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New Jersey’s Grassroots Reform Groups Coalesce into Loose Coalition

Groups that came together during the 2016 presidential elections or cut their political teeth on the state’s 2018 midterms are pushing on with reform agendas

Analilia Mejia
Analilia Mejia

Grassroot groups formed in response to the 2016 presidential election. Others came together to try to flip House seats, or to advocate for issues they thought would be imperiled by Trump and to get the word out about what is going on. And some are also working to get rid of Trump. But here's the bottom line: They're still at it, demanding change in New Jersey to deliver what they believe would be a more representative and just democracy.

The groups have loosely organized as the Coalition to Restore Democracy, and they are calling for what may sound like simple reforms. These include a call for making proposed legislation available to the public at least 72 hours before any committee hearing or vote; a set of uniform ethics and public records rules across all branches of government; and an end to the awarding of the “party line” that gives candidates anointed by Democratic and Republican leaders an edge in primary elections.

As hundreds of legislators, lobbyists, and business executives gathered in Newark Thursday morning to board a special train for the state Chamber of Commerce’s annual Walk to Washington, about a dozen activists protested for the need for reform. Those who crowded on the train schmoozed, then attended receptions and a dinner with Gov. Phil Murphy and the state’s congressional representatives. The train will bring everyone back on Friday.

Playing politics

The event, which cost $700 for a general ticket — not including an overnight stay in a hotel — is exactly the kind of inside politics that the groups decry because it allows special interests unfettered access to law- and policymakers away from public view.

“We want to let legislators and special-interest lobbyists know we are watching,” said Analilia Mejia, executive director of New Jersey Working Families, directing her comments at those waiting to get on the train. “We are sick of crony political insider games that only put special interests before the interests of the people ... We should not have a system in which tons of money buys you special access and regular New Jerseyans are cut out of that process. We need real ethical reform.”

In a document outlining their proposals, the coalition states that they are a diverse group of organizations and unions “that have lost faith that our state government represents us.” They include NJ11th for Change, NJ7 Forward, Indivisible 5th District, and other organizations started by citizens upset by the 2016 presidential election. Originally focused on federal elections, they worked to unseat two Republican House members last year. Then they vowed to get involved in state politics.

The groups are calling for greater public access to lawmakers and their actions. This includes providing public advance notice of all meetings and hearings as well as “reasonable access” to the State House complex, where people are currently required to pass through metal detectors and bag screenings before entry. On busy days, long lines can form, leading to a long wait. They also want to “ensure that each legislator maintains a meaningful and consistent two-way dialogue with their constituents.”

“In Trenton, we need reasonable access to the State House, not a State House that’s on lockdown,” said Lillian Hawkins, president of SOMA Action, based in the South Orange and Maplewood area. “In every district, we need consistent dialogue with our legislators.”

Keeping lines of communication open

At least some of these grassroots groups have already shown their determination in ensuring that citizens can talk with their representatives at the congressional level. The constant complaints from NJ11th for Change over former Republican Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen’s refusal to hold in-person town halls in his north Jersey district, as well as weekly protests outside his office, were among the reasons the longtime elected official chose not to run for reelection. After the group supported Democrat Mikie Sherrill to replace Frelinghuysen and Sherrill won, members pushed the new representative to begin holding town halls shortly after her election, reminding her she had promised to do so while campaigning. Her first such event last month drew a standing-room-only crowd of 500 and lasted two hours.

The coalition is also calling for what several members called common-sense reforms to the legislative process. These include making all legislation being considered at a hearing or full House vote available at least three days before its consideration; requiring members to certify that they have read the bills they are voting on; and prohibiting proxy or absentee voting in all but emergency situations.

All of those are designed to address issues that came up late last year as legislators considered a bill that would have changed the way the state redraws its legislative districts every decade. At the end of a long hearing, a Senate committee voted on an amended version of the bill even though the amendments were not available to the public prior to the vote. What’s more, some Democratic committee members left “yes” votes before leaving the hearing early and it was unclear whether they had meant to vote on the original bill or on the amendments. Many of the coalition members lobbied against the redistricting bill, and legislative leaders ultimately backed down and did not post the measure for a vote.

Lillian Duggan
Lillian Duggan of Westfield 20/20

“Lawmakers need to read the bills in their final form before voting on them. That’s obvious, right?” said Lillian Duggan, co-chair of Westfield 20/20, which she cofounded shortly after the 2016 presidential election. “Absentee voting should be allowed only in emergency situations, right?”

Shaking NJ to its core

The coalition is also calling for electoral changes, some of which would disturb the core of New Jersey’s longstanding primary system, which gives party leaders in most counties significant power in determining who gets on the ballot and then, almost always, who wins the election. Members are seeking an end to clustering endorsed candidates along a party line on the primary ballot, as well as a requirement that county committees use secret balloting at conventions to choose their chair and endorsed candidates.

Sue Altman, a member of the board of South Jersey Women for Progressive Change, called on lawmakers to “demand that New Jersey ballots are designed just like every other state, without that insurmountable advantage of the party line, which you know is unfair.” In calling for party conventions, she added, “Voting should be done in secret. This should not be a novel concept.”

“The people of New Jersey are tired of having unelected party bosses and the same tired, old-boys club dictate the business of the state,” said Saily Avelenda, executive director of NJ11th for Change. “This is just common sense.”

The coalition has also embraced voting reforms that Democrats and others have called for. These include allowing voters to register on Election Day and expanding early voting. They are also calling for the state to upgrade voting machines to include a verifiable paper trail so that voters can have confidence in election results.

Additionally, the coalition called for a number of ethical reforms that include making all communications between lawmakers and constituents into public documents; setting rules for when legislators should recuse themselves from votes; preventing lawmakers and staff from taking lobbying jobs for a specific time after leaving office; and ending the practice of using taxpayer funds to settle sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuits.

Meeting with politicos

The coalition already met with representatives of Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) and hopes to meet with Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) soon to discuss these reforms. They understand that making such changes could take time.

“This is our vision for New Jersey for the next five years,” Avelenda said. “We think there are changes that the speaker can make right away … For the changes that the party has to make, he has the power of the bully pulpit, to effect change.”

But she said her discussions with lawmakers so far lead her to believe that they do not fully understand how committed members of the relatively new grassroots groups are.

“My sense is that they were willing to listen to practical changes,” Avelenda said. “A lot of politicians are unprepared for an informed electorate like ours and they don’t understand the problem as we see it. That’s part of the hurdle we are trying to get over. You can’t just say, ‘Don’t worry, we’re taking care of that.’ We represent a lot of informed people, a lot of active people who want transparency in government.”

Mejia, a longtime organizer who is phasing out her work in New Jersey to join Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, warned lawmakers that the coalition is serious in its quest for reform.

“We are watching,” she said. “Ultimately, we are the ones in power. We get you elected and we are prepared to vote you out come November if we are not heard.”

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