The endorsement of Gov. Phil Murphy by the Lakewood Vaad has some Republican senators concerned that the relationship between the Democratic governor and the hugely influential coalition of religious leaders from the township’s Orthodox Jewish community could impact the race for Senate minority leader.
One of the leading candidates, State Sen. Robert Singer (R-Lakewood), is a staunch ally of the Vaad.
But Republicans are being careful to categorize the influence the Vaad holds over Singer as political, delicately sidestepping any insinuation that their objection is based on Singer’s religious ties to the Orthodox community.
Instead, some Republicans are making the case that the Vaad is more akin to a powerful county chair who might leverage their political power to get a legislator to vote a certain way.
“Bob is beholden to the Vaad, and the Vaad is beholden to the governor for state funding,” one GOP senator told the New Jersey Globe on the condition of anonymity. “Does that mean at the end of the day the (governor’s) chief of staff can pick up the phone and suddenly influence the Senate Republican leader? If it does, that’s a problem. That’s a big problem.”
Singer pushed back on any characterization that he’s controlled by the Vaad.
“The Vaad very rarely asks me to vote for something,” he said. “I’m not controlled by them. I’m influenced by them. We all have groups in our district that influence us.”
According to Singer, a bid by some Republicans to attack him is reminiscent of a 2013 fight to oust Tom Kean, Jr. as minority leader.
“Are these the same people who supported Senate President Steve Sweeney, Democrat, to pick the minority leader?” Singer asked. “Are you kidding me?”
Recognizing the value of an endorsement, Murphy has courted Lakewood religious leaders for the last few years, even facing criticism from his own party for singling out the fast-growing Ocean County community by offering $15 million in school funding at the same time he cut state dollars to other districts.
The reliance of some municipalities for state aid have allowed Murphy to forge political alliances he didn’t have before his first election.
Union City, where State Sen. Brian P. Stack is mayor, lost his seats on the Senate Judiciary and Budget and Appropriations Committees for a while after he sided with Murphy over Senate President Steve Sweeney.
So, it’s not a stretch, some senators say, to worry that Murphy can push Lakewood to move Singer.
“There was a bill where Bob stood up in caucus and spoke passionately against something … but an hour later, when the bill reached the (Senate) floor, he voted for it,” a second senator recalled. “When Bob was asked what happened, he simply said, ‘I got a call.’”
Three other senators confirmed that story, but Singer disputed that it occurred.
“It happens every session,” he said. “Changes are made (between caucus meetings and a vote) all the time.”
And some GOP senators frequently cite Singer’s support for Rachel Wainer Apter to serve as an associate justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court as an indication of their concern.
On the Sunday night before Murphy formally announced his intent to nominate Wainer Apter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s former law clerk, Singer became the first senator of either party to say he would vote to confirm her.
“Murphy picked a young, liberal Democrat who could serve 30 years on the Supreme Court and here’s Bob Singer first out of the box saying he’d vote to confirm her,” a third Republican senator stated. “That concerns me. He didn’t talk to any of us. He just instinctively said he’d support the governor’s person.”
Singer worries that Republicans suggesting that the Vaad controls him might be “crossing the line.”
“I resent when people make comments,” Singer said. “What are they going to say next, that I’m Jewish?”
The race for minority leader has been going on in earnest since February, when Kean announced that he would not seek a seventh term in the Senate to focus on a 2022 rematch with Rep. Tom Malinowski in New Jersey’s 7th district.
Still, the contest appears to have seen little movement in months.
A New Jersey Globe tally has Senate Republican Budget Officer Steve Oroho leading Singer by one vote, with Senate Minority Whip Joseph Pennacchio in third place, four votes behind. But those numbers don’t include potential new members of the Senate GOP caucus who are now battling to win their November 3 elections.
Singer disagreed with the tally.
Leadership races are notoriously difficult to count.
“People lie,” a former senator told the New Jersey Globe.
The Vaad isn’t the only challenge Singer is facing. Some Republicans are concerned that Singer’s ascension to a leadership position might bolster former Ocean County GOP Chairman George Gilmore’s chances of returning to his old post. Gilmore, once among the state’s most powerful GOP insiders, has some detractors across the state.
At home, the 73-year-old Singer has been in the legislature for 34 of the last 36 years.
With Lakewood as his political base – he spent 30 years as a township committeeman and was mayor for five years – he ousted Assemblywoman Marlene Lynch Ford (D-Point Pleasant) in the 1985 Kean landslide by 1,462 votes in a contest that left the Ocean County-based district split between both parties.
In those days, Lakewood was small enough to be in the same district as Toms River and Brick. And in the 1980s, the 10th legislative district was among the most politically competitive in the state.
The 10th elected a Democratic senator in 1973, John F. Russo (D-Toms River), who held the seat for 18 years and became the Senate President. In the five elections between 1979 and 1987, the 10th elected one Democrat and one Republican to the State Assembly.
He won a rematch with Lynch Ford in 1987 by 687 votes but lost his third race against the former assemblywoman by 3,567 votes in the 1989 Florio landslide.
Singer returned to the legislature in the 1991 Republican anti-Florio wave election, winning a newly-created Ocean-Burlington district.
Less than two years later, following the death of 77-year-old freshman State Sen. John Dimon (R-Bordentown), Singer moved up to the Senate. He survived a redistricting threat in 2011 when he was placed in the same district as another Republican senator, Sean Kean (R-Wall). Kean wound up running for the Assembly instead,
In the 30th district, which must be completely overhauled during the legislative redistricting process, Lakewood accounts for 40% of the total Republicans in the district. But the ability of the Vaad to generate a proportionally higher vote turnout makes Lakewood the dominant town if there were to be a contested GOP primary.