Published in the New York Times, Sunday, December 09, 2007
Bipartisan Bill Seeks to Open County Primaries
By DAVID W. CHEN
CONVENTIONAL wisdom says that most elections in New Jersey are decided in the primary, because most districts are drawn so that the dominant party doesn’t have to break a financial sweat in the general election. But in practice, the primary is often a fait accompli, too, because the real drama occurs at the county political conventions, thanks to the influence of county political bosses.
So imagine what chaos and suspense might unfold if a proposal offered by two of the most prominent women in the State Legislature becomes a reality.
State Senators Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat from Bergen County, and Diane B. Allen, a Republican from Burlington County, introduced a bill last week that would open up the process by which county parties operate. Senator Allen has complained that the process is rife with back-room deals and is dominated by men.
Under the bill, the parties would be required to adopt constitutions and bylaws; use voting machines when committee members fill vacancies in the Legislature; and keep an updated list of committee members on file with the county clerk.
The bill, called the Party Democracy Act, has a bipartisan group of sponsors in the Assembly, too: Linda R. Greenstein, a Democrat who represents Mercer and Middlesex Counties; Amy H. Handlin, a Republican from Monmouth County; and Ms. Weinberg’s two running mates in Bergen County, Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Gordon M. Johnson.
Guiding the legislators from the outside is Harry S. Pozycki, chairman of the Citizens’ Campaign, a nonpartisan group devoted to government reform.
At its heart, Mr. Pozycki said, the bill is intended to muzzle county political chairmen, who have long been perceived to wield an inordinate amount of power in picking candidates for local, county and statewide offices. Securing the blessing of the county boss has long been crucial to victory in any race, because of the way loyal blocs of voters in low-turnout elections follow the cues of their party leaders.
“We move from tyranny to democracy,” said Mr. Pozycki, a former chairman of the Middlesex County Democratic Party. “We have the rule of law, instead of the clubhouse rule.”
But this being New Jersey, you can bet there is personal animus underpinning the bill as well.
In Bergen County, Senator Weinberg has been engaged in an increasingly bitter battle with Joseph A. Ferriero, the Democratic Party chairman. To get into the whys and whats of their feud would require a master’s thesis worth of paperwork. But some of the bad blood dates back two years, when Senator Weinberg, then an assemblywoman, went to court in a battle over disputed ballots to edge a candidate preferred by Mr. Ferriero to fill a Senate vacancy.
Senator Allen has most recently been engaged in a standoff with Glenn Paulsen, a former Burlington County Republican chairman who still wields a lot of influence. She had wanted the county party’s help in a primary to fill the seat of retiring Representative Jim Saxton, but she quit when she became frustrated with the process.
“We need to get rid of the county bosses,” Senator Allen said. “Back-room deals have been made in New Jersey for years, and only now, when we seem to have a lot more women in the Legislature, are we starting to gain momentum in saying, ‘You can’t do that anymore.’”
Asked about Senator Allen’s remarks, Bill Layton, the new Burlington County Republican chairman, who is not exactly an Allen supporter, declined to comment. But he said that her bill was, in general, a good one.
“I think anytime the Legislature or anyone wants to make the political process for political parties more open and transparent, I think that’s a great thing,” Mr. Layton said. “I think it’s a great piece of legislation.”
But he said he did not like the requirement for voting machines because “to close that process off would be like asking the senators and assemblymen who come up to Trenton every day to go in a back room and vote on bills, so no one really knows how they stood on the issues.”
The fate of the bill is unclear. Gov. Jon S. Corzine said that while he had not looked at the bill, “I’ve tended to support most of the things that Senator Weinberg has been on the side of.”
Legislative leaders have offered lukewarm opinions. And both Tom Wilson, the state Republican Party chairman, and Assemblyman Joseph Cryan, his Democratic counterpart, expressed concern about the constitutionality of such a bill, noting that the United States Supreme Court has ruled that government cannot regulate private political organizations.
So leave it to Charlotte DeFillippo, the Union County Democratic chairwoman, to weigh in, too — on the side of the existing system.
“While Senator Weinberg is certainly prolific as a bill writer, I think that the legislation is gratuitous,” said Ms. DeFillippo, the only woman leading a county party in New Jersey. “Individual political problems should not forge general public policy. I also believe this is constitutional. So I agree with both state chairmen, and that’s a rarity.”
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.