I was eager to face the challenges of being a new political candidate head-on. The more I knock on doors to listen to voters and share my vision with them, the more I learn that people want change and transparency in our state government. As time went on, I learned what would become the most significant barrier to being heard: wading through layer upon layer of abstraction in county endorsement processes and conventions that seek to anoint candidates before a single vote has been cast.
The Somerset County Democratic Committee (SCDC) has a screening process to vet candidates. You would not know this by looking at their website for any information—their homepage still features “Meet our 2020 Democratic Candidates!” as of today. They held their nominating convention on March 4th, 2021. With no public notice in any newspaper or any public facing publication, one also would not be able to locate this information as an outsider and new candidate. Kudos to the Middlesex County Democratic Committee for multiple public notices of their convention and their requirements. Mercer County Democratic Chairperson Janice Mironov also kindly spoke with me on the phone to explain the requirements for Mercer County’s convention.
As a candidate for the 16th Assembly District, I reached out to Somerset County party leadership in February, formally announcing my intention to seek the endorsement of the SCDC. I was told that I had “missed screening.” Later that week I finally learned when the convention would be, and was instructed that I would require a member of the SCDC to nominate me, and another member to second the nomination, in order to speak and to be eligible to earn votes at the convention. Delegates were forbidden from nominating or seconding multiple candidates, already reducing the pool of delegates who might consider nominating the myriad candidates running for the Assembly seat. Contact information was provided for the voting delegates, that I might seek their support. A dozen of the email addresses bounced back from being either out of date or erroneously written out.
More than half a dozen delegates were excited about my candidacy: a bold, progressive vision backed by technical expertise. Many agreed that more scientists are needed in our state government. Several indicated they would be happy to vote for me. Zero delegates, however, would nominate me or second my nomination. One cited a “conflict of interest.” Another cited “fear of blowback from party leadership, especially Peg [Schaffer].” Yet another mentioned in no uncertain terms that they were “discouraged from nominating a non-Somerset resident.” I would not get to speak at the convention due to these insurmountable restrictions and roadblocks. Something is seriously wrong with this process.
An extremely alarming report emerged in late February announcing a deal had been struck with Somerset County party leadership, resulting in the backing of Sadaf Jaffer for the Assembly seat of Andrew Zwicker for the State Senate seat before a single vote had been cast. Responses to the report from party leadership were milquetoast, generally attacking the author of the article instead of the content. Jaffer would go on to “win the line” by acclamation.
Democratic leadership constantly calls for making voting easier, as they should—measures to improve voter accessibility increase voter turnout substantially. Yet, there are never calls for making running for office easier. This process is difficult enough without a cloud of impropriety hovering over it. Contrary to what party leadership suggests, this is a far cry from an open and fair process.
Being from Princeton, I was not naïve enough to believe that I would so easily win the hearts and minds of the Somerset County Democratic Committee. I was, however, naïve enough to believe I would be given a fair shot to speak and make the case for my candidacy. For what might be the most competitive Assembly race in the entire state, the people of District 16 deserve accountability and real transparency in our political processes.
Chris Fistonich, a Yale-educated PhD immunologist, cybersecurity analyst and opera singer, is a candidate for the New Jersey State Assembly.