- Associated Press - Thursday, December 25, 2014

SECAUCUS, N.J. (AP) - When a constituent approached Cuba-born Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto this week to explain why she agreed with the White House’s decision to reverse the government’s policy toward the communist nation, he held up his hands and told her why he thought she was wrong.

“I’ve always said, whether it’s in politics or in anything, when you’re looking from the outside in, and you’re looking through a window, it’s not as clear as once you get in the room,” he said.

As Prieto, a Democrat, caps his first year as one of the state’s top elected officials and prepares for an election year likely to include a difficult decision on how to finance transportation costs, he is grounding himself in the lessons he learned as a boy in Cuba. He and his mother fled there four decades ago when he was 10.

Prieto recalls a Cuban regime under which citizens couldn’t get ahead and food and toys were rationed. The government seized property, and elites dined on ham while ordinary citizens did without. He said those experiences helped mold him into a pragmatic, if also transactional, legislator.

“I’ve always said, when you negotiate you have to get something of substance,” he said. “If you negotiate and don’t get anything, you’re not a good negotiator.”

Of course a key part of negotiating is leverage, and as speaker Prieto has plenty of it, which he’s used to accomplish some of his most important goals, including pushing through vocational education bills signed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie.

“We want to be able to say if you work hard you can get something, you can do something and you can be somebody and you can have anything you want as long as you work for it,” he said. “(In Cuba) you’re not afforded that. You work harder, you don’t get anything. For me it’s personal.”

Prieto, who was first elected to the Assembly in 2004 and served as budget committee chairman in 2012 and 2013, faced a challenging start to the year, which was overshadowed by the George Washington Bridge traffic lane closures scandal ensnarling Christie’s administration.

While Republican Leader Jon Bramnick dinged the Democratic leadership for investigating the closures, Prieto has steadily earned respect from Republicans. Republican Assemblyman Scott Rumana said Prieto might not agree with their policies but is a decent colleague and an efficient floor manager.

Prieto succeeded Sheila Oliver, who served as speaker from 2010 to 2013. While Democrats are reluctant to criticize Oliver, they say Prieto has helped unite the party. Democratic state Sen. Nicholas Sacco, who represents the same Hudson County and Bergen County district as Prieto, said the speaker could have stacked committees with his political allies but instead included members from different political factions.

“Vinny added respect to the House, and I believe every member feels that,” Sacco said.

When the Legislature returns next month, the biggest item facing its members will be the transportation trust fund, which will run out of money by the end of June unless they and the governor agree on how to pay for new projects.

Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney has advocated increasing the fund from $1.26 billion to $2 billion and including rail lines in the northern and southern parts of the state. Prieto says he’s still considering which policies are the right ones, and he has embraced the need for raising the gas tax.

“I was the first one that … said we need to do something and a gas tax is the right thing,” he said. “Some of my members said, ‘You’re gonna get killed.’ My brother-in-law said, ‘Somebody said Vinny’s crazy.’ Now, at the end of the year, everybody’s drinking my Kool-Aid.”

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