NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect additional comment from Thomas Prol.
Senators being indicted. Governors running for President. There’s never really an “off season” in New Jersey politics, but if there were, it would be years like 2015—odd-number years in which there’s no governor’s race.
Luckily for political junkies, there’s at least one campaign that’s shaping up to be a barnburner and it’s an unlikely one: the three-way battle for Secretary of the New Jersey Bar Association. The reason this obscure race is suddenly interesting is that usually the nominating committee puts forth a candidate who faces no opposition or only token opposition. According to Tom Prol, the current First Vice President of NJSBA who himself won a hotly contested race in 2013, “there were like four contested races in the first 115 years but now they’re getting more common.”
This year, the committee’s choice, current trustee Kimberly A. Yonta, is facing not one but two serious challengers, former trustee Robert J. Brass and trustee Fruqan Mouzon.
The secretary will traditionally rise through the ranks to become president of the NJSBA – the person elected this year is the automatic heavy favorite to become the State Bar Association President in 2020, unless something derails the candidate.
Though rare, this is not the first time races have been contested. According to the New Jersey Law Journal, “In 2013, the positions of secretary and second vice president were both contested.” But what is rare is that the candidates are actually campaigning. We’re not talking lawn signs and television commercials, but still, social media and blast emails and other tactics more commonly associated with mayoral campaigns are being deployed.
The most interesting alternative candidate is Mouzon, at least from a political perspective. He’s a Corzine guy, having served the former governor as Assistant Counsel from 2006-2008, and then became a director at Gibbons in Newark, working white-collar criminal defense and government affairs. He is now General Counsel to the Senate Majority Office. That has helped fuel the theory that Mouzon’s candidacy represents Steve Sweeney, an all-but-announced gubernatorial candidate in 2017, positioning his guy to help him get judges through the confirmation process.
Indeed, Mouzon has been campaignish in his campaign, sending out regular blasts with headlines like “5 Reasons to Elect Fruqan NJSBA Secretary.” One of those reasons is the historic nature of his candidacy: “He would be the first African-American man to ever become an officer of the NJSBA in its 115-year history.” Elsewhere, Mouzon takes a swipe at Christie, furthering the idea that he’s a stalking horse for Sweeney. His literature informs Bar members, “As the 50th President of the Garden State Bar Association, he led the organization when it took a stance in support of the re-nomination of Supreme Court Justice John Wallace.” Justice Wallace was at the center of a bitter dispute when Christie declined to re-nominate him in what was perceived as a power struggle between the governor and Sweeney, who then derailed all judicial nominees until a truce was brokered.
PolitickerNJ asked Mouzon if he thought the campaign could turn nasty. “I’d like to think of myself as ‘mild mannered’—generally speaking. But I’m also a former athlete and by nature a very competitive person—just like members of the Bar. I didn’t get in this race to lose. That said, I cannot predict where the race will go over the next few weeks but I plan to run on my experience, qualifications and vision for the future of the bar. If voters compare the resumes, I feel good about my chances.”
The official choice of the nominating committee, Kim Yonta, has also been campaigning hard for the position. She has a very professional campaign website, an active Twitter feed and a campaign page on Facebook that touts her endorsements from orgs like the Somerset, Sussex and Middlesex County Bar Associations; she’s putting lots of miles on the car “meeting a lot of great lawyers from around the state and seeing some old friends.”
Ms. Yonta, a former prosecutor in Hudson County, is now a solo practitioner in New Brunswick; one high-profile recent case has her defending Justin Bozinta, the wrestling coach at East Orange Campus High School who has been accused of possession of child pornography. (Police also apparently stumbled upon a marijuana production facility and illegal firearms when they raided Bozinta’s house in Roselle.)
In a sign of how running for office in the legal community is different from running for ordinary elective office, Yonta actually touts a television appearance she made on Bozinta’s behalf as “an example of dealing with the media.” A candidate for, say, state senate would not be expected to list among her credentials that she defends child pornographers.
So far, none of the candidates has taken a shot at the others, confining their marketing to discussion of their own qualifications.
One of the rare contested elections occurred in 2013. In an “upset” that the NJLJ described as a “stunning reversal,” Tom Prol was elected Second Vice President and has now ascended to First Vice President as per the automatic advancement policy of the SBA. This was shocking not just because he defeated the heavy favorite, Montclair’s Nancy Erika Smith, but also because according to NJLJ, “State Bar Association officials had tried to disqualify [Prol] as an out-of-state interloper.”
In Prol’s race, he was passed over for the following year’s automatic endorsement from Secretary to Treasurer because of concerns that his new job in the Bloomberg administration—which required New York City residency—disqualified him to advocate for New Jersey lawyers. But then when Angela White Dalton, who was the then-current treasurer resigned to become a judge, Prol took the automatic advancement to treasurer and used it as a platform to run instead for Second Vice President.
It was a bold move, but the committee sniffed and declined to endorse him for that office, with then president Kevin McCann making it clear that he preferred a different candidate, Ms. Smith. McCann wrote a letter on Bar Association stationery chastising Prol and then was quoted snippily saying that Smith “actively practices in the State of New Jersey [and] is a New Jersey lawyer.”
This set the table for a three-way free-for-all that really did resemble a political campaign. A different former bar president, Richard Badolato, pushed through a bylaw that required bar officers to “practice law primarily in New Jersey,” which passed 2-1. This seemed to disqualify Prol, but he then gave up his job with Bloomberg and provided proof that he’d been serving in New Jersey all along, including as a consultant with the Sussex County Municipal Utilities Authority. In a move that smacked of log-rolling for their preferred candidate, Smith, the Committee demanded additional documents from Prol, who then provided his NJ business registration certificate and bank statements that proved his business address was in Franklin.
In the first round of voting, Smith got 49%, falling just about 17 votes short of the 50%+1 needed to win, with Prol getting 28 percent and a third candidate, Ken Vercammen, getting 23. That set the stage for a run-off and that’s when Prol kicked his campaign in campaign mode.
Prol told PolitickerNJ, “My campaign effort utilized a video [and my] primary distribution platform for that was through my campaign Facebook page and campaign website (which has since been taken down).” Vercammen endorsed Prol and some said the turning point was a piece of direct mail sent out on Prol’s behalf by Saul Wolfe, who Prol told PolitickerNJ was “the most well-respected past president of the State Bar,” a pointed statement considering that Smith had been endorsed by 15 other past presidents. Making clear that he was speaking to PolitickerNJ in a personal capacity and not as an officer of the Bar Association, Prol said, “Saul took it on his own to write a letter to every member of the state bar to not only endorse me but explain why I was his preferred candidate.” That’s not a nothing investment – printing and first-class mailing to some 18000 homes would easily run into five figures.
That kind of spending begs the question of why lawyers, to whom time is literally money, even want to serve in these no-pay offices.
According to one lawyer who spoke to PolitickerNJ but declined to be named because he is on the nominating committee, there are good reasons lawyers are willing to volunteer. “If they’re solo practitioners, it’s a good referral network and if they’re at a big firm, it’s a good marketing hook for the firm. Plus there’s prestige – twice a year, the officers sit down with all the Supreme Court [of New Jersey] justices to discuss issues affecting the bar.”
So that explains why the office attracts volunteers but why has a contest that had been sleepy for 115 years suddenly woken up these last few elections? Yonta, the endorsed candidate for Secretary, told PolitickerNJ, “I can’t speak as to why my opponents have chosen this year to challenge the Nominating Committee’s decision; I think it is best if the answer to that question comes from them. What I can tell you is that the Nominating Committee conducts extensive due diligence on each candidate, interviews each candidate, and meets over a number of days in making its decision. The last two elections for secretary were very divisive. I am hopeful that we can avoid a third.”
Prol, who had been stung by the committee’s failure to support his candidacy in 2013, is supporting Yonta, the committee’s choice. As the guy who will become president in May, Prol is an admirer of Mouzon, with whom he wrote a brief that the Supreme Court adopted, but “at the end of the day, the nominating committee was concerned about the fact that Mouzon had to resign as chair of our legislative committee because of the conflict that he has with his new position,” referring to his work for Sweeney. “When the nominating committee called me to ask me about the candidates, I mentioned his new job and they weren’t even aware of it. I guess he hadn’t informed the nominating committee of this when he was running for the position. He’s a nice guy, but I have to rely on the nominating committee to have done the hard work.”
[UPDATE 1:27 pm: After this story was published, Prol reached out to PolitickerNJ to clarify: “I was informed by NJSBA staff who read your article that Fruqan did inform the nominating committee of his new position. I was told that the person from the committee who called me to ask me about the candidates was not aware of that. As such, the comment attributed to me as ‘I guess…’ is just that; if and where it suggests that he was not forthright with the Committee, that is not correct.”]
For his part, Mouzon scoffed at the notion that his current job represents a conflict. “Too close to Sweeney? Someone really said that? I can’t say that I have ever heard that or even that I know what it means. Sounds like nonsense to me. Frankly, it sounds like someone is trying to distract bar members from the important issues facing our profession and from a comparison of our experience and qualifications to serve in this important leadership role.”
Fruqan Mouzon’s job as counsel to the Senate Majority has fueled the theory that his candidacy represents Steve Sweeney, an all-but-announced gubernatorial candidate in 2017, positioning his guy to help him get judges through the confirmation process.
Mouzon’s fans are equally passionate. Alan Zegas, a Chatham attorney who actually managed Smith’s campaign in 2013, is backing the insurgent candidate this time. He told PolitickerNJ, “I support Fruqan Mouzon, who I believe would be the perfect choice for a fractured bar. He is an exceedingly bright, hard working, highly conscientious attorney, has dedicated himself to the bar, has legislative experience and, if elected, would be the Bar’s first African-American President. The person chosen by the nominating committee has tremendous institutional advantage. I favor a democratic process. Notwithstanding the institutional impediments to his election, my bet would be with Fruqan.”
This reference to “institutional advantage” and “impediments” reflects Zegas’s belief that the endorsement process is flawed.
“The problem with the current process is that the group making the officer nomination is appointed, not elected, its selection process is not open, and its ultimate nominee may unfairly reflect the influence of the incoming or outgoing Bar President, rather than the sense of the bar itself. The undemocratic process, unfortunately, leads to distrust and unnecessary fractures within the bar that can be enduring, much to the detriment of the Bar, particularly when its unity is crucial to its survival and credibility in the face of a hostile public and governor.”
This is a sentiment echoed by Mouzon himself, who told PolitickerNJ, “The fact that just 15 people decide the nominee behind closed doors is something that people, including myself, are increasingly becoming concerned about. We need more transparency, not less.”
All NJSBA members will be eligible to vote between April 13 to May 4. (Not all members of the bar are members of the bar association; the analogy is that not all registered Republicans are members of their town’s Republican club.) There are just over 18,000 members and somewhere around 3500 are expect to cast ballots. With a hot race and not much else happening, this contest is sure to garner much more attention than usual.