Profile: Keeping Tabs on Money, Politics, and Ethics in New Jersey Elections

Colleen O'Dea | March 29, 2017 | Profiles
As executive director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, Jeffrey Brindle has his work cut out for him — and he loves it

Jeff Brindle
Who: Jeffrey Brindle

Age: 68

Hometown: Pittstown

Family: Married, four grown children

What he does: Executive director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission

What else he does: Adjunct professor of political science at The College of New Jersey, where he has taught courses including American government, western political philosophy, and American political thought

Why his job is significant: Brindle oversees the agency in charge of overseeing critical issues that involve money, politics and ethics, including making sure state politicians follow laws pertaining to political contributions and lobbyists file required reports. Until yesterday, Brindle and his staff were acting without the support of a full commission. Only the chairman was seated for the past year, with two seats vacant until Gov. Chris Christie recently nominated replacements. Finally with a quorum, the commission on Tuesday held its first public meeting in almost a year, in which it chose sponsors for official debates in the primaries for the gubernatorial campaign. (Note: NJ Spotlight, together with NJTV, was chosen as one of the sponsors.)

Why he’s been at the state’s election watchdog agency for three decades: Brindle has been a political junkie for much of his life. He went to Rutgers University and, during his senior year, got involved in the Milltown Republican Committee. The following year, he said, “what the heck,” ran for and was chosen to chair the committee. “I got involved in other people’s campaigns. Sometimes they got elected, sometimes not.”

In 1977, he ran for an Assembly seat in the Democratic 17th District and lost. “It was good experience,” he said. From there, he went to work with the GOP legislators in the neighboring 16th District and in 1982, after Thomas H. Kean’s election as governor, Brindle went to Trenton to work as a public information officer in the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. Three years later, ELEC’s then-executive director Fred Hermann brought Brindle on to be his assistant. When Hermann retired in 2009, Brindle succeeded him.

Politics wasn’t his first career choice. Brindle got his bachelor’s degree in English literature from Rutgers, where he also took some political science courses. While he still enjoys reading, Brindle went back to school for a master’s in political science, which he received from Villanova University.

Why his job is difficult: The Legislature has enacted a number of laws over the past three decades that have given ELEC more responsibility, though not necessarily more money for staff to carry out its mission. The commission is responsible for all campaign finance filings for all elected offices in the state, except for candidates for federal office. That’s roughly 6,000 candidates. It oversees the gubernatorial public-financing program — more than $11.8 million four years ago. It is the repository for quarterly and annual filings by lobbyists. And it regulates the pay-to-play rules designed to prevent contractors from getting government work because they have contributed to elected officials. That’s a lot to keep track of with a limited staff that has not received a raise in as long as nine years.

The landscape of campaign finance has also changed, with so-called issue advocacy groups that don’t have to report their contributors becoming much bigger players in the system. “Things have just gotten so much more complicated regarding campaign finances,” he said. “There’s so much more money involved in recent years with the growth of independent spending.” These have led to a decline in the role of political parties, which Brindle would like to reverse. He said the parties “are so much more accountable” and that strengthening them would improve transparency.

What has helped him do his job: “One of the strengths I have is that I had practical experience in politics,” he said. “I ran as a candidate, I was a municipal chairman, I worked with legislators.” All of this has helped with another important aspect of the job: recommending legislative reforms to improve transparency.

Many good-intentioned efforts have had unintended consequences. For instance, Brindle said, both pay-to-play laws and efforts to eliminate soft money given to the parties at the national level led to the growth of independent-spending groups.

Brindle has also expanded the role of the agency from one that holds documents and data to one that reports on trends, giving the public information in a format that is more useful for examining the big picture. ELEC now produces white papers and data-driven analyses of fundraising trends. “We get that information out to the public,” he said. “It can serve as the basis for really good reform.”

What’s left to do: Brindle said his greatest goal is to “continue to enhance disclosure” and try to move enforcement cases more quickly through the process — the reallocation of staff to investigative efforts is already helping. He is also pushing for a number of legislative reforms, which include strengthening the parties, improving pay-to-pay laws, and requiring greater disclosure by independent groups.

Why he’s still working: Although he has reached retirement age and has put enough time into state government to be able to collect a pension, Brindle has no plans to retire because he still gets up every morning and looks “forward to going to work.” As long as he is healthy and the commissioners are satisfied with his job performance, Brindle said he will stay at it because “I really enjoy working.”

Something you probably don’t know about him: Brindle was an accomplished baseball player, pitching in high school and for Rutgers. On his shelf in his office he keeps several baseballs from winning games. He got a tryout for the NY Yankees but didn’t get an offer. “I really have no regrets,” he said of being a public servant, rather than a pitcher.