Home>Highlight>Stomping Grounds: Unopposed candidates; Secretary of Agriculture; Electing judges; and Senator Rice

Stomping Grounds: Unopposed candidates; Secretary of Agriculture; Electing judges; and Senator Rice

By David Wildstein, March 17 2023 9:07 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: A team of four women non-partisan candidates in South Orange are running unopposed, but they’re still mounting a full-fledged campaign to discuss local issues with voters.  Why don’t more candidates in safe seats want to do the same thing?  Is that good for democracy?

Alex Wilkes: I’ll certainly give them this: they are a breath of fresh air compared to the Democrats who normally take voters for granted under one-party rule. I do think this is why Republicans have been successful in chipping away at and flipping Democratic majorities in key municipalities and counties for the past few cycles. Democrats have gotten soft.

Going forward, I believe redistricting offers us both opportunities and challenges in giving New Jersey voters the competitive races they deserve. On the legislative side, we have districts that were fairly drawn with bipartisan cooperation, whereas the congressional lines were decided haphazardly by Justice Wallace under the malicious partisan watch of Sam Wang and the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. I think you will find that at the end of this cycle, the legislative results will more accurately reflect the state’s true purple colors.

Dan Bryan: Mayor (Village President?) Collum is a true public servant. She cares deeply about her community, and she has proven that a progressive can also be a fiscal conservative. She cares just as much about taxes and quality of life as she does about equity, inclusion, and justice. I’m not surprised to see her run unopposed, and also not surprised to see her work just as hard all the same.

There are some other New Jersey politicians that work hard no matter the opposition (many of whom reside in Hudson County), but more often than not, they tend to be Mayors. As Alex suggests, the 2023 legislative midterms are the first elections in newly drawn districts, so we’ll undoubtedly see more intense campaigning than a typical sleepy midterm election.

Question: This is a very Jersey thing: the Secretary of Agriculture, a member of the governor’s cabinet, is appointed by the State Board of Agriculture, made of farmers elected by at the state agricultural convention, because of a deal cut more than 75 years ago to get South Jersey votes to ratify the New Jersey Constitution.  At what point should Governor Murphy renegotiate a deal made by Governor Driscoll in 1947?

Dan: The Secretary of Agriculture sounds like a fairly obscure position in New Jersey, but it carries a lot of weight. The Secretary is charged with overseeing school lunch programs, providing resources to food banks, preserving farmland, and promoting the farming and fishing industries in New Jersey.

We should not have a Secretary that isn’t carrying out the vision of the Governor, regardless of the ruling party. So yes, this should be fixed, but I’m not sure how high I’d place it on the priority list.

Alex: Our constitution already makes New Jersey’s governor the most powerful chief executive in the country. After living through Phil Murphy’s pandemic lockdown nightmare, count me among those not really in the mood to give him (or future leaders) any more power. Long live the State Agricultural Convention!

Question: I’ve been watching the April election for a swing seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where voters must choose between a conservative and a liberal.  Spending has already topped $15 million.  Did New Jersey get it right by having judges nominated by the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate?  Do you think senatorial courtesy might be better than special interests spending millions to elect judges?  And as long we’re talking about this, can you imagine what primary and general elections for judges would look like? 

Alex: I am partial to the way New Jersey is modeled after the federal system with respect to judicial appointments. To ensure that our judiciary remains impartial, our elected representatives in the Executive and Legislative branches work collaboratively to appoint and confirm these nonpartisan figures.

Is it a perfect system? Of course not, but in our overly partisan world, I appreciate the layer of separation. I think in keeping the process away from the rancor of campaigns it allows members of the bar to work more cooperatively with one another and keeps the judiciary immune from political pressures.

Dan: This question reminds me of the old Churchill line: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others.” I’m not sure we have the perfect system for appointing judges, and the current judicial vacancy crisis speaks to that. But I’m also not sure that electing judges does anything but further politicize the judicial branch.

With over 560 municipalities and over 600 school districts, we have enough elections here in New Jersey. Let’s continue appointing judges, and keep the judicial branch as apolitical as possible.

Question: Former Senator Ronald Rice died this week after a long illness.  He wasn’t the most popular guy in Trenton, but he spent almost 36 years in the Senate without compromising his core beliefs and values.  Is that something more elected officials ought to do?

Dan: Senator Rice never forgot where he came from, and whom he represented. He was a fierce advocate, and he wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone. Though I live in his district, I only had the chance to meet him briefly a few times (they don’t let us comms staffers out of the office much…). May he rest in peace, and may we always remember the energy and passion he brought to his decades of public service.

Alex: ​​I think former Senator Rice was a real maverick and, unfortunately, a rarity in our current political climate. There are many politicians on both sides of the aisle and all levels of government who try to fake that independence with stunts and token shows of opposition, but history will remember the figures like Senator Rice, who truly wasn’t afraid to stand up for what was right. May God bless his memory.

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