This op-ed is undoubtedly going to come across as petty, spiteful, and probably obscenely verbose, which is par for the course with me, coming on the heels of my being thrown off of the board of yet another progressive organization (at least I had the good sense to leave Garden State Equality before I burned my bridges with Steven Goldstein – that would come years later when I called him and the rest of the organized LGBTQ community out for backing Hillary Clinton, whose husband lobbied for and signed DOMA into law and did not herself publicly express support for marriage equality until 2013, instead of Bernie Sanders whose support for a wide range of issues of concern to the LGBTQ community is almost as longstanding as his work in the civil rights movement, which according to John Lewis and others like him, never happened, but I digress) for having the temerity to pour icy cold water on the recent Analilia Mejia lovefest on Facebook and criticize her publicly for abandoning and betraying the progressive insurgent candidacies for Senate, Congress, and county and local offices, which include, but are not limited to Larry Hamm, Arati Kreibich, Hector Oseguera, Justin O’Hea, and Bill Irwin, which she did when she negotiated “open” Presidential primary elections in numerous counties in New Jersey and which she and the rest of the Bernie 2020 national campaign senior staff did when they refused to bracket Bernie Sanders with the opposition line that came into being to both provide him and his pledged delegates with the best possible ballot position, but also to answer his call for a political revolution (OUR REVOLUTION) everywhere – or at the very least in 49 out of the 50 Disunited States of America as it turns out. Yes, that was one sentence. Damn, I am a terrible writer. Why does David Wildstein agree to publish my crap?
Being as hard on myself as I am on others, I am ready, willing, and able to admit that I am at least partially to blame for being unable to stick around with any organization of which I am a member, much less win friends and influence people. I am – literally, not figuratively – honest to a fault. I am impatient. I do not tolerate bullshit; and if you are going to get along and go along within the progressive community (or anywhere else for that matter, but especially the progressive community), you have to be prepared to tolerate intolerable levels of bullshit if for no other reason, the mix of identity politics, narrow, conflicting and contradicting agendas, self-absorption, and self-righteousness produces Tower of Babel heights of hypocrisy. Worse than any of that, I often let my emotions overrule my reason.
I knew that my Gethsemane was coming months ago when Bernie Sanders was left standing as the only Presidential candidate other than Mike Bloomberg who would not endorse Julie Roginsky’s “Lift Our Voices” initiative to ban the use of Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) to silence women who had been victims of sexual harassment and violence in the workplace. I do not believe that this indecision was solely a product of his 2016 campaign having to settle complaints from female campaign workers who had horrific experiences with some of the far too many male members of that campaign’s senior staff and NDAs were employed far too liberally to deal with those situations and proactively during the 2020 campaign. There is no doubt in my mind that Analilia Mejia in her position as the campaign’s national political director was using her influence and power to keep that issue bottled up in the campaign’s policy shop.
At the same time that this issue was being used to blow up Mike Bloomberg’s billion-dollar house of cards of a Presidential campaign and could have been used to attack Bernie Sanders as well, it is my belief that Mejia was more invested in retaining her relationships here in New Jersey with people like Hetty Rosenstein and Phil Murphy, whose administration had come under fire for its willingness to protect Al Alvarez, who has been accused of raping Katie Brennan, who at the time was a Murphy gubernatorial campaign volunteer, for as long as it had before he resigned from his high-level, high-paying job at the Schools Development Authority, once the story finally broke. I was ready to write an op-ed about this months ago, but at the behest of others and for the sake of self-preservation, I kept my powder dry.
Then, in the middle of March, as the Bernie 2020 district delegate slate was being finalized, I learned that Catherine Hunt, one of the hardest-working, if not THE hardest-working progressive activists (in addition to being a member of Our Revolution New Jersey’s board she is also the leader of Progressive Democrats of New Jersey and is one of our two Middlesex County Freeholder candidates) in the entire state was pushed aside in favor of Lizette Delgado-Polanco, who had never done or said anything on behalf of Bernie Sanders and brought with her tons of baggage from her own cronyism and nepotism scandal when she was running the Schools Development Authority (at the same time that Al Alvarez was there – Coincidence? There are no coincidences in New Jersey politics). It was bad enough that NJDSC State Committeewoman Franceline Ehret had been chosen to be a Bernie Sanders delegate to the 2016 Democratic National Convention instead of Catherine, but to displace her as a district delegate candidate entirely in favor of someone as far removed from the progressive community as a disgraced former insider like Delgado-Polanco, who in her position as a super delegate supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 was truly obscene.
Catherine Hunt was not the only Bernie Sanders true believer who was excluded from the Bernie Sanders slate of district delegates. Mico Lucide, a leader of the Bernie Sanders effort in Atlantic County and Joni Brennan and Laurie Perloff-Mauro, leaders in Ocean County were just three of many. In the spirit of full disclosure, I was also left out, but having been a Bernie Sanders delegate to the 2016 Democratic National Convention, I had zero desire to go to Milwaukee this year unless it was clear that there would be a brokered convention and my vote would actually matter, but by the time these decisions were being finalized it was obvious that this was not going to happen. I was ready to write an op-ed about this weeks ago, but at the behest of others and for the sake of self-preservation, I kept my powder dry.
A few weeks later came the straw that broke the camel’s back, when it was finally determined that Bernie Sanders would not be bracketing with Larry Hamm and the other aforementioned progressive insurgent candidates in New Jersey even in counties where an “open” Presidential primary election had not been negotiated by Mejia. In addition to being a complete and total abandonment and betrayal of these candidates and the hundreds of thousands of Bernie Sanders supporters in the state, it was also completely nonsensical.
By this time, the nomination had clearly been lost. The only point of filing to be on the ballot in New Jersey and remaining in the race would be to collect as many pledged delegates as possible in order to have as much influence as possible over the party’s platform going forward. Why make a decision that would guarantee Bernie Sanders and his district delegate candidates a lesser ballot position and at the same time harm the electoral chances of progressive insurgent candidates who were only running to answer his call for a political revolution? There was no longer any risk of alienating prospective superdelegates like Cory Booker, Josh Gottheimer, Bill Pascrell, Jr., and Albio Sires, all of whom had already endorsed Biden anyway and none of whom would have never considered voting for him if the nomination process somehow went to a second ballot.
In my opinion, the only possible reason for the Bernie 2020 national campaign senior staff to abandon and betray Bernie Sanders candidates and supporters in New Jersey was the same reason why Bernie Sanders was the only Presidential candidate to not endorse the aforementioned “Lift Our Voices” initiative; Analilia Mejia was more invested in her relationships with people like Hetty Rosenstein and Phil Murphy, who undoubtedly was feeling some degree of pressure from the state’s Democratic Party political machine bosses to use his influence with Mejia and Rosenstein to get them to sever Bernie Sanders from the progressive insurgent opposition line that had been created for him, than she was in her relationships with the progressive community of New Jersey and anyone observing the Facebook lovefest that inspired my recent act of political suicide could attest that this was a very smart investment on her part.
It is unclear how many of her well-wishers in that thread were even aware of the Bernie 2020 campaign’s abandonment and betrayal of New Jersey progressives. As the campaign’s national political director, Mejia now had thousands if not tens or hundreds of thousands if not millions of acolytes throughout the country. However, more than a few of them (Sue Altman, Rosi Efthim, and Patricia Campos Medina to name a few) were well aware of what had happened and clearly did not care. This is why the progressive movement in New Jersey (and most likely everywhere else as well) is doomed to fail.
More than anything, the progressive community is a cult of personality. It does not matter that Sue Altman is willing to support a corrupt political machine boss like John Currie as passionately as she opposes a corrupt political machine boss like George Norcross. In the hearts and minds of most progressives, she is a “fierce” advocate for their values, even though she has never taken a visible or vocal position on progressive issues like Medicare for All, Green New Deal, Tuition Free College, Student Loan Forgiveness or a $15 Minimum Wage right now instead of 2024, when its buying power will be closer to $13 and has failed time and time again to put progressives, including herself, on the ballot.
It also does not matter that Mikie Sherrill calls progressive issues of concern “Soviet-style solutions”, Saily Avelenda is still perceived as a progressive hero for retiring Rodney Frelinghuysen and helping Sherill to win a congressional seat that has been in Republicans hands for near perpetuity. This is why she was the perfect choice to lead John Currie’s NJDSC Chair re-election effort. Without ever supporting a single progressive candidate or issue, who better to put progressive lipstick on a corrupt and regressive pig of a political machine boss like Currie than her?
It also does not matter that Bonnie Watson Coleman scolded the Bernie Sanders delegates at the 2016 Democratic National Convention and then proceeded to walk out of the convention prior to when Bernie Sanders was due to speak. Yes, she votes better than any of the other establishment Democrats in New Jersey’s congressional delegation, but has never been a leader on any issue, yet the idea of running anyone against her in a primary election if only for the sake of giving voters a choice is tantamount to heresy.
It also does not matter that Andy Kim and Tom Malinowski hide behind their competitive districts and refuse to support cornerstone progressive issues like the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, Student Loan Forgiveness, and Tuition Free College. As long as Kim is seen as cute and cuddly and Malinowski is drooled over like Fabio by the suburban “wine moms” as Our Revolution New Jersey board member, Justin O’Hea, likes to call them, they are never going to be seriously challenged by any progressive.
And it most certainly does not matter that Analilia Mejia abandoned and betrayed all of the progressive insurgent candidates who were running up and down the ballot, not only to give Bernie Sanders the best possible ballot position, but maybe even more importantly to answer his call for a political revolution. The fact of the matter is that within the progressive community, there are far too many people like Mejia who are always going to be more invested in their relationships within the Democratic Party establishment than they ever will be to Bernie’s political revolution, assuming for a moment that they are invested in his political revolution at all.
In the end, this is why Bernie’s political revolution will inevitably fail here in New Jersey and maybe everywhere else. The political machines here in New Jersey that are far more powerful than anything that Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall might have ever imagined have been built over decades of corruption at every level of government and it will take decades of determined education and organizing of the body politic to dismantle them, which is never going to happen.
Most progressives who are familiar with the party line ballot and how it is used to give the Democratic Party establishment and the political machines that are the source of its strength an unfair advantage in contested primary elections will argue that it represents their greatest obstacle, but that is a fallacy. While it is true that a ballot similar to those used in Salem County and Sussex County would be inherently fairer than the party line ballot, it would only level the playing field. Progressive insurgent candidates would still have to win on that level playing field and that will never happen.
It will never happen, because at its core, the political machines that drive the Democratic Party establishment are built on the loyalty of the hundreds of thousands if not millions of hard-working members of organized labor who will always be reliable votes for Democratic Party establishment candidates. As is, the greater population-at-large of the State of New Jersey does not turnout to vote at nearly high enough levels to overcome the advantage that the Democratic Party establishment has baked into the cake to win contested primary elections on the rare occasion that they ever happen.
Even though New Jersey is a somewhat reliably Democratic state, especially when it comes to statewide Presidential and Senatorial elections, there are still plenty of Republicans here, very few of whom could ever be convinced to register as a Democrat, much less vote for a progressive insurgent Democrat, even if it might weaken the Democratic Party establishment’s stranglehold over politics in the state. That level of strategic and tactical thinking is beyond the capacity of the average voter, Democratic or Republican. Hell, even most Green Party voters cannot be convinced to register as Democrats so that they can vote for progressive insurgent candidates in contested Democratic Party primary elections.
Thus, the difference between victory and defeat in contested Democratic Party primary elections is the support of organized labor and as much as organized labor is perceived to be a force for progressive change, that is really only true for the public employees unions and even then, they are only progressive to a point – a point where it serves the agenda of their membership. First and foremost, the agenda of their membership is to keep their membership employed.
Even though votes are cast in enclosed voting booths where voters are free to vote for whomever they want without external pressure, the Democratic Party establishment and its political machines are able to enforce discipline and loyalty within the ranks of the public employees who believe that their jobs depend on the local, county, and state elected officials that they support. This fealty is even more true for the leaders of the public employee unions. People like Hetty Rosenstein can pretend to be as progressive as they want to be and even go so far as to support the Presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders as long as they toe the party line when it matters here in New Jersey.
This is why Rosenstein and other public employee union leaders quickly jumped on the Murphy bandwagon, especially when the only other establishment candidate of consequence who was not hostile to their issue agenda, Steven Fulop, was muscled out of the race by Murphy and an allegedly unsavory tape recording. The only other major candidate in the race at the time, State Senator Steve Sweeney, was Public Enemy Number One due to his past leadership on pension and healthcare reforms that hurt public employees, and Murphy was willing to say all of the things that wanted to hear.
Even when John Wisniewski, who “led” the Bernie Sanders campaign here in New Jersey entered the race, there was zero love to be found from his fellow Bernie Sanders supporters, Mejia and Rosenstein. They had already been bought and paid for by Murphy.
Thus, it should not have surprised anyone when Mejia negotiated the “open” Presidential primary elections that she did and the Bernie 2020 national campaign senior staff refused to bracket Bernie with the progressive insurgent opposition line in counties that were not having an “open” Presidential primary election. By then, the outcome of the Democratic Party’s Presidential nominating process had already been determined and even if the Bernie 2020 national campaign’s senior staffers like Mejia intended to seriously contest New Jersey instead of collecting their fat paychecks and sending out resumes for their next high profile political job, they knew that any voter who wanted to vote for Bernie Sanders would find him no matter where he was placed on the ballot. However, by severing him from the downballot progressive insurgent candidates, Mejia reduced the chance that Bernie’s voters would automatically vote for them as well.
Also, when push comes to shove, as much as the public employee unions may pay lip service to an issue like Medicare for All, when the rubber hits the road, it is unlikely that they will give up their existing health insurance benefits in favor of coverage that they perceive to be less comprehensive. Our state government could extend New Jersey Family Care to everybody, starting with public employees, at a much lower per capita cost than individuals, families, and employers currently pay for health insurance, but it would be the public employees who would be the most visible and vocal opponents of such a proposal.
To date, the greatest victory that the Working Families Alliance has won is an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour. However, even this was a half-loaf, if that, because the minimum wage was increased incrementally by $1 per year until it eventually reaches $15 by 2024, by which time its purchasing power will be closer to $13 per hour and advocates will have to begin the fight all over again for an increase to $20 (even though they should probably be fighting for $25). There was never a moment that anyone who was advocating for a minimum wage increase seriously thought that they could win an immediate increase to $15, because the only way that could ever happen is if the Working Families Alliance was willing to go out on a limb and recruit people to run for State Assembly and State Senate in Democratic Party primary elections and that is never going to happen.
If it was ever going to happen, it should have happened in 2019 when the entire State Assembly was up for re-election and was at the top of the ballot (except in LD1 where a special election was being held to fill the State Senate seat that was vacated by then-State Senator and now-Congressman Jeff Van Drew. This was an incredibly low turnout cycle, which would have offered the Working Families Alliance in particular and progressive insurgent Democrats a golden opportunity to challenge most, if not all, of the incumbent Democratic Assemblypersons, led by Assembly Majority Leader Craig Coughlin, who were blocking Governor Murphy’s progressive-by-Democratic-establishment-standards initiatives, reducing the most powerful Governor’s office in the country to a shell of its former self.
It never happened. This is because when push comes to shove, the WFA and other progressive “leaders” would prefer to appear as if they are fighting for something, while retaining their relationships with the Democratic Party establishment and its political machines, even those aligned with an adversarial faction, than actually fight for something and possibly put those relationships at risk.
It also does not help that progressive “leaders” are much quicker to diminish, dismiss, and disparage progressive insurgent candidacies based on a questionable set of criteria for what constitutes a “viable” candidate, instead of being true to Bernie’s call for a political revolution, encouraging everyone to run for every elected office possible regardless of how little or much money someone can raise or how strong or weak their political organizing skills might be. This results in most rank-and-file progressives being scared away from even trying to run for office, because they do not see themselves as having the necessary qualities to be a candidate.
It also does not help when the progressive “leaders” who are the gatekeepers for determining who will get organization endorsements and positions on the progressive insurgent opposition line are more than willing to allow their personal feelings about a candidate to impact their decision-making. This is how Russ Cirincione was able to get the coveted spot on the progressive insurgent opposition line in CD6 instead of Amani al-Khatahtbeh.
Despite the fact that Amani’s massive social media footprint gives her far greater organizational upside than Russ as well as offering the progressive insurgent opposition line much needed diversity, she happened to rub a few key influencers the wrong way during the leadup to filing her petitions and in the end, that more than anything else led to Russ getting the spot on the line. Inexplicably, after Cirincione’s attorney, Jack Sanders, challenged Amani’s nominating petitions, targeting Rutgers University students who accidentally used their out-of-district home address on their petition instead of their in-district campus address where they are registered to vote, something that should have deeply offended all progressives and led to Russ being removed from the progressive insurgent opposition line, he still remains on the line and was merely pressured to have Sanders drop the challenge, which he did. It would have been hard enough for either Amani or Russ to have any chance to defeat the incumbent congressman, Frank Pallone, but having both in the race makes it all but impossible. Amani should have been the obvious choice between the two even before her petitions were challenged, but that embarrassing debacle should have put an end to his candidacy once and for all.
But the greatest obstacle to progressive change in New Jersey and everywhere else is the progressive community itself. For far too many progressives, politics is a hobby or a search to connect with like-minded people with whom they can share a bottle (or many bottles) of wine over good conversation. Very few progressive “activists” struggle to any serious degree or have any real skin in the game.
Most of the people in this state or throughout the country who truly struggle tend to vote with the Democratic Party establishment or they vote Republican or they do not vote at all. They are people with two, three, four or no jobs and do not have the time or capacity to think about politics critically or with any level of seriousness, so more often than not, they vote as a herd, following leaders, whether they be clergymen, so-called community organizers with no-show public sector jobs, elected officials, or party bosses, most if not all of whom are bought and paid for to varying degrees.
Unfortunately, those with the time and capacity for critical and serious thinking and action are generally not serious people. They might believe passionately in one or more of the issues of concern, but it is, more often than not, part of a search for attention, personal gratification, and relevance. It is also nearly impossible to get these people to work together in any kind of reasonably coherent, cohesive, and organized way.
Any time that you get more than 10 progressives into a room, an hour or more is wasted because everyone wants to tell their story or make it clear to everyone else in the room why they are the smartest person in the room and should be leading the group, leaving very little oxygen or time for action and organizing. When push comes to shove, progressives are talkers, they are not doers.
Conversely, the Democratic Party establishment and its political machines are not plagued by any of these problems or at the very least not to the degree that is present within the progressive community. Yes, it has its fair share of division and internecine warfare as local and regional factions grapple for power in a real-life Game of Thrones, but at no point does this ever sacrifice the larger power structure. Even when Republicans win as they did during the Christie years, that was more likely a product of strategic and tactical reorganization on the part of the Norcross regime than any breakdown of the system as a whole.
The occasional intraparty civil war aside, the larger hierarchy remains intact. By and large, everyone knows their role and does their job, because they understand the consequences if they don’t. Discipline is enforced and maintained. The progressive community has no discipline, much less organization. Everyone does what they want with the hope that it will eventually amount to something and it almost never does.
This is exactly why people like Sue Altman, Saily Avelenda, Analilia Mejia, Hetty Rosenstein, and others sell out to the degree that they do. In addition to knowing that the progressive community is a cult of personality that gravitates towards charismatic individuals that can do no wrong in the eyes of their followers even when they do things that are in actuality very wrong, they also know that there is nothing to be gained and everything to be lost from ideological purity. I am the poster child for that.
Just like every other cog in the political machine, they know their roles and they perform them masterfully, presenting themselves as progressive leaders, while continuing to work to maintain the status quo. They are thrown enough crumbs on their specific issues of concern in order to appear to be effective as progressive leaders, but they will never win big enough to actually make a difference, and they are OK with that. When you consider how much they are all paid to play their roles, who would complain?
Even someone like Staci Berger is only going to push the envelope to a point. She can and will continue to fiercely fight her battles in her hometown of Piscataway, but she also knows her limitations. She does incredibly important work in the housing realm and is never going to put that work at risk by threatening the larger power structure. However, those limitations will inevitably limit what others are able to do because, once again, the progressive community is a cult of personality and she has a strong enough personality to influence what others will and will not try to do in the name of progressivism.
The disorganization, ideological inconsistency, and malfeasance that plagues the progressive community will continue to perpetuate itself in the coming years. Even if by some miracle progressives are able to find someone to run for Governor against Phil Murphy or Sheila Oliver (if Joe Biden becomes President and gives Murphy a golden parachute to the World Bank or a high-profile ambassadorship) despite opposition from the likes of Mejia, Rosenstein, and others, there is no way in hell that they will provide that candidate the support that s/he will need in the form of 40 State Senate candidates, 80 State Assembly candidates, and county and local level candidates as well as county committee and state committee candidates in every county where these party offices are up for re-election.
The NJDSC’s decision to encourage county party organizations to put off county committee elections that were due to occur in 2020 into 2021 could have been a major boon to progressives as it provided them with an opportunity to organize a real political revolution that is not negatively impacted by a Presidential election and a Presidential candidate’s national campaign senior staff that is either ignorant of the needs of that candidate’s supporters here or actively working against them. Unfortunately, I do not see any imaginable way that the progressive community will be able to get its act together to recruit all of these candidates and get them on the ballot.
2022 and 2023 also represent what could and should be incredibly exciting opportunities for progressive organizing here in New Jersey that will inevitably be missed. There will be no statewide race during either of these cycles, driving voter turnout, which means that in 2022, individual congresspersons representing will be running for re-election in new districts to varying degrees and be required to drive the turnout on their own merits, and in 2023, State Senate candidates will be at the top of the ballot. Progressives should look at the next three years as their best and last chance to turn the tide against machine politics in the state.
2024 will be yet another Presidential election year and whether Joe Biden is running for re-election or not, the Presidential election is likely to cause more problems than it solves. If Biden is running for re-election, it is highly unlikely that he will be opposed by Bernie Sanders or any other Presidential candidate and even if Bernie did decide to challenge Biden, there is no guarantee that his national campaign’s senior staff is not going abandon and betray progressives here yet again.
If Biden does not defeat Trump in November and our constitutional republic is fortunate enough to survive four more years of Trumpism, I expect that the 2024 Democratic Party Presidential caucuses and primary elections will divide progressives far more than unite them and in the end, it is highly unlikely that any progressive Presidential candidate that emerges as the movement’s standard-bearer is going to understand the nuances of bracketing and the need to support a progressive insurgent opposition line here in New Jersey, assuming that one can actually be constructed.
This means that the clock is ticking on progressivism in New Jersey. As I wrote earlier, the political machines that rule this state were built over decades and they will take decades to dismantle. However, if the progressive community in New Jersey is unable to take some meaningful leaps forward over the next three years, it is unlikely that they ever will.
Bertin Lefkovic has been a longtime supporter of presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Howard Dean and was a Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention. He was a founding board member of Our Revolution New Jersey, and briefly ran for New Jersey Democratic State Chairman in 2019.