A move to deny party support to an incumbent legislator seeking re-election in Hudson County could have consequences for party leaders across the state who face a legal challenge to the constitutionality of organization lines.
A coalition of progressive groups and former candidates who lost off the line primaries are asking a federal judge to end a practice that gives preferential ballot positions to those endorsed by county political parties.
That could mean that a bid to dump Assembly Majority Whip Nicholas Chiaravalloti (D-Bayonne) because he’s fallen out of favor with Bayonne Mayor Jimmy Davis could have statewide implications if plaintiffs wind up citing the action in their lawsuit.
Sue Altman, the state director of New Jersey Working Families, said the attempt to drop Chiaravalloti from the ticket is another example of the injustice of organization lines.
“The situation in Hudson County underscores the capricious nature of how the line is awarded,” Altman said. “Make enemies with the wrong guy and he just changes his mood.”
Altman said that Chiaravalloti, a three-term incumbent who is in his second year in a top Assembly leadership role, “likely has no chance to win off the line.”
“That encapsulates what’s wrong with the corrupt line,” stated Altman. “It’s a weird, toxic slurry of deference, tradition and ego.”
Hudson County traditionally allows the mayor of Bayonne to fill one of the 31st district Assembly seat and Davis, for reasons he has not yet shared, is exercising his authority to drop Chiaravalloti, who had been his pick.
Ultimately – and according to Hudson County Democratic bylaws – the final decision to award the line to candidates in the 31st district rests with Amy DeGise, the Democratic county chair.
One Democratic county leader, who asked not to be identified, said that his fellow party bosses ought to be a lot more frightened of the lawsuit than they are – and said that Chiaravalloti could easily become the poster child of the progressive plaintiffs.
“I’d like to see Amy DeGise in the room when LeRoy (Jones) and Kevin (McCabe) and Senator (Nicholas) Scutari ask her to explain exactly how Hudson County decided to completely fuck over the entire State of New Jersey,” the party leader said. “And please, let me be in the room when she explains it to George (Norcross.)”
Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said that Hudson has it’s own way of doing things.
“The byzantine ways of Hudson County intraparty politics and the absolute sovereignty of mayors in their own land are tough for outsiders to understand and even tougher to justify,” Rasmussen said. “Except to say that if you live and breathe by the system and rise to power under the system, then you die by the system too.
Chiaravalloti got the Assembly seat in the first place after Davis beat an incumbent mayor and submitted his own pick to the Hudson Democratic organization.
Two legislators might get unloaded by their party this year – Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso (R-Holmdel) has also lost the backing of her county chairman – but the Hudson County legislative leader is the one in the spotlight because just one Democrat, Davis, wants him out.
“It’s a pretty egregious example of why our system is broken,” said Julia Sass Rubin, an associate professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, who has conducted an analysis of the statistical advantages of organization lines in primary elections. “But it’s not uniquely egregious.”
Rubin said that other districts where party insiders have made decisions about endorsements before voters get to decide could also come up in a lawsuit. She cited the 16th and 37th districts as examples.
“It’s just the reality of how New Jersey works,” Rubin said.
“Regardless of one’s views on the specific actors here, this is just the latest example of how backroom deals by party insiders attempt to force their will onto the voters,” said Yael Bromberg, one of the attorneys in the lawsuit. “This week it is Hudson County, last week it was Bergen. Unfortunately our unique and undemocratic primary election ballot system in New Jersey plays right into this corrupt system by providing ballot advantages that give these preferred candidates a head start — all to the detriment of voters.”
Problems with the line don’t just apply to incumbents, Bromberg noted.
“Even incumbents are victims to this process, which begs the question, who are candidates really accountable to under the current primary ballot design system,” she said.
In 1998, Assembly Minority Leader Joseph Doria became concerned that Bayonne Mayor Leonard Kiczek wanted to deny him re-election support the following year. Doria preserved his Assembly seat by running for mayor and beating Kiczek.
The lawsuit, filed in January, claims that New Jersey’s bracketing and ballot placement system violate equal protection rights in the U.S. Constitution.Lawsuit lines