BELMAR – Barnegat Democratic Club Vice President Marianne Clemente spoke Wednesday night at an event in Monmouth County that featured speakers highly critical of the Democratic primary process in New Jersey.
How democratic (small d) are New Jersey’s Democratic primary elections and county committees? Not very, according to a discussion featuring a panel of Democrats including John Wisniewski, Jim Keady, Tanzie Youngblood, Peter Jacob , Sue Altman & Marianne Clemente.
The talk featured speakers that shared a message critical of how Democratic political primaries are carried out in New Jersey, and Ocean County’s Democratic conventions, among others, were a topic of discussion at the event.
According to Clemente, the “first step” for cleaning up the political process lies with the county committee, which exercises significant influence over who gets the “party line” on the ballot for the primary election.
“We have some serious problems with the way we do politics here in New Jersey,” said Clemente.
Clemente spoke of her past campaign efforts to get Democrats to write themselves in for county committee seats in Ocean County, noting that towns that lie the 4th congressional district within the county had the highest percentage of vacancies at 64%.
In Ocean County, 74% of Democratic county committee seats were vacant prior to the write-in campaign, according to Clemente’s statistics. She said that the write-in campaign’s efforts resulted in a 19% decrease in the vacancy, bringing the number of vacant county committee seats down to 55%, still a far cry from the rival GOP county committee, but still a meaningful dent in filling up committee seats.
The county committee exercises a significant amount of power under New Jersey’s political power structure. Their role includes voting on vacancies for local councils and voting on who will receive the county line during primary elections.
“Everybody goes right down the line and does not look anywhere else,” she said, lamenting the influence of the county line in impacting the outcome of elections.
“I’ve been fighting them for 15 years now and running against the establishment because they are less than democratic,” Clemente explained.
Also critical of the Ocean County Democratic Mini-convention process was former congressional candidate Jim Keady. Keady reflected on his experience running for office in the 3rd and later 4th congressional district. said that in the 2016 congressional race, the Burlington County Democratic convention resulted in “some guy Fred LaVergne” getting the nomination to challenge former Rep. Tom MacArthur in CD3, despite him winning the support of the DCCC and county Democratic organization.
The advantage of the line in Burlington ensured LaVergne got the nomination despite Keady receiving it in Ocean. Keady contended that the Burlington County Democratic chair failed to follow their bylaws in providing proper notice of the 2016 endorsement vote.
Reflecting on that campaign, Keady admitted to being naive at the time and said he thought the same attention he received from the Ocean County Democratic Committee was getting was offered to LaVergne. It wasn’t.
Keady said that the process utilized by the Ocean County Democrats – which saw party members casting votes in congressional districts they didn’t reside in and votes of party officials weighed more heavily – was bad, noting that while he has many disagreements with LaVergne he agreed with him on this issue of fairness.
LaVergne’s team filed a federal lawsuit challenging the voting process at the Ocean County convention in 2016. U.S. District Judge Freda L. Wolfson would eventually toss the complaint in 2017, finding the allegations “without merit.”
The suit would cause more problems for team LaVergne when one of the plaintiffs was kept on, despite asking to be removed from the case.
Following the fire and brimstone of the 2016 vote, the next year, Democratic political operative Mitch Seim together with Ocean County Democratic Chairman Wyatt Earp conspired to make the county’s convention even less democratic when they took the unprecedented step of banning all media from attending the Mini-convention in the wake of media coverage surrounding the controversy. Seim attempted to identify who was leaking information to reporters during the convention.
Sue Altman, a board member of the Good Government Coalition of New Jersey said that “…the party structure controls the line.” According to her, this political reality makes candidates running off the line “look kind of weird.”
“Who is going to vote for the guy out there in what we call ballot Siberia?” she questioned.
Adding to the obstacles for candidates seeking to challenge the status quo is the patchwork of arcane rules for party conventions across New Jersey’s 21 counties. “The counties all have their own rules for who gets the line,” Altman explained.
In some counties, party leaders dispense with the convention process and allow the county chair to pick who receives the party line. Some counties use a voice vote or vote by acclamation. Voice votes are problematic because they are a way to assert control, because then everyone knows who delegates voted for, according to Altman, as then political leaders know exactly who didn’t fall in line.
This sentiment was echoed by former CD2 candidate Tanzie Youngblood. “When you go at power, power has a way of striking back at you,” she said. Youngblood was critical of political leaders that worry about “party politics” and not the people they were elected to serve.
Altman said that experts estimate that having the county line is worth at least 30 point. She compared it to starting a basketball game with 30 extra points over the opposing team.
She emphasized that the structure of government is at the root of many of New Jersey’s problems, specifically how party chairs exercise control over the political process.
Full video of the event below, courtesy of Blue Jersey: