The Progressive Case Against New Jersey

or, rather, against the New Jersey Democratic establishment and power structure, but that doesn't make for a catchy title now, does it

This piece is a bit of a departure from our usual subscriber pieces. Instead of focusing on a single politician, I’m looking at an amorphous mess of corruption and conservatism that can’t be blamed on just one individual. I’ve wanted to write about this for a while, and I’m happy to say I finally got around to doing it. Consider this a guided tour through New Jersey politics, given by a Jersey native.

The Progressive Case Against New Jersey

by Nick Tagliaferro

New Jersey is a weird state.

On paper, it should be a progressive stronghold. Its population is disproportionately college-educated and less than 60 percent non-Hispanic white. It regularly votes for Democrats by lopsided margins, Chris Christie’s embarrassing governorship notwithstanding. Democrats easily control both chambers of the legislature, and the governor, Phil Murphy, is a staunch progressive despite his past as a Goldman Sachs executive. Before the 2016 elections, New Jersey’s U.S. House delegation was evenly split between Democrats and Republicans because of a gerrymandered map (thanks to Chris Christie), but today the delegation stands at 11 Democrats to one Republican. It’s the rare state where Democrats made gains in the Obama years; in the last elections before Obama took office, the New Jersey Senate stood at 23-17 D and the New Jersey General Assembly at 48-32 D. When he left office, it was 24-16 D and 52-28 D. (Today, it’s 25-15 and 54-26.) Down-ballot Republicans are in absolute free-fall, losing county and municipal offices in suburban New York and Philadelphia that once provided a reliable farm team for higher office. That sounds like a recipe for some of the most left-wing state governance in the country.

Instead, we have a disappointment wrapped in a failure inside an embarrassment. A broad variety of great proposals have been killed by conservative Democratic opposition: marijuana legalization, a millionaires’ tax, fully funding public pensions. The state legislature had a better relationship with Chris Christie, even before his sky-high post-Sandy approval ratings, than they do with Phil Murphy. The state’s senior U.S. Senator only escaped prison because the Supreme Court basically legalized corruption in the middle of his trial, and he only won reelection because the state’s Democratic machine stood firm behind him in the primary, despite sagging general election polls and the emergence of a serious Republican challenger. While in most states, the Governor would be the de facto head of their state’s party, it would be hard to argue Phil Murphy has as much influence as George Norcross, a multimillionaire insurance broker/Mar-a-Lago member/personal friend of Donald Trump who controls the Democratic power structure in South Jersey (and, increasingly, in North Jersey as well.) Norcross, livid that Murphy’s administration is investigating a corporate welfare scam involving him and state legislative Democrats, derisively compared the governor and First Lady Tammy Murphy to wannabe monarchs. It’s a hall-of-fame case of projection: George Norcross, not Gov. Murphy, is the wannabe monarch in New Jersey; along with his brothers, prominent lawyer Phil Norcross and U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, George has sought to consolidate power, using graft, greed, and petty personal retribution to keep Democratic politicians in line. His goal is primarily to line his own pockets, but he’s none too happy to beat back the progressive forces within the Democratic Party while he’s at it, assisted by his childhood friend and political enforcer, State Senate President Steve Sweeney. This newsletter feature isn’t so much the case against a single politician as it is a case against an entire institution, a desperate call for help defeating the corrupt party establishment, and an attempt to explain what the hell is going on in my home state, America’s favorite punching bag.

How did New Jersey politics fall into this state? First, we have to look at a unique feature of elections in New Jersey. New Jersey is one of a handful of states where the local Democratic and Republican Party apparatuses can grant a special ballot designation to their preferred candidates in the primary, placing them in a special column, which is variously referred to as “the county line” and “the party line”. We’ll call it the county line from here on out. Most of New Jersey’s counties give their party committees the power to award the column, with the exception of a few counties where either one or both parties does not award a column. Here’s a sample ballot for the 2019 Democratic primary in Sayreville, located in Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin’s district, from the website of the Middlesex County Clerk.

Each column on a ballot is a qualified slate. Column A is a slate, but it’s not the party-endorsed one, and this slate didn’t put up candidates for the Assembly. (In this case because it’s an Edison-based slate, outside of this Assembly district.) Next, Column B is the county line. Speaker Coughlin and Asm. Yvonne Lopez head the ticket, followed by Sheriff Mildred Scott, incumbent Freeholder Kenneth Armwood, party-endorsed freeholder candidate Clary Azcona-Barber, and incumbent Freeholder Charles Kenny. (Freeholders are the New Jersey equivalent of county commissioners.) Column C is just sheriff candidate Tim Wahba, because he doesn’t have a slate. Just visually, there are clear clues to voters. For instance, the challengers to the sheriff and freeholders are stuck in their own sad, half-empty columns.

Compare this to a piece of a real ballot for Philadelphia’s primary, which took place on Tuesday:

Political science literature tells us that, especially in a low-profile race like this one (Register of Wills), Tracey Gordon would get a substantial boost just by being at the top of the ballot. Gordon, a perennial candidate, upset 40-year incumbent Ron Donatucci on Tuesday, illustrating the power of ballot design. The impact of a column filled with all the names voters will recognize hasn’t been studied, to my knowledge, but it’s presumably quite strong, given the winning record of county line candidates.

The county line very rarely loses in New Jersey, and when it does, it’s often because a popular incumbent was thrown off the county line because of a squabble with the powers that be: in 2018, Linden Mayor Derek Armstead won renomination without the county line because Union County Democratic Chairman Nick Scutari, a state senator from Linden, had awarded the line to another candidate due to a personal feud with Armstead. (Armstead is now fielding candidates against Scutari’s Assembly seatmates; Scutari is a state senator, and in New Jersey, each legislative district elects one senator and two assemblymembers. But the state senate isn’t up for reelection in 2019, only the Assembly, so Armstead can’t field someone against Scutari himself. Nothing in New Jersey makes sense.) U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez lost a bunch of counties where he had the county line in 2018, which just speaks to his weakness: even with the entire Democratic Party apparatus behind him, including all of the county lines, Menendez lost counties like Somerset and Hunterdon to Lisa McCormick, an underfunded, anonymous candidate with no outside help and no name recognition--but he still cruised to victory because he held on to the more urban and Democratic counties, like Essex, Hudson, Union, and Camden. The county line also comes with organizational strength--you get included in official party communications such as literature and social media, the party knocks doors for you, the party makes calls for you, and the party goes on the attack if they think any of your opponents are too close for comfort. Most candidates drop out if they don’t get the county line, and those who keep at it are often joke or protest candidates, because going against the county line is a daunting task.

The power of the county line is immense, and whoever awards it has an almost unmatched influence over the outcome of a primary. So who gets that power? Here’s the Sayreville sample ballot again. Look at the bottom.

That’s who awards it: the county committee, which is elected by voters. But the county committee gets to award the county line in its own elections, helping the same shitty people own Democratic primaries in perpetuity. The good news is that county committee districts are very, very small: every voting precinct gets to send one man and one woman to the county committee. If you want to go crash your local machine, you can probably do it without any money. The bad news is that county committee districts are very, very small: county committees in the powerful, heavily populated counties have hundreds or even thousands of voting precincts, so you need to recruit a hundred of your closest friends to run with you, and no two people of the same gender within your little reformist campaign can live in the same voting precinct. There’s a silver lining: it’s not at all uncommon for the machine to fail to recruit candidates for county committee in every precinct (as they did in some Sayreville precincts, just not this one.) If you’re a registered Democrat in New Jersey, and you see a county committee slot on your ballot with no candidates, write yourself or someone else in (depending on the gender of the open slot), and get everyone in your household to do the same thing. You might win, and that would shift your county party ever so slightly towards change. What’s really needed is a coordinated effort to field county committee candidates across the state, but with New Jersey’s 2019 primaries less than a month away and the filing deadline already in the past, that’s a tall order.

So, in short: the machine gets to award special ballot placement to whoever the hell it wants, and it even gets to do so in the elections that determine who gets to make those important decisions about ballot placement. Corrupt party bosses like George Norcross work hard to ensure they control the county machines, either through getting an absolute majority of the committee or by electing friendly chairpersons in each county.

Now that I’ve explained all the arcane ballot processes and backroom dealing that keeps the machine in power, let’s assess the damage. What has continued machine control cost New Jersey?

I mentioned marijuana legalization earlier. That went down in flames despite a rare united effort by Murphy and Sweeney, because the lack of vigorous primary competition has let Stone Age Democrats stay in office. Take Newark state Sen. Ron Rice: a Democrat from Newark, Rice railed against marijuana legalization, saying he feared that a store selling “sex toys and oils with marijuana” would open up across the street from his office. Rice was one of only two Democrats in the state senate to vote against legalizing same-sex marriage (and the other was now-Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who at the time represented a rural, socially conservative South Jersey district.) When a conversion therapy ban came before a committee he sat on, Rice stubbornly insisted homosexuality was a choice, a “fad” that “some people do grow out of.” (I tried that, it didn’t work.) When needle exchanges, proven to reduce STD/STI infection rates, came up for a vote, Rice trashed the idea, claiming it was racist and would only lead to more drug addiction. Rice, a former cop, is an acolyte and old friend of famously corrupt Newark ex-mayor Sharpe James; if you watched Street Fight, the documentary that made Cory Booker cool for about five seconds, you’ll remember Sharpe James as the crook Booker was challenging. Rice, however, remembers Sharpe James as the guy who got him his first police job--a job he wouldn’t have gotten due to poor eyesight until then-Councilman James made a few phone calls. In his time in Newark politics, Rice didn’t exactly cover himself in glory, either, working for a company that had almost $50 million in contracts with the city while serving as James’s deputy mayor. By the corruption standards of New Jersey, Rice isn’t all that notable. Just as an example, I’ll tell the sordid story of Linda Stender.

In 2015, Assemblywoman Linda Stender retired in disgrace after it was discovered that she had applied for Habitat for Humanity assistance after Hurricane Sandy despite making significantly more than the maximum income threshold. Oh, and the plans her husband submitted to Habitat for Humanity were for a 2,000-square-foot vacation home, not a modest home like the ones for middle- and lower-income families normally built by Habitat for Humanity. On the family’s application for Habitat for Humanity assistance, Stender claimed the Manasquan property for which she was requesting assistance was the only one her and her husband owned. Stender filed for reelection from a Scotch Plains address--an hour’s drive away.

The scandal, in a normal democracy, would’ve been a career-ender because voters would almost certainly have voted Stender out for trying to defraud Habitat for Humanity. In Stender’s case, it was only a career-ender because the late Jerry Green, then her Assembly seatmate and chair of the Union County Democratic Committee, withdrew his support--meaning she would be denied the county line. An hour after Green’s announcement, Stender--a longtime assemblywoman, two-time congressional nominee, and former mayor of Fanwood--dropped her reelection bid.

The Union County Democratic Committee replaced her with a lobbyist. Stender still sits on the Union County Democratic Committee.

Let’s get back to the policy costs of the machine’s continued reign. A millionaire’s tax is quite popular with New Jerseyans, with strong majorities backing Murphy’s proposal to hike state taxes on those making more than $1 million annually. Under Chris Christie, the Democratic legislature voted for a millionaire’s tax five separate times. (Christie, of course, vetoed every one.) Now that Murphy, who elbowed Sweeney out of the 2017 governor’s race, is governor, Sweeney is using his power as Senate President to kill the millionaire’s tax. Murphy had to threaten a government shutdown to get taxes increased on large corporations and on individuals making more than five million dollars a year--and this was so the state could fund public schools. Sweeney has decided to rebrand as a Reaganesque fiscal conservative--seriously, even Republican operatives are comparing him to Reagan. This might seem surprising on its face, given Sweeney’s past as a union leader and an ironworker, but it makes a lot more sense upon a look at Sweeney’s past. While his views on a millionaire’s tax may have changed, his broader views on taxation and spending haven’t. He’s pushing for cruel cuts to pensions and health benefits for state workers today, and he (repeatedly) helped Christie cut pensions a few years back. He’s complaining about New Jersey’s high property taxes (which help fund the state’s public schools, among the nation’s best), and he helped cap them under Christie. Him and Christie were described as New Jersey’s “odd couple,” a pair of supposed opponents who bonded over a shared disdain for teachers’ unions and public workers; the friendship was apparently close enough that when news of Bridgegate broke, Sweeney told his state senate caucus to ignore the scandal. Two Christie aides were later convicted by a federal jury on a litany of counts. A third, David Wildstein, pled guilty and cooperated fully with federal prosecutors. (Wildstein previously founded Politicker NJ, which was once the leading political news blog in the state; he now runs the New Jersey Globe, which fills the same niche. I get a fair amount of my local political news from The Bridgegate Guy.) In a normal state, this guy would’ve been sunk because he had drawn the ire of the powerful teachers’ union; in New Jersey, the county line saves him from ever facing the slightest bit of democratic accountability in a primary, making the union so desperate they backed a conservative Republican for Sweeney’s Trump-voting state senate seat in the hopes that they could be rid of him at last.

The machine’s most embarrassing success is none of the above travesties. It’s the renomination of Sen. Bob Menendez against only token opposition. Menendez was in the midst of a highly publicized federal corruption trial when the Supreme Court redefined criminal corruption out of existence, letting Menendez off scot-free despite obvious corruption. Menendez, for his part, suggested the prosecution was driven by Cuban intelligence agents (???) angry at his strident opposition to the resumption of diplomatic relations; he also insisted it was the work of Obama administration officials angry at Menendez’s opposition to Cuban diplomatic relations and the Iran nuclear deal. Despite the hung jury that saved him from conviction, his Senate colleagues formally admonished him for breaking the law. He nonetheless won the backing of every county party committee, choked off the fundraising of Clinton and Obama staffer Michael Starr Hopkins to the point that Hopkins dropped out after just a month in the race, and ended up fending off perennial candidate Lisa McCormick by a rather pathetic 62-38 margin, given that McCormick never even filed a fundraising report with the Federal Elections Commission. A Politico headline in the wake of the unexpectedly close primary read: “New Jersey Democratic primary voters send Menendez a message.” That message was a resounding fuck you.

New Jersey is full of machine bosses, but none wield power like George Norcross III, Christie-loving megamillionaire and friend of Donald Trump who somehow owns half of the New Jersey Democratic Party. Norcross is a childhood friend of Senate President Steve Sweeney; he’s also the brother of U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross and well-connected lawyer Phil Norcross. Self-assured and vindictive, Norcross rules his various New Jersey fiefdoms with an iron fist; without him, Bob Menendez would not have had the support of the local machines that ultimately saved him from defeat, Sweeney would not be Senate President, and New Jersey would have a shot at being the model of progressive governance it deserves to be. Norcross isn’t the root of all of New Jersey’s political problems--corruption is still a serious problem outside of his territory--but he’s the root of most of them. After years of Norcross rule, there’s now some hope, and it’s all due incentives.

The Murphy administration is investigating a tax incentive program spearheaded by Donald Norcross and Steve Sweeney; it appears that the program has been abused to steer tax cuts to Norcross-affiliated companies in the city of Camden, possibly through fraudulent applications for tax credits. Of $1.6 billion in tax incentives given to Camden businesses, $1.1 billion went to companies connected to the Norcrosses. The law was written by a Norcross lawyer, pushed through by Donald Norcross and Steve Sweeney, and apparently manipulated by both George and Phil to land more money in the coffers of Norcross-connected companies.

The program in question gives tax breaks to companies which either create jobs in New Jersey, preserve existing jobs in New Jersey, or move jobs from other states into New Jersey. Norcross-aligned companies routinely told the Economic Development Authority, the state agency in charge of the program, that they were on the verge of leaving the state when in fact they had no concrete plans to do so. An exception to the law weakening the requirements for businesses moving to Camden, allowing companies to win tax breaks with flimsier justifications, was secretly written by Kevin Sheehan, a lawyer at Phil Norcross’s firm. Sheehan worked closely with the Christie administration throughout the process, and his changes to the law allowed his firm’s clients to get tax breaks they wouldn’t have otherwise gotten. Energy tech giant Holtec International, for example, made $260 million from Sheehan’s changes. Other companies that benefited handsomely include Conner Strong & Buckelew (George Norcross’s insurance firm) and Cooper University Health System (where George Norcross chairs the board.)

This is textbook corruption: changing the law to benefit your clients, and therefore yourself. The apparent lies on the tax credit applications could lead to criminal charges, and Murphy’s investigation has already made at least one formal criminal referral to law enforcement. In any other state, the revelations would make the entire Norcross family politically toxic. In New Jersey? Cory Booker and Bob Menendez have already jumped to defend Norcross. Booker needs Norcross to get him the county lines in his presidential bid (if it survives to New Jersey’s June primary, which seems highly unlikely), and Menendez owes his political survival to Norcross. With Murphy largely standing alone in his opposition to the Norcross family, we can’t expect the Democratic establishment to force them out unless people start going to prison. (Even then, it’s not a sure thing.)

The New Jersey Assembly, the lower house of the state legislature, is up for reelection; many counties and municipalities have their own local elections this year as well. If you’re in South Jersey, Middlesex County, Union County, or Essex County, you can do your part to get rid of Norcross: vote against the county line in the June 4 Democratic primary (including in the Democratic committee races, even if you have to write yourself in.) In those counties, the party organization is controlled by Norcross allies. Look up the names on your ballot, and try to figure out which rival candidates are the most serious.  Loosening Norcross’s grip on the state could finally allow New Jersey to fund pensions, fund schools, legalize recreational marijuana, and tax the ultra-rich, and the way to do that is by voting his minions out.