Published in the Star-Ledger, Wednesday, December 05, 2007
Bill targets power of county bosses
Legislation sets internal rules for parties,
which chairmen say is unconstitutional
BY JOE DONOHUE
Several legislators launched a bipartisan drive yesterday to end one of New Jersey's oldest traditions -- the power of county political bosses.
But two state party chairmen said doing so would violate the state constitution.
Led by two women senators who have both recently tangled with their respective county leaders, the legislative contingent wants to curb the influence of county bosses by adopting minimum standards for how county parties operate.
"All it does is make sure our parties run officially in an open manner," said Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), who has had several high-profile clashes with Bergen County Democratic Chairman Joseph Ferriero.
Under the Party Democracy Act, all county parties would have to adopt party constitutions and bylaws, use voting machines for filling committee vacancies and abide by other rules of operation that would make it harder to manipulate the nominating process. Weinberg and others said some leaders exploit the weakness of their parties to create their own fiefdoms and tend to exclude minorities and women.
"We need to get rid of the county bosses. We need to give power back to the people and do things in a democratic way," said Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington), another bill supporter. When Allen recently decided not to run for Congress, she said her decision was influenced in part by a falling out with longtime friend Glenn Paulsen, former Burlington County GOP chairman and still a major force in local politics.
Tom Wilson, chairman of the Republican State Committee, said while there may be good ideas in the legislation, it would be as unconstitutional as telling Chambers of Commerce or the Little League how to run their private affairs.
"The Supreme Court already has made it clear that government cannot intervene in the workings of private organizations," he said. "For purposes of the constitution, political parties are considered private organizations."
Democratic State Chairman Joe Cryan agreed there are constitutional questions about such a proposal. "If the goals are to increase representation of women and minorities and to give grassroots party activists a voice, we are already succeeding," Cryan said.
Harry Pozycki, chairman of the Citizens' Campaign, a nonpartisan group promoting citizen involvement in government, said the bill was drafted with an eye toward respecting the constitution. Lawmakers cannot micromanage parties but can set broad operating guidelines, he said.
"Party constitutions and voting machines are critical to ensure that county party committee people know the rules of the game and are able to vote their conscience, free from the threat or perception of intimidation from party leaders who in many cases control their livelihood," he said.
Ferriero could not be reached for comment. Paulsen, Burlington County chairman from 1990 to 2004, said no Republican county party in the state nominated more women and minorities during that period.
Brigid Harrison, political science professor at Montclair State University, said the influence of bosses, a New Jersey tradition that dates back at least a century, is too strong to eliminate overnight.
"You have to chip away at their base of power and how they go about conducting their business. This is one step in that direction," she said. "Party chairs need to be responsive to a set of rules that may not necessarily be of their making."
Joe Donohue may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (609) 989-0208.
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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.