I came to progressive organizing through Howard Dean’s Presidential campaign, so I am going to take a moment and try to channel my inner Howard Dean. Unfortunately, it is probably going to look and sound more like Dennis Kucinich and that is not a good thing.
What I want to know is why in the world are some Democrats supporting the re-election of a state party chair who used his “prerogative” to remove two members of our state’s delegation to the Democratic National Committee solely because they had the temerity to support Bernie Sanders instead of Hillary Clinton for President in 2016.
What I want to know is why in the world are some Democrats supporting the re-election of a state party chair who runs one of the least open county party organizations in the state.
What I want to know is why in the world are some Democrats supporting the re-election of a state party chair who tried and failed to use his power to become County Clerk, the chief elections officer and guardian of our democratic process, and after trying and failing to do that, tried and succeeded to use his power to get himself a $92K-per-year part-time job.
What I want to know is why in the world are some Democrats supporting the re-election of a state party chair who recruited someone to run for Passaic County Sheriff who was not only a former Republican, but as a deputy of the then-Republican Sheriff had been accused of beating up a Democratic campaign worker.
This is the Progressive Caucus. To quote the late, great Paul Wellstone and Howard Dean, WE ARE THE DEMOCRATIC WING OF THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY!!!
I understand that the word “progressive” can mean different things to different people and we may support different candidates for President and may have different priorities when it comes to policymaking. Some of us are economic justice progressives, some of us are ethnic and racial justice progressives, some of us are social justice progressives, and some of us are all of the above progressives.
But I would like to believe that regardless of how we might define our progressivism, we can all agree to a basic commitment and dedication to the democratic process and if we can agree to this, we can agree that the way that most of our state’s county DEMOCRATIC party organizations operate and the way that our state party operates are anything but DEMOCRATIC.
Who believes that the primary election ballot should be used as a taxpayer-funded advertisement for candidates that have been endorsed by our county party organizations?
Who believes that access to voter files should be limited solely to candidates that have been endorsed by our county party organizations?
Who believes that state party caucuses like the Progressive Caucus should be prohibited from endorsing candidates in primary elections?
This is what is most fascinating about this moment. The Progressive Caucus has been prohibited by the state party chair from endorsing the candidates in primary elections who its members believe are most progressive, but when that same state party chair desperately needs our support to survive and win re-election, suddenly it is OK for us to weigh in on intraparty battles.
Please don’t get me wrong. I do not support the Chairman’s opponent, backed by George Norcross and his South Jersey political machine, but the argument that far too many of his supporters are making – that he is worse – is simply fraudulent. They are both equally terrible in every way.
Both run county party organizations that not only refuse to allow their elected committeepersons to vote in open conventions to endorse candidates in primary elections, they also refuse to allow them to vote in open elections for county party chair.
The only difference between the Chairman and his opponent is that only the Chairman is claiming to be a progressive, which in my humble opinion makes him marginally worse, because that claim in and of itself is fraudulent.
There is nothing ideological about this battle between the Chairman and his opponent just as there is nothing ideological about this battle between the Governor and George Norcross. It is all about wielding power and in this situation, the power is the power to appoint people to the legislative redistricting commission who will draw a new legislative district map that will punish their enemies in the state legislature. This is not democratic and it sure as hell is not progressive.
This is why I take my inspiration to announce my candidacy for state party chair, not from Howard Dean or Bernie Sanders, but the late, great comedian, Richard Pryor and his classic film, Brewster’s Millions. No, I do not have 30 million dollars to squander in 30 days so that I can get 300 million dollars, but like the mayoral race that Pryor’s character enters in his film, in this battle for state party chair, I see two terrible choices that are screaming for a third option, which is NONE OF THE ABOVE.
I am not delusional. I know that I am just a committeeperson from one of the smallest of the far too many small towns in our state. I understand that this is an insider’s election and that most of the state committeepersons who are going to cast a vote are going to follow their county chair’s marching orders, but this is why it is so critical that progressives come together at this time to send a message to the Governor that his current choice is the wrong choice.
Supporters of the Chairman and the Governor have been making the argument that a Governor should be able to pick his own party leader, but the only reason that the Chairman was chosen for this position in the first place was because when then-State Senator Barbara Buono became our party’s nominee for Governor in 2013, her choice to lead the party, then-Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, was vetoed by George Norcross and several of the other political machine bosses in the state.
What some of us fail to remember is that it wasn’t that long ago that the Chairman and George Norcross were allies rather than adversaries. Back in 2000, when most of the party bosses in North Jersey and Central Jersey were supporting Jon Corzine against former Governor Jim Florio, who was backed by Norcross and the South Jersey political machine, the Chairman was with Florio and Norcross.
It was only when the Chairman chose to back the Governor instead of the Senate President for Governor in 2017 that their alliance came to an end, and as we saw recently when the Senate President tried to change how the members of the legislative redistricting commission are chosen, this battle is all about both sides being afraid of what one will do to the other’s allies when the state’s legislative district map is redrawn.
This battle is not ideological. Nobody on either side truly cares about legalizing marijuana or a millionaire’s tax. And nobody on either side is remotely interested in doing anything truly progressive like passing New Jersey Family Care for All or raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour right now instead of waiting until 2024 or making higher education tuition free for everybody just like primary education and secondary education.
But that doesn’t mean that progressives cannot have better choices than the ones that we have been given thus far by the Governor and George Norcross. In fact, there is no doubt in my mind that if the Governor cannot obtain enough votes to re-elect the Chairman, he will find another candidate who can change the calculus in advance of the vote.
It has been reported that if the state committee members adhere to their county chairs’ endorsements, the Chairman’s opponent has 55 of the 49.5 votes that he would need to win the election. However, there are at least two state committeepersons representing counties whose chair endorsed the Chairman’s opponent that have publicly stated that they support the Chairman’s re-election. One can only imagine the amount of patronage being offered to state committeepersons on both sides of this battle to buck their county chair and risk being removed from their seats when they are up for re-election along with the Governor in 2021.
This is why I have decided to announce my candidacy for state party chair and ask for the endorsement of the Progressive Caucus. If there are any independent-minded members of the state committee who agree with me that both the Chairman and his opponent do not share our values and provide the kind of progressive leadership that our state party desperately needs, I want to give them the chance to cast a vote for NONE OF THE ABOVE or at the very least tell the nose counters that this is where they stand.
If there are enough votes for NONE OF THE ABOVE, there won’t be enough votes to re-elect the Chairman, he will have no choice but to step aside, and the Governor will be able to pick someone else who can change the calculus. If given this chance, there are numerous people who the Governor could choose who could excite progressives.
Some of my preferred outside-the-box choices would be New Jersey for Bernie Sanders 2020 Chair and Vice Chair, Larry Hamm and Patricia Campos Medina, recent Bernie Sanders for President endorser and Perth Amboy Mayor Wilda Diaz, and my fellow Our Revolution New Jersey board member, Staci Berger, all of whom have been visible and vocal advocates for a wide range of progressive issues, fierce champions of democracy and the democratic process, and committed and dedicated fighters against the party establishment and how they do business.
There are also at least two state committeepersons, Franceline Ehret and Sharon Ransavage, who are Bernie Sanders supporters and who would make very exciting state party leaders. Even if the Governor is looking for an inside-the-box alternative, there are a few county chairs who do the unthinkable and actually run their county party organizations democratically.
First and foremost among these is Mercer County Chairwoman Janice Mironov. Historically, the most large-D Democratic counties tend to be the least small-d democratic. Mercer County is a rare gem among county party organizations that has seen their county transition over the last two decades from a red county to a purple county to a blue county without abandoning their small-d democratic principles.
Far too many county party organizations like Somerset County have become less democratic as they have become more Democratic as evidenced by the state Vice-Chairwoman’s decision to cancel her county party organization’s endorsement convention in 2018 and have their executive committee endorse Tom Malinowski out of fear that the party’s 2016 nominee for Congress in the 7th District, Peter Jacob, might have won the endorsement fair and square. This is just one of many reasons why she should not be considered as an alternative candidate for state party chair.
If the Governor is looking for an alternative candidate to the Chairman and does not choose Janice, it is my opinion that he should look to our state’s reddest counties for leadership, because that is often where so many of our state’s most progressive rank-and-file Democrats tend to live and that is where our state party organization needs to focus most of its party-building attention.
The 50-state strategy worked for our national party. A 21-county strategy is what our party truly needs to not just have a Democratic majority in the state legislature, but also a Democratic majority that can be led by an Assembly Speaker and a Senate President who want to govern the way that Democrats should govern.
Morris County Chairman Chip Robinson was a fellow supporter of Howard Dean and has used Governor Dean’s principles to help grow the Democratic Party in one of the most crimson red counties in the state, enabling it to become definitively more purple in recent years.
Diversity is also an important quality and our state party has not had a woman of color as its leader since then-Assemblywoman and now-Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman. Hunterdon County Chairwoman Arlene Quinones-Perez has been able to rise to a position of leadership in her county party organization in one of the most conservative and whitest counties in the state.
I know that it might be counter-intuitive to make an argument for my state party candidacy about electing other people to this position, but like Bernie Sanders says, “Not Me. Us.” As much as I want the endorsement of the Progressive Caucus and the votes of the members of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, what I want more than anything is a Democratic Party that operates democratically at every level and has leaders who are willing to stand up for the same progressive values that we all do.
Neither the Chairman nor his opponent operate their party organizations democratically and neither of them stand up for any of the same progressive values that we all do, so if the only way to open the door for people who do operate their party organizations democratically and do stand up for the same progressive values that we do is to run a Brewster’s Millions NONE OF THE ABOVE campaign for state party chair, then that is what I am prepared to do.
I hope that you will give me your endorsement so that together we can send a message to the Governor that if he truly wants to be the progressive Governor that he claims to be, he needs to pick a true progressive to be his candidate for state party chair.
Otherwise, it is possible if not likely that not only will the Chairman lose to his opponent, it becomes increasingly possible if not likely that the Governor will lose his re-election campaign in 2021 either to Donald Norcross or whomever George Norcross decides to run against him in the primary election or to whatever Republican nominee George Norcross and his allies secretly decide to help in the same way that they helped Chris Christie against Corzine in 2009 and Buono in 2013.
The choice is yours, Progressive Caucus, and the choice is the Governor’s. I hope that you all make it wisely. Thank you for your support.
Bertin Lefkovic is a Democratic committeeperson from Jamesburg who started in New Jersey politics working on congressional and senatorial primary and general election campaigns during the 2000 cycle, first for CD7 congressional candidate, J. Brooke Hern, then former Governor Jim Florio in his Senate race against former Governor and Senator Jon Corzine, and finally Congressman Bill Pascrell Jr.’s re-election campaign.
He began organizing progressives in 2003 as part of former Governor and DNC Chairman Howard Dean’s Presidential campaign, founding Democracy for America-New Jersey and the NJDSC’s Progressive Caucus with other former Dean supporters. Through his progressive organizing, he has been a fierce opponent of the Democratic establishment and the anti-democratic behavior of many of its county and local party organizations, advocating for the abolition of the party line ballot in primary elections, arguing that it serves as a taxpayer-funded advertisement for organization-banked candidates and severely disadvantages opposition candidates.
He has been a longtime supporter of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, was an early supporter of his 2016 Presidential campaign, and was a Bernie Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention. As a founding board member of Our Revolution New Jersey, he continues to support the Senator’s Presidential campaign.