Fred Madden is the closest thing Trenton has to Joe Manchin or Krysten Sinema, but his low profile despite nearly two decades in the State Senate leaves New Jersey without a public face of the conservative wing of the state’s Democratic Party.
In January, Madden was the lone Democratic lawmaker to vote against the Freedom of Reproductive Choice Act, legislation that codified legal abortion in to state law in the event that the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.
Madden has been tougher to read on Second Amendment issues. He’s supported gun safety legislation in the past, including sponsorship of bill to prohibit armor piercing ammunition. But critics on the Democratic side worry that the former acting superintendent of the New Jersey State Police won’t be there on a tough anti-gun vote.
That could happen sooner rather than later if Gov. Phil Murphy gets his way. After the Uvalde school shooting last week, Murphy called for an up-or-down vote on all gun legislation, including measures that would “unravel” the state’s gun laws.
“Let’s put every gun bill up, so the people of New Jersey can see, in no uncertain terms, who supports commonsense gun safety and who wants New Jersey’s streets and communities to be flooded with guns,” Murphy said.
Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, called Murphy’s plan “bold, gutsy, confident, and very much the way executive power works.”
“Maybe it’s because of the lesser level of scrutiny and attention, but the Senate President and the Assembly Speaker are usually looking to shield their members from votes that may hurt them in their districts, and they’re certainly not looking to put more votes on the record than absolutely necessary,” Rasmussen said.
South Jersey Democrats have lost four key State Senate races since 2019, including the defeat of Senate President Steve Sweeney last year.
Legislative redistricting made the 4th district in Gloucester and Camden counties more friendly toward Republicans who are looking at waging a fight there next year, putting Madden on the GOP target list.
He was held to 54% of the vote against Republican Stephen Pakradooni, Jr. in 2021. While Murphy carried the old district by two percentage points, the new boundaries gave Republican Jack Ciattarelli a six-point win.
Madden was recruited by Democratic powerbroker George Norcross to run for the State Senate in 2003.
John Matheussen (R-Washington Township) had flipped the 4th legislative district Senate seat in the 1991 wave election after Democratic Gov. Jim Florio’s $2.8 billion tax increase helped Republicans pick up 10 seats in the Senate and 21 Assembly seats. Matheussen left the Senate in 2003 after Norcross helped arrange his appointment as executive director of the Delaware River Port Authority.
But Matheussen’s replacement was five-term Assemblyman George Geist (R-Gloucester Township), a former Camden County GOP chairman. Geist became Norcross’ top target in 2003. After an unsuccessful bid to lure Geist to the bench, Democrats spent over $4 million – more than doubling the record amount at the time – to beat Geist by just 63 votes out of 41,441 cast.
Arati Kreibich, a former Glen Rock councilwoman and Democratic congressional candidate who now serves as organizing director for New Jersey Working Families, questioned whether Madden is really a Republican.
“He’s been an obstructionist to a basic Democratic agenda. He’s our Henry Cuellar, our Joe Manchin,” Kreibich said. “If the world needed another example of why we need competitive primaries in New Jersey elections, look no further than South Jersey.“
Despite six terms in the Senate, Madden, who also serves as the Gloucester County Democratic chairman, is still not well-known beyond the confines of the statehouse or his own legislative district.
“I think the real reason why we all know about the power held by Manchin and Sinema is because they’ve put themselves out there in that role,” said Rasmussen. “It’s far more usual for a member who feels vulnerable on a vote to let his or her legislative leader decide when to call the vote and who gets the passes. It’s much more faceless than the high-stakes poker we are seeing with Manchin and Sinema.”
Still, Rasmussen note that “it’s certainly safer to lie low if you are a pro-gun or anti-choice Democratic state legislator in New Jersey.”
“This call for up or down votes by Governor Murphy is much more of a parliamentary maneuver, and in an age of polarization, you can see it playing to your supporters. And that would be enough in much of the state,” he said. “But there are still districts in which you need more than that, and so those are the legislators who are likely to find such a call uncomfortable.”
At 68, Madden is still younger than many of his Senate colleagues. But he had to be cajoled into running again last year and could be sort of secret lame duck now. That’s something that makes him less likely to vote with his party over the next eighteen months.
Standing next to Murphy at his press conference was Madden’s running mate, Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D-Washington), a veteran lawmaker who might like to move up to the Senate if Madden doesn’t seek re-election next year.