Lesniak to Bow Out of Senate when Term Ends — but Not Out of Politics

Colleen O'Dea | September 7, 2017 | Politics
One of the senior members of NJ Senate, Lesniak forms 501(c)4 to continue to advocate for progressive causes

State Sen. Raymond Lesniak
New Jersey’s second-longest-serving lawmaker, Sen. Raymond Lesniak will be leaving the Senate in January when his term ends.

But he won’t be going away.

The Union County Democrat has formed a 501(c)4 “social welfare” organization that he plans to use to continue to advocate for the kinds of progressive causes he has worked for during his nearly four decades in office.

“The 501(c)4 nonprofit will be a vehicle to allow me to continue to energize grassroots support for the issues I will continue to advocate for when I leave the Senate,” said Lesniak, who filed papers to incorporate Turning Your Passion Into Action in New Jersey at the end of August. “I intend to be the No. 1 watchdog for the people.”

Federal tax code allows for the creation of 501(c)4 groups to promote so-called social welfare causes — local civic groups and fire departments fall into this category. They are allowed to get involved in politics by advertising or otherwise trying to influence elections, but that must be less than 50 percent of their primary mission. By forming such a group, Lesniak will be able to raise money to fund his advocacy efforts. It could pay for a website, for software that allows for mass emailings, and even advertising, although the senator said he has no intention of raising large sums and buying airtime on television.

Lesniak, 71, has been a strong force in politics in his hometown of Elizabeth, in Union County and in the state.

Progressive politics

He joined the Assembly in 1978, moving up to the Senate in 1983. While in the Legislature, Lesniak has been a staunch progressive and sponsored a raft of laws spanning a number of topics. For instance, he was responsible for the Environmental Cleanup Responsibility Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Pesticide Control Act.

A supporter of the death penalty early in his legislative career, he later worked to abolish it. Lesniak was a driving force in the effort to legalize gay marriage in New Jersey. An unabashed animal lover who regularly posts photos and videos of his two dogs on his Facebook page, Lesniak authored a ban on ivory in the state and has championed a number of other animal-rights efforts, including a ban on the sale of animals from puppy mills and a five-year moratorium on the black bear hunt.

Lesniak decided at the beginning of the year to run for governor, rather than his Senate seat representing the 20th District. A person cannot run for two state terms at the same time in New Jersey. While he lost the primary, Lesniak does not plan to go quietly into retirement. He plans to use Turning Your Passion Into Action as a platform to continue to advocate for similar issues.

‘A bigger platform’

“The reason why I ran for governor was to have a bigger platform to advocate for social justice issues,” said Lesniak, who retired from his law practice as he was ramping up his gubernatorial run at the beginning of the year. “I want to continue that … The whole purpose of this is for me to be able to rally folks and speak out whenever there are issues I think need an advocate. I expect to be even more vocal than I have in the past.”

So far, Lesniak has weighed in on a number of issues, some Jersey-focused and some national.

He trumpeted the start next week of his lawsuit challenging the Christie administration’s $225 million settlement of a $9 billion pollution lawsuit against ExxonMobil, characterizing it as “the largest environmental contamination case in New Jersey history, which makes the settlement one of the most egregious sellouts the state has experienced.”

After President Donald Trump’s pardon of the controversial former Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona, Lesniak wrote to followers, “President Trump didn’t give us enough time to oppose this pardon which reveals his contempt for the Rule of Law and his support for racists, as he did in his remarks on the White Supremacists & Nazis in Charlottesville. President Trump has brought out the Dark Side of America. Keep the faith. The Good Side of America will prevail. I’ll keep in touch.”

New Jersey and Texas
Most recently, in noting Texas has no Right to Know Law to provide the public with information about hazardous chemical storage, he told followers he had co-sponsored New Jersey’s law in 1986 and formed a group that was a precursor of today’s county HAZMAT teams. “New Jersey has the strongest Environment Protection Laws in the country,” he wrote. “We needed them more than any other state as well. Texas should follow our example.”

In New Jersey, it’s uncommon for people who are not candidates to form 501(c)4s, and some of Lesniak’s posts so far sound like something a candidate might say.

But Lesniak discounted running for office again — mostly.

“In politics, I never say never, but it’s the farthest thing from my mind,” he said.

“Social welfare” groups (501c4s) also do not have to disclose their donors. They have come under criticism, particularly at the federal level, as organizations that work for or against candidates and wield a lot of influence in elections but without having to be transparent about who is funding them.

But raising a lot of money to spend on elections is not Lesniak’s intention. He said he would be providing the “initial seed money” for the 501(c)4 and then “do small-donor fundraising.” He doesn’t expect to spend much because most or all of the group’s communications will be via social media.

“With social media these days, you don’t need a lot of money to engage people,” Lesniak said.

He is active on both Twitter and Facebook. On September 1 he posted a story on his Facebook page in which he spoke of retiring from the Senate, writing, “I’m leaving the Senate but I’m not going away. Keep in touch.” It got reactions from nearly 500 people and comments from 146. To one commenter upset about his leaving, Lesniak wrote, “not to worry I’ll be more effective on the outside.”