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Gov. Phil Murphy. (Photo: Office of the Governor).

South Jersey Dems fume over GOP inclusion in Murphy ethics reforms

Peters, Brown sponsorships ‘kind of a slap in the face,’ Mazzeo says

By Nikita Biryukov, February 24 2020 7:46 pm

South Jersey Democrats are incensed over Gov. Phil Murphy’s inclusion of two of their top legislative targets on a package of ethics reform bills unveiled last week.

Murphy tapped Assemblyman Ryan Peters (R-Lumberton) and State Sen. Chris Brown (R-Ventnor), who hold seats in the only two South Jersey districts with split representation, to sponsor the legislation, though administration official said a full list of backers has not been finalized.

“It was kind of a slap in the face from the governor’s office,” Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Northfield) said. “[They] didn’t ask us to comment on anything. It was just a pure lack of respect for us, and I’ve been at it for seven years. I certainly would expect that the governor would at least have emailed us or called us about comment if he’s putting a press release out. Hopefully we can do better in the future.”

Assemblyman John Armato (D-Buena Vista), Mazzeo’s running mate, was kinder in his rebuke.

“Obviously, it’s up to the governor. He wants to show bipartisanship, and I can’t speak to what his reasoning was, but I think it’s a better question for him,” Armato said when asked about the Republicans’ inclusion. “I hate to say, ‘It is what it is,’ but it is what it is. I think it would’ve been more appropriate if we had been notified, but in saying that, again, he is the governor.”

The governor’s office declined to comment, though an administration official said it was open to adding Democratic sponsors.

Mazzeo and Armato, who represent Brown’s district in the Assembly, said they were not informed about the bills in advance of their announcement last week.

Murphy made known his intention to pursue ethics reform in his State of the State address last month, though he only briefly described the proposals at the time.

“In the coming weeks, I will propose a series of ethics reforms to, among other things, strengthen financial disclosures, tighten pay-to-play requirements, expand transparency, and increase awareness to the goings-on here in Trenton,” he said last month.

South Jersey Democrats have fumed privately since the governor presented the bills last week, charging in expletive-riddled tirades that Murphy brought in the Republicans and former Gov. Dick Codey (D-Roseland), another longtime opponent of South Jersey’s Democratic establishment, to spite Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and his allies.

“These jokers know exactly what they’re doing,” a South Jersey Democratic operative told the New Jersey Globe on the condition of anonymity.

Sweeney himself declined to say how he felt about Peters’ and Brown’s inclusion on the bills.

Peters, who last year faced a re-election challenge buoyed by heavy spending from General Majority, a super PAC with close ties to South Jersey powerbroker George Norcross, disputed that as the grounds for his involvement.

“I don’t think that’s the reason, but I think it says a lot about the South Jersey Democratic cartel that, when you introduce reforms for ethics, that upsets them,” he said.

State Sen. Dawn Addiego (D-Evesham) did not immediately respond to a 3:49 p.m. call and voicemail message seeking comment.

Republicans’ involvement likely means the bills are dead on arrival.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) rarely moves measures bearing the names of split-district Republicans like Peters, though his office said he was still reviewing the ethics proposals Monday.

Sweeney’s treatment of Senate Republicans in districts where Democrats hold the Assembly seats has been less steady.

He has at times cajoled yes votes on bills controversial within his own caucus out of State Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Branchburg), though the split 16th district represented by Bateman is far from South Jersey.

There’s some hope among sponsors that bipartisanship could win out, even without support from Democratic leaders and their allies.

“I think making it bipartisan will make independent-minded Democrats, those who aren’t controlled by party bosses, look at it and say ‘yes, this makes sense for both sides,’” Peters said. “We’re looking for bipartisan solutions. This is one. Unless you’re controlled by a political boss, this makes sense.”

Sweeney has expressed a willingness to explore most of Murphy’s proposed reforms, though he remains staunchly opposed to a bill that would gut a widely used legislative exemption to the Open Public Records Act.

Versions of two of the reforms sought by the governor — a ban on shadow lobbying initially proposed by Sweeney and an overhaul of legislative financial disclosures the Senate president was already exploring — will likely pass if legislative leaders allow them to advance.

Separate measures lowering the lobbying registration threshold from 20 hours per year to one hour per year and updating legislative gift rules have yet to face specific opposition in either chamber.

Bills requiring Assembly and Senate staffers to seek approval from the State Ethics Commission before seeking outside work and killing a Trenton practice that sees bills amended shortly before or even during votes have more uncertain futures.

Democratic opposition to any of the bills may bear a political cost. The progressive groups that make up Murphy’s base are backing the reforms, and objections from Democrats in the legislature will almost certainly have their signals boosted.

“Instead of complaining, isn’t that where we’re supposed to be going?” Codey said, adding that it “would be shameful” if Democratic leaders let GOP involvement kill the reforms.

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