Op-Ed: Time for NJ Republican leaders to stand on the right side of democracy

Anjali Mehrotra, Marci Bandelli | January 15, 2021 | Opinion
In debate over riot at U.S. Capitol, language — and votes — of New Jersey Republicans speak volumes
Marci Bandelli (left) and Anjali Mehrotra

We are still reeling from the videos and images of the siege on the U.S. Capitol while also becoming aware of how much worse it could have been, and law-abiding citizens across the nation are now demanding accountability. The events of Jan. 6, 2021 are in sharp contrast to another gathering almost four years ago on Jan. 21, 2017.

The 2016 election of Donald J. Trump to the United States presidency was a moment of disbelief for many who did not vote for him as they grappled with the certainty that a reality-television star who displayed open hostility toward women and marginalized minority groups had just ascended to the highest office in the land. Through this fog of dismay, they organized — mostly online — and descended on our nation’s capital as part of the largest single-day gatherings ever across the world. Despite the historic numbers, in cities across the globe these marches were peaceful, unifying and even inspiring.

Many of these peaceful protesters returned home and organized. They educated themselves on policy and galvanized their communities to hold their elected officials accountable. In New Jersey’s congressional districts, we witnessed strong civic engagement and mobilization. These grassroots groups, through precision and perseverance, effected change in the House of Representatives in 2018. It was democracy at its finest.

In November 2020, there was another election. This time, it was President Trump who lost, and his supporters who found themselves on the losing side. This time, it was they who organized online and went to the capital, but with stark differences and very different consequences. Five Americans are dead. Images of a violent mob breaching security at the Capitol building are circulating; lawmakers hastily scrambling to safety as their lives were placed in harm’s way; desecration and vandalism at the very seat of our democracy; and a sitting president, and elected officials loyal to him, are complicit in those acts. There can be no doubt that their repeated lies regarding the outcome of a legal, legitimate election played a significant role in fomenting this attempted coup to undo a free and fair election.

In New Jersey, grassroots organizations and legislators alike have used their collective voice to call for consequences for these acts. On Monday, as the flags flew at half-staff over Trenton in honor of U.S. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, a New Jersey native who died in the siege, the Legislature attempted to pass a symbolic, non-binding resolution condemning President Trump for inciting a riot at the Capitol. In the ensuing debate, Republicans in both houses of the Legislature either remained silent or vocally opposed the language of the resolution.

Exceptions: Declan O’Scanlon, Chris Brown

Only two Republican state senators, Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) and Chris Brown (R-Atlantic) broke with their colleagues, put country and their oath to uphold the Constitution before partisanship, and joined the Democrats in passing the resolution. Meanwhile in the Assembly, not a single Republican voted for the measure. The minority leaders expressed their dismay at the events and even that Trump should leave office, but would not vote — displaying once again that Tom Kean Jr. and Jon Bramnick know the difference between right and wrong, but refuse to vote with conviction.

In the hour-long debate, it became clear that many in New Jersey’s GOP still lack the moral courage to take a stand, cowering behind the lame excuse that to condemn the president would lead to further divisiveness.

How much more divisive can it get? For four years, the same legislators have stood in lockstep with a president who called Mexicans rapists; instituted a Muslim ban; refused to condemn anti-Semites marching with torches in Charlottesville, Virginia; vilified a Black American NFL player for taking a knee to the flag in protest, and turned a blind eye to immigrant children in cages after being separated from their parents. None of them have acknowledged how any of those other events contributed to deepening chasms of race and inequity that exist in the country. Nor would they repudiate the president, senators and representatives who attempted to overturn the certification of Electoral College votes with debunked theories of voter fraud. It’s time for all those who want to unite us to unequivocally declare that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the election fair and square.

In this silence from our elected leaders in New Jersey, we are reminded of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his letter from Birmingham Jail — “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people… Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.” Our democracy is on life support. Now is the time for our leaders to stand up, show courage, and be counted on the right side of history.

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