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Op-Ed: Candidates for Governor Need to Step up for Campaign Finance Reform

The coming elections are a great opportunity to urge legislative and gubernatorial hopefuls to come out against dark money and special interests

david goodman
David Goodman

All eyes will be on New Jersey this November — and the picture may not be pretty. In 2017, New Jersey and Virginia are the only states with governor’s races. And this time the spotlight may shine brightly on us. With Gov. Chris Christie exiting after two terms — and one ill-fated run for the presidency — an open seat has big money and special interests preparing to flood New Jersey with cash and hoping to influence the most powerful statewide chief executive in the country.

Recent donations tell the story. In the post-Citizens United era, super PACs and other “dark money” groups dominate political spending in New Jersey. According to Jeff Brindle, executive director of New Jersey’s election watchdog, the Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC), these unaccountable groups spent $41 million to influence the 2013 gubernatorial and legislative elections. In 2016, they bankrolled between $80 and $100 million to influence three ballot questions, either pro or con, on how New Jersey citizens should vote. Fundraising from these groups is on track to set new records in 2017.

Meanwhile, contributions to political parties, which are regulated and accountable and represent a large swath of the electorate, continue to decline. In 2013, again according to ELEC, the political parties spent $14 million compared to the $41 million by independent groups.

Over the past decade, independent dark-money groups have threatened to eclipse the traditional roles of political parties and small donors to underwrite campaigns. Faced with these unaccountable contributions and the special interests they represent, voters are left in the dark about the source and intent of these funds. Worse, they wonder about the effect on their individual ballots in the face of these waves of unregulated money.

Can we regulate the corrupting effect of super PACs and other independent groups without violating the Supreme Court’s First Amendment free-speech standard?

The answer is, “yes.” Three bipartisan New Jersey Assembly bills — two by Troy Singleton, a Democrat, and a third by Republican Minority Leader Jon M. Bramnick — have been introduced to accomplish this result. In addition to expanding transparency and disclosure by independent groups, these bills would provide much needed reform and uniformity to the state’s crazy-quilt of competing pay-to-play laws. They would also help bolster political parties as sources of campaign donations.

Enacting these bills, either singly or in combination, would send a strong message to the voters of New Jersey about the integrity of our politics and office-holding. The problem is, they are going nowhere. Instead of heading to the floor of the Assembly for a full vote, they are sitting in committee. Sadly, this is often the graveyard for good legislation and intentions.

Sometimes, it takes a movement to get the leadership in the Legislature and the governor to act. Now is one of those times. With the surge of grassroots activism and civic engagement spurred by the November 2016 election, ordinary citizens want government at all levels to work better. Our group is one of them. We are Represent.Us/Central New Jersey. We speak as a fiercely cross-partisan voice for over 16,000 citizens in New Jersey who have supported our cause.

Our mission is to end the corrupting effect of secret, dark money on our elections and ensure that all elected officials are accountable to the voters, not special interests.

Our Central New Jersey chapter is one of 40 chapters across the nation, all working for the same goal — to pass the “American Anti-Corruption Act” in municipalities, the states, and, ultimately, the federal government.

Four towns in our region — Princeton, Ewing, South Brunswick, and Lawrence Township — have approved resolutions supporting this goal, calling upon legislators in the State House and Congress to enact such laws. We are organized to add more towns and cities to this group.

Last month, we asked the mayor and council of Princeton to approve a new resolution, supporting the Assembly reform package of “Bipartisan Campaign Finance Legislation in the State of New Jersey.” At their meeting on March 13, 2017, they did so unanimously, urging enactment of the Singleton and Bramnick bills.

We and our members will take up this action and press the case with the Legislature to support the “Princeton Resolution.”

We will inform citizens and advocate our cause on April 30 at our booth at one of New Jersey’s largest annual gatherings and street fairs, “Communiversity,” in Princeton.

And, most of all, we will travel and use social media to challenge the candidates for governor.

We want to know from these candidates: Will you publicly declare your support for the Princeton Resolution and the principles it embodies? Will you issue a press release or make a statement to the media, before the June 6 primary, so the voters can know your position on this important campaign-finance reform legislation?

David Goodman is a team leader of the Central New Jersey chapter of Represent.Us.

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