge declined to issue a stay. They ignored Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, R-Union, when he suggested after the judge’s denial that the protest tactics be dropped.
“I believe in the interest of this house and out of respect we should move forward. I’d ask all our members to cooperate so we can move through this agenda as quickly as possible and let the courts do what they may at the appropriate time,” Bramnick said.
The Assembly passed 91 bills but held 23. The delayed bills include five from Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed gun-control package, which doesn’t yet have the support that would be needed to pass in the Senate.
Democratic lawmakers generally refused to answer questions from Republicans about the bills they’d sponsored, a give-and-take that is common practice though generally more about political positioning than genuine curiosity.
Republicans complained that votes were being cast for Democrats who weren’t participating by phone but also, the GOP claimed, weren’t in the Statehouse complex. Bergen suggested that some of the votes could potentially be challenged as illegal, jeopardizing whether the bills legally passed.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at email@example.com.