That’s the word two New Jersey legislators used to describe their disbelief at Gov. Phil Murphy’s conditional veto of the “Dark Money” bill (S-1500) on May 13.
In a short but blistering statement on the same day as the veto message, Sen. Troy Singleton (D- Burlington) and Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D- Somerset) — the prime sponsors of this legislation — criticized the governor’s misunderstanding of transparency in combating dark money’s corruption of politics and elections. They said he ignored the advice and input of the state’s esteemed Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC), as well as the months and years to build consensus and support for this much-needed reform.
Singleton and Zwicker ended with their harshest criticism — pretty rough stuff for a chief executive who styles himself as a leading reformer: “The Governor’s actions today are…an example of politics at its worst.”
What’s going on? We believe that, taken together, there are several clear instances of ineptitude, compounded by Murphy’s lack of prior experience in elected office.
On the “dark money” tsunami, the governor, a Goldman Sachs millionaire, is out of touch with the overwhelming majority of New Jersey voters. Our polling shows a minimum of 80 percent across a broad spectrum (Democrat, Republican, and independent) want “dark money” reform.
Rhetoric at odds with his actions
What did the governor do instead? His conditional veto struck down the provision barring public and elected officials from being associated with these funds. That includes “New Direction New Jersey,” the Super PAC with secret donors who support the governor’s policy agenda. His rhetoric opposing “dark money” does not match his actions.
Three other areas of process and substance stand out as inept or clumsy errors in this conditional veto fiasco.
First, the governor squandered the 45 days from passage of S-1500 (March 25) to the deadline to act under the state constitution. If he and his team had serious concerns about this bill, approved nearly unanimously in both legislative chambers, the smart thing would have been to meet with the sponsors and their leadership and iron them out in advance. Instead, Murphy chose the high-handed equivalent of a “midnight surprise” without any consultation or prior information on intentions. There was one anonymous “leak” a few days before the veto, suggesting that things were not well. Singleton and Zwicker, who refused to engage in rumors, instead found themselves “flabbergasted.”
Second, the governor did not simply delete sections of the bill. He rewrote it. Most flagrant was the addition of “economic development” contributors to the “dark money” list. Sure, that might deserve serious consideration but during the current firestorm on this issue, poking a finger in the Senate President’s eye is not smart politics. More to the point, it had no business in a conditional veto.
Finally, the governor appeared to tilt to a small group of environmental and civic liberties nonprofits who raised the specter of First Amendment challenges, should S-1500 become law. Less obvious but revealing was that these nonprofits had wrapped themselves in the Constitution simply to protect their own fundraising. And, they persisted even after the sponsors of S-1500 amended the bill to raise the reporting threshold to $10,000, thereby exempting small donors from exposure.
Manipulation of elections
Commenting on the prospects for this challenge, ELEC’s Jeff Brindle wrote: “Even as federal judges have scaled back other campaign finance restrictions during the last decade [since Citizens United] virtually all new disclosure laws have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and lower federal courts.”
So, where do we go from here? In the past two years, almost $100 million in untraceable dark money has flowed into New Jersey elections. Special interests can manipulate elections by shuttling their money through nonprofits, corporations, and other outside groups. These groups, under the current law, do not have to disclose their donors, meaning that those special interests function in secret. Without S-1500, New Jersey voters cannot know who is trying to buy their vote.
An override of this conditional veto needs to happen. My organization, Represent New Jersey, and our allies in the democracy-reform movement will work tirelessly to encourage our state representatives to act.
We also support Jeff Brindle and ELEC in the effort to forestall a crushing defeat of S-1500. Here is his olive branch to all parties: “It is important state officials not lose the momentum that has developed to address the issue of disclosure by independent groups. ELEC stands ready to work with the administration and the Legislature to secure this critical legislation.”
Overriding a governor’s veto is not something legislators, especially from the same party, take lightly. But we urge all members to look to Mr. Brindle’s guidance, recognize the errors of the governor’s action, and correct this wrong.
Vote to make the “Dark Money” bill (S-1500) the law of New Jersey!