Some NJ Congressional Primary Candidates Argue Party-Line Politics Are Unfair

Deciding who the county party committee will endorse — thus who gets the party line on the ballot — is determined by a patchwork of processes that includes secret votes and show of hands

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The slogan next to a candidate’s name on the ballot can sum up their platform or political bent, but when it reads “Regular Democrat” or “Regular Republican Organization” or some other official name, it can carry real power.

Only those candidates who are endorsed by a county party committee, made up of party members from the voting districts in each municipality and a leadership team, get to use the county committee’s name or slogan on the ballot. A party’s endorsement also allows a candidate to appear in the same “line,” the first line in a primary, on a voting machine, which makes it easy for a loyal Democrat or Republican to vote for all the candidates who got the party’s seal of approval.

How candidates get that endorsement differs from county to county. Each county gets to pick its own candidates, however, so in a Congressional race that spans multiple counties, different people could be selected for the county line. In any case, there are many serious candidates running in this year’s congressional primaries, and some question the fairness of the process.

“What point are the primaries if you already know you are going to support the line?” asks Peter Jacob, one of three Democrats remaining in the primary in the 7th District in Central Jersey. “Is it fair? Not at all. Even if I were an incumbent, I would love to see an end to this system.”

Two years ago, Jacob was the only Democrat on the primary ballot, getting the party line in two of the six counties that are partly or wholly in the district — another candidate had gotten some endorsements but wound up without enough signatures on his petition to get on the ballot. Jacob went on to get 43 percent of the vote, the largest win by a Democrat in a decade, but lost to Republican Rep. Leonard Lance, who has held the seat for a decade.

No endorsements this time around

This year, Jacob was not endorsed by any of the counties committees. Once the frontrunner, banking executive Linda Weber, who hails from Union County, suspended her candidacy two months ago when she did not get the party line in a majority of the district’s counties, including Union. That’s, even though she was endorsed by the Somerset and Essex County committees and had raised $387,000. When she dropped out, those committees changed their endorsements and now the candidate with the line in all six counties and presumed frontrunner is Tom Malinowski, a former U.S. Secretary of State under former President Barack Obama.

Tamara Harris is another Democrat for Congress in the 11th District north of the 7th running as an underdog. She is one of five candidates on the blue side of the ballot and has a resume that any candidate would envy, has raised a respectable $581,000 through March 31, and meets another basic qualification: She has lived in the district for years. All four county committees endorsed Mikie Sherrill, another woman with impressive credentials who has raised more than $2 million, but who at the time she won the endorsements was living outside the 11th District. A person does not have to live in a district to run for Congress there. According to Sherrill’s campaign manager, she moved into the district last month.

Harris obviously thinks she is the best qualified, but she said she had urged county Democratic committees not make any endorsements and instead have an open primary, with all the candidates running on the same line. It would have been particularly appropriate this year, when so many people were motivated to run by the results of the 2016 election and so many grassroots groups have sprung up and gotten involved, organizing forums while not officially endorsing anyone.

“This is not the time to go back to a process that has failed to yield success,” said Harris, a family counselor. “On a whole lot of levels, this is not encouraging or inspiring.”

She noted that one candidate, John Bartlett, dropped out of the race after he did not win any county endorsements even though he had raised $268,000. Harris decided to stay in.

Buying off bosses?

This is not the first time the endorsement process has been criticized as undemocratic. In the runup to last year’s gubernatorial primary, for instance, now Gov. Phil Murphy’s Democratic opponents complained that all 21 county committees endorsed the wealthy Murphy, who gave $537,000 to those bodies, in addition to $62,000 to municipal committees and $50,000 to the state party. The campaign manager of former Assemblyman John Wisniewski, one of the six Democrats who ran last year, charged Murphy was “buying off party bosses.”

Former Sen. Raymond Lesniak, another 2017 Democratic gubernatorial hopeful, said the $60,000 Murphy gave to the Union County Democratic Committee was one likely reason his home county did not endorse him. He was also told that Murphy had made certain promises to the committee and the committee saw Murphy as the likely victor.

“Everyone wants to be with the likely winner,” Lesniak said.

Murphy’s consolidation of power among the counties prompted several other probable candidates who had raised significant amounts of money — State Senate President Steve Sweeney of Gloucester County and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, among them — not to get into the race.

So many candidates drop out of a race after not getting county lines because they are considered crucial to victory. Few voters cast ballots in primaries and those who do, tend to vote the line because they are the party faithful and believe in supporting the candidates who get the party’s approval.

Differences in endorsement process

The endorsement process differs from county to county and party to party, although some aspects are similar — prospective candidates begin courting committee members and leadership, in particular, and committee endorsement meetings occur well before the spring candidate-filing deadline.

In many, but not all, cases candidates are invited to speak to committee leadership or full membership. Sometimes the full county committee, which includes representatives from each voting district in the county, meets to vote — sometimes by secret ballot but other times by raising hands or standing so that everyone can see who voted for whom. More often, several politicians said, it’s the party leaders who decide endorsements on their own.

“It never has been a democratic process,” said Lesniak, “well, it’s a democratic process within the party leaders themselves … I don’t know that there’s many who let the members vote.”

“At these conventions, 0.01 percent represents the rest of the voting block and often they are persuaded by their local chairs and co-chairs as to how to decide,” said Jacob. He praised the Warren County committee vote because it was a secret ballot, but said Somerset’s was public, for all in the room to see. “People privately told me they don’t want to cross their chairs.”

An open primary

The Morris County Republican Committee is one of the rare county parties that does not give primary endorsements and has not done so for decades. The idea is that an open primary is the most democratic, giving everyone a chance to run without the benefit of party backing or money. Once voters choose the party’s standard bearers, those candidates can count on the county committee’s support.

That could change as early as next year, said Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco, the committee’s legal counsel, because primary elections have changed.

“This has been talked about this year, with people saying it might be time to go with a county line,” said Bucco. “The races are so expensive, and we’ve seen races where people in self-financing have spent millions of dollars and then people who had a great career and would be a logical choice to move up wind up getting beaten because they can’t get their message out … You’re at a fundraising disadvantage year after year when everybody’s in the primary. Then the Democrat wins running unopposed and has all this money to spend but you had to spend so much in the primary.”

Bucco also said that having membership meetings to endorse candidates boosts the party as a whole and “helps the organization get energy,” which can then lead to greater voter turnout.

But Harris said county endorsements and party lines are generating negative feelings this year, among at least some people who only recently became politically active and are looking for more of the democratic ideal: a level playing field for all candidates.

“People are disgusted,” she said. “They are very angry and feel like the system doesn’t work for them. You are going to see that at the polls.”

One group, the Good Government Coalition New Jersey, is trying to do something about it. The citizens group has launched a campaign titled, “Don’t be blinded by The Line,” saying that voters who simply vote the line are letting someone else choose candidates for them and ballots are being manipulated when endorsed candidates are placed in Row A and those who were not endorsed are hidden in a far corner of the ballot.

“Party leaders place their favored candidates in ‘the line,’ hoping you will vote for them blindly. They try to ‘hide’ the independent voices where you won’t see them,” the campaign’s message reads. “Don’t be blinded by the line …. vote for who you want, not who they want!”