Thursday, March 23, 2017

What's the Difference Between Democrats and Republicans?

Professor Danley’s excellent column about the parochialism of the Democratic Party struck home when I heard a passing remark by a high-ranking state party leader lamenting the fact that the various grass roots activities like Action Together are not coalescing around the party infrastructure.

Therein lies the difference between the two parties.

When the Tea Party movement formed, its extreme philosophy was embraced by most “establishment” Republicans. Those entrenched GOP leaders like Eric Cantor who did not buy the Tea Party’s line in its entirety are gone now – voted out of office not by the establishment, but by the insurgents. All of this culminated with the “election” of Donald Trump – reviled by the insiders, but embraced by the outsiders.

Democrats, on the other hand, pretend to be listening but are actually tone deaf. I have nothing against Phil Murphy. He’d be a better governor than any of the GOP contenders. But is that the best we can do? Put another Goldman Sachs executive in Drumthwacket so soon after the Corzine debacle?

CarlLewis' NJ Senate Run Announcement - 2011
Both parties have relied on two criteria that enhance electability but don’t do much for governance. First – does the candidate bring money to the campaign? If so, we end up with people like Phil Murphy and Tom MacArthur. If a candidate can’t bring money, can he or she bring fame? Witness the Democrats’ abortive attempt to elect Olympian Carl Lewis to the state senate, and the Republicans’ elevation of football player Jon Runyan to Congress. (To his credit, Runyan realized he was over his head after two terms and dropped out for a more comfortable retirement.)

So where do the Democrats go from here? Do they hold groups like Action Together at arm’s length to be used but not embraced? Or do they treat them as equals – where the party understands the nuts and bolts of elections and the insurgents drive the agenda – a la the Tea Party movement? Only the latter approach is a recipe for success.  

It won’t happen overnight. It won’t happen in a single election cycle. But it’s important that the party establishment welcome these “insurgents” into their fold and listen to them. Action Together and similar organizations must infiltrate the Democratic Party by joining their county committees, either by appointment to vacant positions, or getting on board in the 2018 committee election cycle. They need to become the “insiders” where they can, and they need to push back on the entrenched establishment when they see business as usual.

It’s unfortunate that our political structure is established around a two-party system. That only encourages actions that place party loyalty over principles. But given that this will not change, unless the Democrats treat Action Together and similar groups as equals, or even as their bosses, the party of FDR is doomed to live and die on the back benches of power.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Will a Republican Succeed Chris Christie in Drumthwacket?

Conventional wisdom says that a Democrat will win this year’s New Jersey gubernatorial election. After all, the current Republican governor has been a disaster. His economic policies have caused our state to lag the rest of the region in recovering from the Bush Recession. His on-again, off-again bromance with SCROTUS has tarnished his tough guy image. Bridgegate was the tip of the iceberg in an administration rife with cronyism.
But just like conventional wisdom prematurely put Hillary Clinton in the White House, don’t discount the possibility of a Republican succeeding a failed party comrade in New Jersey. Democrats, who are fond of eating their young and ignoring the wisdom of the masses, may be on another path to disaster.
The party establishment jumped the gun by anointing former Goldman Sachs millionaire Jon Corzine Phil Murphy a year and a half before the election. Make no mistake – Murphy would be a more progressive governor than any of the top-seeded GOP contenders. But whether it’s fair or not, the Corzine albatross hangs around his neck – not something that will get progressive Democrats or independent voters to the polls in an off-year election.
Republicans, of course, have their own issues. Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno has spent the last six months distancing herself from Christie. Of course, she has her own scandals to explain away but she’s spent the last eight years courting donors and voters in her role as Secretary of State and Christie stand-in. Assemblyman Jack Ciatareli is also running. He’s good in front of a television camera and has also started to distance himself from a generally pro-Christie voting record.
Then there’s the wildcard. Saturday Night Live’s Joe Piscopo is vying to follow in the footsteps of Al Franken, another SNL alum, by entering the political fray. Piscopo has indicated that he is considering running as an independent, which could make things easier for the GOP nominee.
A bit of math is in order: Suppose Piscopo manages to skim off 20 percent of the votes, based on his name recognition and people who are fed up with the major parties. And assume the voter turnout is 25 percent – a tad better than the turnout four years ago. Then the other 80 percent of the people who go to the polls represent only 20 percent of the registered voters. Hence, it would only take a bit more than 10 percent of registered voters to select our next governor. This makes voter turnout the most important issue, and voter turnout is correlated with two things: money (which both parties will have) and enthusiasm – something that Murphy so far has not evoked among many Democrats and Independents.
Our next governor will become a big factor in the 2020 legislative and congressional redistricting activities. So he or she will not just set the course for the next four years, but for the next decade. It would be a good idea if people could channel at least some of their anti-Trump energy into ensuring that New Jersey’s next governor is one that our people could be proud of.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Our Institutionalized Gender Discrimination

Suppose you are a woman who wants to be appointed to a vacant seat for a particular political office. But you can’t. Why? Because that position is open only to males.

It sounds discriminatory, and it is. But it’s codified into law in New Jersey.

Members of county Democratic and Republican committees are elected for four-year terms in even, non-presidential years. By law, each district within a municipality elects one male and one female member.

If a vacancy occurs, the municipal chair may appoint a party member to fill the remainder of the term, but that person’s gender must correspond to the assigned gender of the open seat. That is, if there is an existing male committee member in a district with an open seat, the new appointee must be female, and vice versa.

I’m not sure why this gender discrimination is codified into law. One prominent Democratic state legislator who is happy with the status quo told me that:

“[C]hanging the regulation that requires one male and one female for each unit of representation in the county would limit the amount of diversity that we see on county committee now. There are a number of ways those wishing to get involved in their county committee can do so without holding a seat.”

It’s true that even with recent advances, women are under-represented in elected offices. But in many South Jersey counties, as many as 50 percent of committee seats remain vacant. Assigning two women to fill unoccupied seats is one way to counter this disparity and build a bench for women aspiring to higher office.

In 1997, a New Jersey Superior Court judge declared that a similar restriction (which required that county committee chair and vice chair be of opposite genders) was unconstitutional. In that decision the court wrote:
 “While it is apparent that the statute's likely intent at the time of its passage was the remedial goal of assuring equal representation in top political party leadership of the two genders, that purpose has been largely subsumed by the pronouncements of both federal and state law striking down gender-based discrimination.”

Another factor causes us to question the appropriateness of the law. As written, the law implicitly assumes that gender is static and binary. Clearly, that is not the case. Today, we understand that gender is fluid and may occupy a spectrum of identity – it is not always solely male or solely female. How this would be applied under the current law is unknown.

For these reasons, the legislature should eliminate the provisions of NJSA 19:5-3, which sets the regulation for county committees: “The county committee shall consist of one male and one female member from each unit of representation in the county.”

Let’s fix the statute and avoid expensive court challenges to an anachronistic and unconstitutional law.