A GOOD DAY FOR GOOD GOVERNMENTOn Feb. 26th, 2009, the New Jersey Senate State Government Committee took a giant step forward toward political reform, by releasing Senate Bill 930, sponsored by Senators Loretta Weinberg and Diane Allen out of committee. Dubbed the "Party Democracy Act," this bi-partisan legislation provides for establishment of ground rules so that party county committees will function in a totally open and honest manner.
It is a major first step in cleaning up the heavy handedness being used in certain counties and by certain county chairs and statewide powerbrokers in New Jersey. In my last column, I provided some examples that have been brought to my attention in the Republican nomination process for Governor.
These paled in comparison to the examples given by Senator Allen and others at yesterday’s hearing before the Senate State Government Committee. I was shocked by the Senator’s testimony of what she had to endure at the hands of what she called the “fiefdoms” run by individuals who “intimidate… bully… and even blackmail” in an attempt to control the process and in turn who may ultimately become elected officials.
Party County Committees have statutory control over much of the electoral process. They have the power to award the so-called “county line”, which gives favorable treatment to candidates who have appealed to and won the endorsement of these committees. County Committees also have the power to fill vacancies of elected officials. And, there have been many times where County Chairman have bypassed the rules and simply made up their own in filling these vacancies.
When challenged by independent voices, some of these county committees resort to the claim that they are private organizations. But what private organization gets to select your next State Senator or place an on-the-ballot seal of approval for the candidate of their choice? And what private organization operates under state statutory rules, specifically Title XIX.
As was pointed out by Senator Weinberg, 40 percent of the legislature today was selected through this undemocratic process. Most of America, on the other hand, holds special elections.
S-930 is the first step in providing some openness to this process. It does a few common sense things that most of our citizens would be surprised to learn are not in place already:
1. Requires County Party Committees to adopt a Constitution & Bylaws.
2. Guarantees a committeepersons' right to the county constitution and bylaws within 48 hours.
3. Requires that a secret ballot be used when filling a vacancy in public office socommittee people can vote their conscience.
4. Requires resignations from the party committee to be made by notarized letter to prevent a last minute stacking of the deck prior to nominating conventions.
5. Provides that the County Clerk maintains a list of the county party committees.
The net effect on county organizations of both parties will be chilling. The rules will have to be published for everyone to see; they can’t be changed at the last minute without anyone knowing about it; because they are public, the organizations will have to play by the rules and will no longer be able to make up rules to suit themselves as they please and in effect limit who can effectively be a candidate for elected office.
S-930 was passed out of committee unanimously – with the enthusiastic support of Senator Jennifer Beck, who offered to co-sponsor it. This support is important, because the bill was opposed by Republican State Committee when it was first proposed.
In an e-mail to his County Chairpersons, GOP State Chairman Tom Wilson wrote the following: “I plan to take the position that as a general principle, I don't like government intervention into the affairs of a private organization. It is no more appropriate for the legislature to involve themselves in the conduct of the party organizations than it is for them to dictate howlittle league or the chamber of commerce conducts its affairs. Moreover, our counsel believes this bill is unconstitutional per the Eu v. San Francisco decision.”
Little leagues and chambers of commerce don’t select elected officials. Neither do they get to put their recommendations on an official ballot. If county committees want to be private organizations, they should get out of the business of “county lines” and “selection conventions”. It’s time to embrace this long overdue reform.
An identical bill (A-1904) in the Assembly has not been heard in committee yet. It is sponsored by Assemblywomen Greenstein, Handlin, Huttle, Vandervalk, and McHose; and Assemblymen Johnson and Chiusano. It is important to urge Speaker Roberts to post it at his earliest convenience.
I call on Governor Corzine, and gubernatorial candidates Assemblyman Rick Merkt, Mayor Brian Levine, former US Attorney Chris Christie and former Mayor Steve Lonegan, to publicly support this legislation.
One final note: The Sussex County Republican Committee has already publically committed to abide by these rules. I applaud their forward thinking and leadership in this area and hope that others follow suit. It’s the right thing to do.