Vincent Prieto always has been hard-wired to compartmentalize, to see issues and problems in columns of sorts, keeping one from blurring into the other.
It is a skill that came in handy in mathematics, a favorite subject, in plumbing work and in reviewing construction projects.
But perhaps never has Prieto’s knack for maintaining an intense focus amid myriad distractions – some would say chaos – been more of a godsend than now, when he must juggle New Jersey’s legislative matters with one of the most closely watched state government scandals in the nation.
Prieto, who emigrated from Cuba at the age of 11, is the recently sworn-in New Jersey Assembly Speaker, the third most powerful elected office in the state, behind governor and Senate president.
As Prieto, 53, took office in January, all hell was breaking loose in the state capitol.
Several media outlets had just reported that emails from a top political adviser and between a top aide of Gov. Chris Christie and a Port Authority official he appointed implied that traffic-snarling lane closures in the fall of 2013 were retaliation for a local mayor's decision not to endorse Christie's re-election.
Christie fired the aide and his political adviser but has denied authorizing or even knowing about the scheme until the emails became public.
Vincent got along with people so well, he’s smart, he knows how to help people. I told him ‘You’re a natural for politics.’ He was born to be in politics.
In late January, shortly after Prieto became Speaker, the Assembly and Senate decided to establish a joint bipartisan committee with power to subpoena people and correspondence related to the traffic scandal and other matters. The two chambers had been conducting parallel investigations.
Prieto remains steady and gives a knowing look when asked about trying to sail the legislative ship amid the “Bridgegate” storm.
“I try to be mindful,” said Prieto, who has been in the Assembly since 2004, about all the legislative work there is to do in the Garden State. “I take it one day at a time.”
“It’s a big responsibility,” he said of his post. “This state has 8.8 million residents. We have a budget to work on, we have to stop the property tax burden. About 1.3 million residents in New Jersey live in poverty.”
Letting Chips Fall Where They May On Lane Closure Scandal
When the legislature announced the joint committee that would investigate how high up the chain of command the order to block traffic near the bridge came, and what the motivation was, Prieto told reporters: “We expect full cooperation and responsiveness as this inquiry proceeds. This is the best way to ensure that the people of New Jersey get the answers they need to these questions about the abuse of government power.”
How high does Prieto think the involvement in the lane-closing plot went in the Christie administration?
Prieto, an impeccable dresser who favors dark suits and wears his dark brown hair combed back, won’t say.
“It will sort itself out,” he said of the facts that emerge from the investigation. “It will lead to wherever that may be.”
“But this can’t happen again.”
He met with Christie recently – to talk about New Jersey issues, not “Bridgegate,” he noted.
“I told him ‘I’m focused on governing,’” Prieto said.
But Prieto is not viewed as a firebrand – he speaks in an almost intimate style. Even his most potent verbal bullets are shot in a velvety voice.
And he does fire bullets, and has done so routinely at Christie.
In 2012, when the Republican National Committee announced it had picked Christie to deliver the keynote speech at its presidential convention in Florida, Prieto couldn’t resist scoffing in front of reporters.
Christie’s prime time address, he said, was sure to “make for good theater.”
But now, Prieto is mindful of his high-profile role and the weight of his words regarding one of the biggest scandals to hit the Garden State.
“I take the governor at his word,” Prieto said. “Everyone remains innocent until proven guilty.”
"I Reinvented Myself"
As a young man in Hudson County, once the Little Havana of the East Coast, Prieto thought more about pipe wrenches and faucet valves than about the workings of state government.
He worked in plumbing with a friend, Joel Rodriguez, who later became his brother-in-law. The two eventually opened their own plumbing supply store in Union City. He was able to apply his mathematical skills to plumbing, which, he notes, involves “slopes and angles and velocity of water.”
Prieto had tried college, taking classes at Bergen Community College, but left without getting a degree.
When he speaks to high school students now, he tells them that they can reach their dreams, even those who are like he was at their age — “the one sitting in the back of the class.”
He later returned to school, taking classes at Bergen and Middlesex Community College, where he got certifications in construction code technology and fire code technology. Besides his legislative duties, Prieto also is the construction code official for the city of Secaucus.
Prieto, who recalled being scrawny in his youth, also got involved with working out in his pre-politics days, eventually reaching the point where he competed in – and won – bodybuilding competitions.
He even won the “Mr. New Jersey” title about 20 years ago, he said, still proud.
While Prieto was adept at plumbing and code technology – not to mention deadlifts and barbell lunges — Rodriguez saw a potential for something else in his business partner and brother-in-law.
“Everyone always went to Vincent, always looked for him when they had questions or problems,” said Rodriguez, who continues to work in plumbing supplies.
“They didn’t bother with me,” he said, laughing. “Vincent got along with people so well, he’s smart, he knows how to help people. I told him ‘You’re a natural for politics.’ He was born to be in politics.”
Prieto credits Rodriguez for planting the seed in his mind of pursuing a political career. He discussed it with his wife, Marlene, his high school sweetheart, who gave him her support.
Some of his pet issues are consumer protection, small businesses, and improving trade and vocational training and learning institutions.
“We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in grades K through 12 preparing kids to go to college,” he said. "But college is not for everyone," he added.
He tells kids in his talks at schools that although they might not go to college, they can excel at a trade, and even be Assembly Speaker someday.
“I reinvented myself,” he said. “I want kids to know that there are many opportunities, and they can succeed. Your work ethic has to be priority Number One.”
Many people, he said, react with surprise when they hear about his blue-collar vocational background.
“They’re surprised that I’m not a lawyer,” he said. “Everybody in the legislature should not be a lawyer. You need to have the perspective of many different people. I’ve had a business. I grew up in a tenement, in a basement apartment. You need people in the state government with different experiences.”
“I’m living the American Dream,” he said. “But I’m a work in progress.”