Home>Highlight>Stomping Grounds: Rabner’s warning shot, banning books in Glen Ridge, East Hanover’s party switches, and Biden’s big speech

Stomping Grounds: Rabner’s warning shot, banning books in Glen Ridge, East Hanover’s party switches, and Biden’s big speech

By David Wildstein, February 10 2023 10:51 am

New Jerseyans aren’t always civil, but it’s still possible for a liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican to have a rational and pleasant conversation about politics in the state.  Dan Bryan is a former senior advisor to Gov. Phil Murphy and is now the owner of his own public affairs firm, and Alex Wilkes is an attorney and former executive director of America Rising PAC who advises Republican candidates in New Jersey and across the nation.  Dan and Alex are both experienced strategists who are currently in the room where high-level decisions are made.  They will get together weekly with New Jersey Globe editor David Wildstein to discuss politics and issues.

Question: Chief Justice Stuart Rabner fired a warning shot at Governor Murphy and the State Senate by announcing the cancellation of civil and matrimonial trials in six counties until a considerable number of judicial vacancies are filled.  I have two questions: who is responsible for the significant vacancy rate? And was the Chief Justice’s move an appropriate use of his power?

Dan Bryan: The Chief Justice has to do what is best for the judiciary. If there are significant vacancies, then judicial resources have to be prioritized. Chief Justice Rabner is enormously respected and I am fully confident that he would only take a step like this if he had no other choice.

Governor Murphy and the Senate have made enormous progress over the last two years in filling judicial vacancies. In 2021 alone, 32 new Superior Court judges were confirmed, and in 2022 alone, 45 new Superior Court judges were confirmed. The last two years have been enormously successful by any historical standard.

Now, in both 2021 and 2022, there was an unusually high number of voluntary retirements, which like a number of other professions, is probably related to burnout and the stress of the pandemic. That has kept the number of vacancies high. But there’s no reason to think that the accelerating pace of judicial confirmations will slow down this year, thanks to the strong working relationship between Governor Murphy and the Senate.

Alex Wilkes: This isn’t a chicken or egg proposition: it is Governor Murphy’s constitutional responsibility to nominate candidates to fill judicial vacancies, and he has failed to do so.

The legal community has been very clear with Governor Murphy that the judicial backlog is creating unacceptable and damaging delays. This hurts all New Jerseyans. Imagine the pain of domestic violence victims trapped in abusive marriages or children left without answers in custody cases. It’s a disgrace.

As the chief administrator of the courts, Chief Justice Rabner is well within his authority to cancel these trials, and, frankly, he has no choice. Sadly, Phil Murphy has left him – and all of us – with very little recourse.

Question: I saw a photo of a packed house in Glen Ridge, where hundreds of people in a small town came out to oppose a group of residents who wanted the public library to remove children’s books related to LGBTQ+ issues.  Is this something New Jersey will see more of in the future?

Alex: First, I wouldn’t quite compare the truly organic movement we have seen from parents around this state against overreaches like Phil Murphy’s radical new school curriculum to a gathering actively organized by groups like the ACLU.

Second, I think there is a clear difference between what is offered to the general public in a town library versus what is made available to children through school libraries and curricula. The vast majority of parents who are dialed into this issue are angry about the latter – not the former. Parents know the difference and will not be fooled by specious attempts to conflate anti-book banning campaigns with support for age-inappropriate materials being put in front of their children in taxpayer-funded schools.

Dan: Unfortunately I don’t think we’re done seeing the culture wars against LGBT and Trans communities being fought in New Jersey. In the age of Fox News, we’re going from “all politics is local” to “all politics is national,” and misguided Boards of Education throughout the country are now following the example set by people like Governor DeSantis and the failed and disgraced former President Trump.

But unlike other states, I’m heartened to see communities stand up to these acts of bigotry and refuse to let their communities be set back decades. New Jersey is an accepting and diverse state, but it’s also a state full of people who don’t tolerate bullshit. I don’t see towns like Glen Ridge backing down any time soon.

Question: The entire governing body in East Hanover – the mayor and four township council members – switched parties this week.  As political communications professionals, what’s the messaging from your party to the voters in that community?

Dan: Switching parties in the middle of a term is a deceitful act, no matter if it’s done by a Democrat or Republican. If I were a Democrat in East Hanover, I’d ask a simple question: why? Do you stand for the same things as a Republican that you did as a Democrat? If not, are your beliefs a result of your personal convictions or a result of the letter R or D in parenthesis after your name? Voters don’t like flip-floppers, and they don’t like political games. Democrats have a winning hand to play.

Alex: I think it’s important to remember that our elected officials are ultimately accountable to the people they serve and not to political parties. In East Hanover, the explanation that the Mayor and his fellow council members offered was simple: the radical Phil Murphy and New Jersey Democratic agenda was no longer working for their constituents. Who can blame them? I would imagine it would be very hard to look your voters in the eye and confidently tell them that the Democrats in this state have made their life better when all signs point to families and businesses fleeing for the exits.

At the end of the day, elections are our check on everyone – regardless of party – so voters will get their say on this matter and will not be deprived of the representation they are due in the meantime.

Question: Joe Biden sounded like a candidate for re-election in his State of the Union Address this week.  Again, two questions from me: how do you rate his performance?  And should Members of Congress heckle the President of the United States, regardless of their political party?

Dan: The President nailed this State of the Union. Some in the press are calling it the best speech he’s given as President, and I agree. There were times in his first two years in office when President Biden looked, and acted, old, but there is no doubt that the midterm election results have rejuvenated him. After his speech, he spent a full half hour working the chamber, taking selfies with back bench House members and Facetiming their families.

And as a Democrat, I’m happy to see the Republican party defined by the unhinged screaming of their most radical members. We’re clearly not seeing the office of the President being treated with the same deference and respect that we’re used to thanks to President Trump, who dealt the reputation and integrity of the American Presidency a severe blow. He busted out the Oval Office the way Tony Soprano busted out Ramsey Outdoor. Republicans saw the way he was treated by Democrats in response (and rightly so) and now all decorum towards any Democratic President is out the window.

And…I’m not so sure that loss of deference is a bad thing. Historian Rick Perlstein noted that this year’s State of the Union had a “wonderful, rollicking 19th century political energy to it.” President Biden was up to the task, negotiating the survival of Social Security and Medicare in real time, and looking very much like an adult in a room full of misbehaving adolescents. This is the Joe Biden that America wanted to see when they elected him.

Alex: I thought that the President’s speech hit the wrong notes in terms of substance and his delivery was unremarkable. When you spend more time talking about hidden resort fees than you do addressing a humanitarian crisis at the border or Chinese spy balloons circling the country, you are signaling to voters that your priorities are completely misplaced (and yes, I know that that was the populist candy for the night, but it was also buried in the middle of a very long speech!).

In terms of his delivery, it was objectively terrible as the President slurred and blew through his remarks on the teleprompter, but it was a passable performance for Joe Biden. This may not come across in a written piece, but I truly offer that comment with sadness – not snark. I’m an American, and I root for the President when the stakes are high, and the world is watching.

I have long thought that the State of the Union was becoming too theatrical for my taste, but it is what is to be expected in an era that prizes viral moments over any kind of substance or form. Just look at the committee hearings on Capitol Hill. Democrats have also had their fair share of recent State of the Union antics, ranging from Nancy Pelosi ripping up the speech to some very oppressed Congresswomen wearing all white to protest some grievance I’ve already forgotten.

I think vocalizing opposition to some of the President’s outrageous claims about fentanyl and cuts to Social Security and Medicare is fine within reason. I do think we should model our conduct more on the side of my personal favorite State of the Union dissenter – New Jersey’s own U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito – who dared to mouth “not true” to the most powerful man in the world in the People’s House one January night.

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