Few things are more emblematic of New Jersey politics than the county organization line. In almost every county in the state, both parties gather before the primary to decide on their preferred candidate, and with the help of favorably designed ballots, those candidates almost always win.
But one of the longest-serving legislators in the state, State Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Lawrence), said today that she supports ending the county line system and bringing more truly competitive primaries to New Jersey.
“People now are more open to competitiveness in politics, and not just having a party decide who the candidate’s going to be,” Turner said. “Let the people decide.”
Turner is perhaps the highest-ranking New Jersey official to come out against the line; most other state politicians either explicitly support the line or treat it as a subject they’d rather not touch. Every legislator and congressperson in the state, after all, depends on party support to make their re-election campaigns run smoothly.
The constitutionality of the line is currently under review in a federal court case, though it’s not known how soon that case might be resolved. Turner said that she would support the court ruling against the line – again, an unusual position for a sitting politician to take.
Turner’s career in state and county politics spans more than 40 years; she joined the Mercer County Board of Freeholders in 1983, won an Assembly seat in 1993, and beat an incumbent Republican senator in 1997. In all that time, she’s always run with the support of the Mercer Democratic organization.
Now 81 years old, Turner is running for another term this year. While she does not yet have any notable opponents, one of her top allies, Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, faces a tough primary challenge from Assemblyman Dan Benson (D-Hamilton).
Turner and several other legislators are backing Hughes, but Benson has his own formidable list of endorsers, and the battle for the county line is highly competitive. Asked whether she would stick with Hughes even if he didn’t win the county convention, Turner demurred, saying it’s too early to know what might happen.
“That’s a hypothetical, because right now, we’re looking to go to the convention and win the party line – and if not the party line, at least the 40% that’s necessary to get in the column,” Turner said, referring to a county party policy that allows any candidate with more than 40% convention support to be listed on the primary ballot in the Mercer Democratic column, even if they don’t win the county line itself.
But beyond the upcoming convention fight, Turner’s broader hope is that the party line system comes to an end.
“Then it’s a level playing field,” she said. “Everybody starts at the same place – let the voters determine who the winner’s going to be. That’s the American way.”