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Gov. Phil Murphy. Photo by Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe

Republicans silent on Murphy non-profit

Kean says he’s looking into it

By Nikita Biryukov, May 16 2018 4:58 pm

Top Republicans in the state have maintained a steely silence on disclosure for 501(c)(4) non-profit groups like the one backing Gov. Phil Murphy, dodging calls and obfuscating their stance on the issue for weeks.

New Direction New Jersey, a Murphy-aligned non-profit headed by former Murphy campaign manager and Essex County Freeholder Brendan Gill, announced on May 7 that it would disclose its donors at year’s end, a timeline that left some disappointed, but such disclosure is not required by law.

Republicans, presented with multiple opportunities to jab at the freshman governor over the disclosure policy have instead opted to remain silent, at times saying they were looking into the issue. On other occasions they did not return inquiries sent regarding the issue.

“We’re looking into it,” State Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Westfield) said on May 10. “There’s no silence. We’re looking at it. These things are just starting to emerge, and we’re trying to figure out some of the moving parts.”

Kean’s statement is the most detailed that top Republicans have given on the issue, but it isn’t quite accurate – these issues are not just starting to emerge.

In 2009, Republican leaders, including Kean and now-Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield), formed a 501(c)(4)group called the Center for a Better New Jersey to aid Republicans in the state’s 2011 redistricting.

Bramnick did not return calls and texts seeking comment sent on May 4 and May 7 despite having sponsored a bill that would mandate disclosure for certain non-profits, including 501c4 groups.

The Bramnick bill, which would also increase contribution limits to political parties while decreasing those to groups holding public contracts, is awaiting review by legislative counsel.

Former Gov. Chris Christie also saw backing from one of these groups. Reform Jersey Now was formed to push Christie’s legislative agenda. The group ran advertisements pressuring Democratic legislators to fall in line behind the then-governor’s policies.

According to media reports at the time, it raised more than $600,000, spending an undisclosed amount backing Christie’s agenda.

The Center for a Better New Jersey never disclosed any information about its donors, while the Christie group made a limited disclosure, which is still more than the law requires.

Democrats created their own such group, One New Jersey, in 2011. It’s worth noting that some Democrats, namely state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck), now senate majority leader, called from disclosure from all these groups.

Such calls have been absent for the Murphy group, but that may be a result of Gill’s preemptive announcement that the group would disclose its donors. The initial announcement came last November. Information on the timeline came months later in early May.

It’s not clear why Republicans are maintaining a radio silence. It may be a defensive move to avoid disclosure calls if they choose to use similar non-profits in future New Jersey elections or redistricting fights.

Alternatively, they could be looking to protect themselves from attacks over their own past use of such groups, said Matt Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall.

“People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” Hale said. “If Kean had one, it’s not for Kean to go after Murphy for having one.”

Another factor is that the issue itself is still largely out of the public’s eye – if they know little about Murphy, they’re unlikely to know much about the non-profit aligned with him. Attacks over it might yield little to a party that is just starting to jab the governor over policy, Hale said.

Fear could also be credited for the Republicans’ silence on the issue.

“I think there’s another possibility – that they respect Brendan Gill and his ability to hurt them, and maybe they’re a little gun-shy as a result of that,” Hale said.

But, amid the silence all of those potential reasons are ultimately speculative, Hale said. One thing’s for certain – Republicans won’t say anything for the moment.

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