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A group of black preachers is pushing support for Gov. Phil Murphy's millionaire's tax.

Black ministers threaten to punish legislators who bail on millionaire’s tax

Pastors willing to rally votes against non-compliant lawmakers, some won’t preclude 2021 primary challenges

By Nikita Biryukov, June 07 2019 3:57 pm

A group of politically-active black ministers on Thursday arrayed to back Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposal for a tax of the state’s millionaires, promising to consequences on legislators who don’t end up backing the policy.

“We ask that the legislature cooperate with the governor, and if it doesn’t happen, then we’ll take it to the community,” said Rev. Maurice Jean, President of the New Jersey Association of Haitian Ministers.

It appears as though those efforts are still in their early stages.

Rev. Darrell Armstrong, who preaches from Trenton’s Shiloh Baptist Church where Friday’s press conference was held, demurred on whether or not he had spoken with the 15th district’s legislators, though he indicated that this year wouldn’t be a repeat of 2010, when the reverend didn’t attempt to sway State Sen. Shirley Turner’s vote on same-sex marriage.

Turner was among the first to back the policy in the legislature’s upper chamber, but Trenton’s two representatives in the State Assembly, Verlina Reynolds-Jackson and Anthony Verrelli, today announced that while they personally support a millionaire’s tax, they will back a budget that doesn’t include one.

In contrast to Armstrong, Rev. Levi Combs, of Camden’s First Refuge Baptist Progressive Church, said he had spoken with legislators from the fifth legislative district, but it doesn’t appear that those talks have seen much success so far.

“We have, as Pastor [Amir] Khan alluded to, have tried to reach out to our legislators, but we’re dealing with a system that they don’t have a voice themselves, an independent voice for themselves, so they speak on behalf of the persons that fund their campaign,” Combs said.

Combs comments are a reference to South Jersey Democratic powerbroker George Norcross, a close ally of Senate President Steve Sweeney and a political backer of most Democratic South Jersey legislators.

At the moment, Norcross and Murphy are embroiled in a feud over tax incentives meted out by the Economic Development Authority.

That feud extends into this year’s budget negotiations through Sweeney, who, along with Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, stands staunchly opposed to tax increases in this year’s budget.

Combs indicated he could wade into the political arena should that feud, or anything else, impede the passage of the millionaire’s tax.

“No, we haven’t ruled it out,” Combs said when asked if he had ruled out a challenge to State Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez. “But that’s a conversation that we can have at a later date.”

Combs has criticized Norcross’s control over politics in and around Camden.

In 2013, the reverend backed a referendum that would make Camden’s elections non-partisan, depriving Norcross-backed candidates in the ballot advantage granted by a county line.

Camden County Democratic Chairman Jim Beach, a state senator, falls squarely within the Norcross camp.

The political threats offered by some other preachers at Friday’s event were far more muted.

Pastor Robert Smith, of First Seventh Day Adventist Church in Teaneck, demurred on whether he would back challengers to Bergen legislators like Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg.

“No at this time, we have no — that’s all hypothetical,” Smith said when asked if he would recruit, fundraise for or campaign for a challenger to Weinberg.

Others in the legislative district, which Weinberg represents, have shown a bit more bite.

On Monday, Teaneck Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin and Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich declined to rule out challenging the longtime legislator in a primary.

There was a clear message behind the location chosen for Friday’s event. Decades ago, Rev. S. Howard Woodson served as the pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church.

Dissatisfied with the treatment of minority communities, Woodson became politically active. He was elected to the Assembly in 1963, a year before the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into office.

Woodson would later become the state’s first black Assembly Speaker and presided at a time when Democrats supported politically risky tax increases to fund public education in poor school districts.

None of those present Friday were ready to commit to following in Woodson’s footsteps, but it doesn’t look like they’ll be politically impotent in the ongoing budget fight.

Armstrong said the preachers would go to their congregations and their communities if needed, but they first planned to pull legislators over to their side with one-on-one chats.

Those haven’t worked for the governor so far, as nearly half of the Assembly support for the millionaire’s tax has bled off over the last week.

But, Murphy doesn’t preach from the pulpit on weekly basis.

“We have great congregations. We have a lot of people, and that’s votes,” Khan said.

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