New Jersey Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin New Jersey Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin

The New Jersey Assembly on Monday elected Democrat Craig Coughlin to become its next speaker, making him the first attorney chosen for the post in 15 years.

In becoming the third-most-powerful elected official in the state, Coughlin, who last year formed Rainone Coughlin Minchello, an eight-lawyer firm in Woodbridge, replaces Assemblyman Vincent Prieto, D-Hudson, who held the position for four years. Coughlin will assume his duties on Jan. 9, when the Legislature reorganizes.

Coughlin, backed by a coalition of southern New Jersey and Essex County Assembly members, garnered enough votes to win the post of speaker earlier this year, and Prieto announced last week that he would not seek another term, and instead backed Coughlin.

Coughlin is a graduate of St. John’s University School of Law. He is a general practitioner, but his primary career focus is on his role as a legislator.

Coughlin, the 216th Assembly speaker, will preside over the 80-member chamber. Democrats have held the majority since 2002 and are expected to hold a 54-28 majority in the 2018-19 legislative session. That will be the largest Democratic majority since 1978.

“I am extremely grateful for the support of my colleagues and am honored by their confidence in me at this crucial time,” Coughlin said in a statement after the vote.

“We have a lot of work ahead to improve our state after the last eight years, and I look forward to working with Gov.-elect [Phil] Murphy, Senate President [Steve] Sweeney and a unified Democratic Party to stand strong for middle-class New Jerseyans,” Coughlin said.

“I thank Speaker Prieto for his great service, and am excited by this opportunity to play a key role in building a better future for our state. The voters showed their confidence in Democrats, and I can assure everyone that we will be working hard in The People’s House to continue earning that confidence,” he said.

Coughlin has been serving as chairman of the Assembly Financial Institutions and Insurance Committee. January begins his fifth term in the Assembly.

Prieto lost favor with members of the Legislature in July during a showdown with Republican Gov. Chris Christie over the eventual passage of a $34.7 billion state budget for 2017.

Christie had demanded more control over the operations of Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, the state’s largest health insurance carrier, a proposition Prieto opposed. The impasse led to a shutdown of the state government which lasted several days, and ended only when Christie agreed to fund $300 million in Democratic spending priorities.

Coughlin is the first attorney since 2002 to be elected speaker. Jack Collins, D-Salem, the last attorney to hold the position, maintained his license but did not actively practice.