A bill to prohibit county constitutional officers from also serving as county party chairs – a distinction that, at least right now, falls exclusively to Monmouth County Sheriff and GOP chairman Shaun Golden – passed two legislative committees today on party-line votes.
The bill was spearheaded by State Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Long Branch) and Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Jersey City); not coincidentally, Gopal is the lone Democratic legislator from Monmouth County, and Golden is his political nemesis. But Gopal said that regardless of the bill’s effects on current officeholders, it will be a good policy long-term.
“It could affect a lot more people in the future, and it would have affected more in the past,” Gopal said. “This is not about any one person… It’s 2023. Clerks run elections. County surrogates are quasi-judges. When you go into the judiciary to hear a matter, it is all sheriff’s officers, all over there; when you hear an election matter, it’s sheriff’s officers there. They should not be political bosses.”
Golden himself showed up to testify today, however, and said that the bill was very much an attempt to hobble him politically.
“This bill is a retaliatory attempt by Senator Gopal to punish me directly,” Golden said in the Assembly Judiciary Committee. “This is my freedom of association under attack. This is my freedom of speech.”
The positions explicitly targeted by the bill are county sheriffs, clerks, and surrogates, though as elected judges, surrogates are already prohibited by court rules from serving as county chairs. Left unaffected are county executives and registers of wills and deeds, two positions that each only exist in a select few counties.
Also unaffected are those who serve both as constitutional officers and state party committee members, of which there are currently three: Essex County Clerk Christopher Durkin, Hunterdon County Clerk Mary Melfi, and Union County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi. Asked whether he’d consider regulating state committeemembers as well, Gopal said it wasn’t something he had thought of.
“It didn’t come up,” he said. “This is purely about political bosses.”
Republicans, in the minority in both chambers, have little ability to stop the bill on their own, but they’re still not going down without a fight. In both the Senate and Assembly Judiciary Committees today, Republican legislators vociferously protested the bill and said it represented a power grab by legislative Democrats – specifically by Gopal, who is facing a competitive battle for re-election.
“The only conclusion we can draw is that this is intended to influence a certain political result in November,” said Assemblywoman Vicky Flynn (R-Holmdel), a Monmouth County Republican and close ally of Golden. “I think using our authority to do so is inherently and patently wrong.”
Not all Republicans are united in opposition to the bill, however. Gopal said that State Sen. Ed Durr (R-Logan) is a supporter of the legislation, and a number of Republicans affiliated with the party’s right wing testified in support today, alleging that Golden has not always acted ethically.
“I spoke to hundreds of county committeepeople in my election, and they said, ‘I just do what the chairman [says],’” said Mike Crispi, who ran for Congress off-the-line last year in a district that included parts of Monmouth County. “This only happens when the weight of law enforcement is pushed on people who are good and don’t want to fight.”
This isn’t the first time that such a policy has been proposed. Back in 2017, then-Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) considered using legislation to stop Passaic Democratic chairman John Currie from running for county clerk, but the matter was dropped when Currie decided not to run after all.
With both a Senate and an Assembly session scheduled next week, the bill could in theory become law within just a few weeks, forcing Golden to choose between his county chairmanship and the sheriff’s office – or challenge the bill in court, something he sounds likely to do.
Golden argued today that the bill had a number of constitutional issues, saying that it would target his (and only his) First Amendment rights. One suggestion he made to fix it? Ban all elected officeholders, of any kind, from serving as party chairs.
“This bill should cover everyone with undue influence, not just the constitutional officers,” he said. “Senators, Assembly, county commissioners, and elected mayors – they should all be included in an amendment to this bill. Then it wouldn’t target one single person out of the hundreds of elected officials across the state of New Jersey.”