It was the shabby state of schools in his home city that got Albert Coutinho to run for an Assembly seat, but it is incentive legislation where he has made his largest impact.
"My top priority has been, is and always will be economic development," said Coutinho (D-Newark).
Coutinho, 43, was elected to the Assembly in 2007, a decade after a brief stay to fill an unexpired term. He chose to run owing to his frustration that his lifelong residence — Newark's Ironbound neighborhood — had not received funding under the state's school construction program, despite aged and overcrowded buildings. The first bill he sponsored upon rejoining the Assembly authorized $3.9 billion in funding for schools; today, he calls it an example of promoting economic development through infrastructure investment.
But it is through incentives bills — which he generally co-sponsors with Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak (D-Union) — that he has made his mark. As a member and now chairman of the Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee, Coutinho sponsored bills expanding the Urban Transit Hub tax credit program and launching the Economic Redevelopment and Growth grant and Grow New Jersey programs.
And it's a pattern he hopes to continue this fall, saying that he plans to introduce legislation to overhaul the state's incentive programs in the coming months.
"We are doing everything we can to try to jump-start the economy," Coutinho said. "Obviously, it's the private sector that's going to have to do that, but there is a role for government."
One case where Coutinho's advocacy played that role was at a point when state incentives supporting Revel Entertainment's casino in Atlantic City were in jeopardy. Revel's construction depended on the project receiving a state Economic Revitalization and Growth grant, but the labor union Unite Here Local 54 planned a referendum to block the grant.
Revel attorney Lloyd D. Levenson said Coutinho's support was essential to amending the state law to prevent the project from being blocked by a referendum.
"He's a quick study," said Levenson, CEO of Cooper Levenson. "You don't have to really take too much time explaining it to him, because he gets it. He understood that one right away."
And Levenson said Coutinho was forthright in telling union members he disagreed with them. "He was very direct with them, telling them what he felt about the ability of anyone, including them, to decide what the state law ought to be," Levenson said.
Coutinho's interest in business is rooted in his family's experience owning and operating bakeries — first in Portugal, then in the Ironbound — which he said goes back 200 years. He worked full-time in the family business — now part of Portuguese Baking Co., doing business as Teixeira's Bakery — from when he was a teenager until 2008. He now works part time on business development for the company, looking for bakeries it can acquire.
"I know how hard it really is for businesses to succeed — it takes a lot of hard work," Coutinho said. He said he encourages business owners to participate in the legislative process in order to "get a much more balanced approach for certain arguments that come up in Trenton and elsewhere. There's nothing more frustrating than working a 100-hour week, filling out payroll, then having to hold back your own pay."
His connection to Newark has fed his advocacy for a variety of projects, becoming an early voice for raising the Bayonne Bridge and serving as an advocate for the construction of Red Bull Arena, in nearby Harrison, before he arrived in the Legislature. Soccer is Coutinho's biggest passion, starting at a young age and leading to him building friendships with multiple national-team coaches in other countries. He also leads a 1,200-player youth soccer league.
His policy goals have made him a friend to business, but they have sometimes put him at odds with other members of the Democratic caucus. It wasn't until the economic collapse of 2008 that Trenton focused attention on the economy, said Coutinho, who calls himself "an economic expansionist with social concerns."
Coutinho said it's taken considerable effort to pass some economic-development-focused bills, with some Democratic legislators questioning the need for tax credits.
"There are legislators who question the necessity to do it, and all I say is, look at your unemployment and look at the development that is going on" due to the credits, he said. "Without these incentives, you wouldn't have a single crane in the air in Newark."
Talking with business leaders is crucial to making legislation work, Coutinho said.
"You can't create the program in a vacuum," he said, pointing to the 2007 bill that created the transit hub program as such an example — it was ineffective because it didn't account enough for market demand. In 2009, the program was broadened as a result of conversations with developers.
Another industry that's close to Coutinho's heart is hospitals, and it was there he made perhaps his earliest impact — for 36 years, he held the record as the heaviest newborn at the former St. James Hospital, in Newark.
"I don't know if that's a point of distinction or not," Coutinho said, adding that his mother received flowers from the hospital every year on his birthday until he turned 36. More recently, he's made his presence felt in Newark hospitals through his support for a provision of the state university merger agreement that will create more support for University Hospital.
Business leaders often speak of working with Coutinho and Lesniak as key steps in promoting a pro-business agenda. David Brogan, first vice president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, said Coutinho's business-development agenda complements Lesniak's career in law.
"They both bring a unique perspective to economic development that, when put together, create a formidable team," he said.
Coutinho called Lesniak "a legendary legislator," pointing to his record of accomplishments, though jokingly said the economic-development highlights of Lesniak's tenure came after Coutinho's election.
E-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter: @kitchenman