Friday, August 31, 2007

Pay-to-Play - Bergen Record - Ferreiro attacks regulation

Published in the Bergen Record, Thursday, August 30, 2007

Ferriero support of pay-to-play stuns Democrats


Joe Ferriero has never disguised his disgust for New Jersey's pay-to-play bans on campaign contributions.

Bergen County's top Democratic power broker would love nothing better than to watch a judge cut those restrictions to ribbons -- much like the way he swiftly diced a pair of poached eggs at a Hackensack diner on Wednesday.

"I have made it known to party leaders of my intention to challenge the constitutionality of pay-to-play [restrictions]," he said, referring to his plans to file a lawsuit in federal court, possibly in two weeks. "No one in any way has tried to dissuade me from doing this."

That's probably going to change. And quickly.

Nervous Democratic Party officials are furious, puzzled and privately ambivalent about Ferriero's attack on pay-to- play limitations, the crown jewel of the Democratic Party's ethics reform platform.

Ferriero's legal jihad defies every fundamental law of campaign politics, they say. Why would the wily political strategist and his legal counsel, Dennis Oury, openly talk about such an idea -- let alone draft a lawsuit -- just as the scandal-battered Democrats hit the campaign trail to try to maintain their tenuous control of the Legislature?

Sure, he has a point, some say. Many remain furious at Jim McGreevey for imposing an executive order on pay-to-play one month before the ethics-challenged governor left office in disgrace. McGreevey's last-ditch attempt to restore his name deprived his party of thousands of dollars

in contributions from professionals -- from lawyers to engineers to architects -- who do business with state and local governments.

Some even believe it's time to have a full debate over whether those contractors' First Amendment rights are being violated by pay-to-play bans.

But now?

Democrats know they are about to be painted as comrades of a corrupt party machine that produced Sens. Sharpe James of Newark and Wayne Bryant of Camden, both indicted on federal corruption charges. They are also the party of Ferriero protege Joe Coniglio of Paramus, who is in the crosshairs of a federal probe. And that's just for starters -- expect some opponents to roll out a McGreevey-era roster of rogue fund-raisers and friends.

So about the last thing Democrats want or need is to have Ferriero and the Bergen County Democratic Organization, which derived its power from an aggressive pursuit of contractor cash, trying to dismantle the new laws.

Tom Wilson, the Republican State Committee chairman, is already hatching a strategy: If Ferriero sues, he says, the GOP will challenge every Democratic candidate to take a position on the lawsuit. If they oppose it, he will call on them to return all BCDO contributions. (And the organization has been very generous in the past.)

Then there are the headlines such a lawsuit would generate. Think of how easily GOP strategists can cut and paste those screamers into campaign ads.

"All of us know that those statutes have turned good people from government,'' said Joe Cryan, chairman of the Democratic State Committee, striking a diplomatic tone. "However, our party is best served by our record of accomplishment, including ethics reform and the culture-changing Clean Elections campaign."

News of the suit, first reported in this column Tuesday, also reopened the public rift between Ferriero and his Bergen County nemesis, Sen. Loretta Weinberg of Teaneck, who has beaten back two challenges by his handpicked candidates. She and her running mates fired off a letter to Ferriero and the BCDO, criticizing him for pursuing the suit without input from county committee members. In other words, this was yet another example of Ferriero The Boss, a label he vehemently rejects.

Weinberg, who sponsored a key pay-to-play law in 2005, called opposition to it "bad government, bad politics and bad timing just before an election."

Governor Corzine is also less than enamored with the prospect of a fight.

"The governor is not going to support the lawsuit,'' said Lilo Stainton, his spokeswoman, adding: "He's more concerned with the potential corrosive effect of campaign cash than the possibility of debate within the Democratic Party."

Apparently stung by Weinberg's criticism, Ferriero said Wednesday that he will survey BCDO leaders, either through an executive committee meeting or by phone, before deciding whether to move ahead. But he remained unapologetic about his disdain for the laws, which he described as "unconstitutional and totally unnecessary."

He rejects suggestions that the bans are needed to halt the practice of rewarding donors with lucrative government spoils. Reformers argue that the practice inflates the cost of government, drives up property taxes and drains public confidence in government.

"It's an absolute absurd assertion to say that because people contribute to an election that it increases the costs,'' Ferriero said. "And I would defy anyone to prove that."

He added, "Contracts are not awarded in a vacuum. They are awarded in a public meeting subject to the scrutiny of the public and the press ... to determine whether the professional is qualified -- and what those rates are."

Ironically, Ferriero might find a sympathetic federal judiciary. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a strict Vermont campaign finance law last year, and justices recently expressed disdain for the McCain-Feingold reforms on campaign advertising during oral arguments in a Wisconsin case.

Maybe that buoys confidence for Ferriero's prospects in a courtroom. It provides little comfort for Democrats defending themselves on the campaign trail.


Link to online story here. Archived here.

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Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.