Wisniewski’s job: unite factions of a Democratic Party in a state with a GOP governor

Few politicians envy Assemblyman John Wisniewski’s (D-Sayreville) new job as Democratic state chairman. 

It’s not just the general gripes about the position.  Yes, it’s unpaid, basically thankless and hinges your reputation on your party’s electoral fortunes.  But with the Democrats coming off a gubernatorial election loss, the senate having rejected gay marriage legislation and Democratic legislative leaders preparing to take on pension reform and the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH), relations are in danger of becoming frayed between the party and three core constituencies: public workers unions, minorities and the gay community. 

Wisniewski, for his part, downplayed the divisions.

“I don’t see there being major divides coming between the party and any of its constituencies.  The Democratic Party has a big tent,” he said in a phone interview.  “All our constituencies are also pragmatic. Politics are also the art of the possible. There’s a new reality in town, we don’t control the executive branch, and our politics have to be slightly adjusted to the fact that we only have the legislature.”

Steven Goldstein, who chairs Garden State Equality, the state’s main gay rights organization, disagreed, saying that “some people felt lost in that tent and left the party in November.” 

Garden State Equality made its break from the Democratic Party explicit when Goldstein announced that the group would only donate to individual candidates who support their causes – not the state party, several of whose members either voted against gay marriage or abstained. 

For the 2007 and 2009 election cycles, Garden State Equality donated $48,735 to the legislature’s two Democratic leadership committees, the Democratic State Committee and two county Democratic parties, according to disclosures filed with the Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC).  Goldstein said that since his group’s primary fundraising is done through bundling – encouraging individual donors to cut checks to the political organizations – the ELEC numbers represent a “fraction” of Garden State Equality’s monetary clout.

Wisniewski’s retort that the group shouldn’t “throw the baby out with the bathwater” only further incensed gay rights activists, Goldstein said.

“The reaction to our announcement became even more positive when people saw Chairman Wisniewski’s reactions about throwing the baby out with the bathwater, because we’re doing exactly the opposite,” he said. 

Although campaign donations from gay rights activists are significant, a much bigger cash cow for the state Democratic Party has traditionally been the public workers’ unions.  So far, their responses to Senate President Stephen Sweeney’s (D-West Deptford) pension reform proposals have been low key, but they have voiced opposition. 

Communications Workers of America spokesman Bob Master said that his union’s disenchantment with the Democratic Party extends from the White House to the Statehouse.

“No health care, taxation of benefits, no Employee Free choice act and we can’t even get appointments to the labor board?  What were we doing in 2008?” he said.  “Add to that what the Senate President has initiated in the State house in New Jersey, and you get a membership that is very, very disappointed with where the Democratic Party is right now.  Whether that translates into less money and fewer troops is impossible to predict.” 

A powerful Democrat, state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), has long been at odds with the teachers union and lately has drawn the ire of affordable housing advocates over his bill abolishing COAH (conservatives complain his legislation, co-sponsored by state Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman (R-Branchburg) doesn’t go far enough).  The New Jersey NAACP attacked the men for allegedly kowtowing to municipalities that hired their law firms.

Lesniak, who is in good stead with gay rights advocates for co-sponsoring the gay marriage legislation, said that the party “turned away from that constituency” but that, because most of the supporters were Democrats and only one Republican voted for it, the relationship is “bruised but not scarred.”

Lesniak dismissed the COAH advocates as a “very small constituency” and said the idea of urban scholarships is winning support in the African-American and Hispanic communities. 

“I don’t believe any party should be beholden to any interest 100% of the time.  Then they’re just tools of whatever special interest it is,” said Lesniak, who called former Gov. Jon Corzine’s “cave” to the CWA’s demands to get them to stop picketing his campaign rally with Vice President Joe Biden “the dagger to his reelection chances.’ 

But Lesniak said that Republican Gov. Christopher Christie’s combative speech last week on balancing this year’s budget could keep the groups that traditionally support Democrats from straying too far.

The word I would use is energize the party, and enable it to make it clear to… these core constituencies who we may have antagonized, that we’re on their side and Christie is not,” he said.

Democratic political consultant Julie Roginsky summed up the state party’s woes as an “enthusiasm gap,” both on a national level for its failure to pass health care reform, and on a state level for the gay marriage fracas.  Compounding the problem is Corzine’s reelection loss and governing fatigue after nearly a decade in power. 

“The challenge for Chairman Wisniewski and other leaders is to establish a common purpose for our party,” she said.  “I suspect some of Governor Christie’s policies may provide that unified purpose.”

Wisniewski’s job: unite factions of a Democratic Party in a state with a GOP governor