Home>Highlight>Stomping Grounds: Waterfront Commission exit, the Abortion pill, N.J. Labor Wars, and Judicial shortages

Stomping Grounds: Waterfront Commission exit, the Abortion pill, N.J. Labor Wars, and Judicial shortages

By David Wildstein, April 21 2023 10:02 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.

New Jersey Globe: The U.S. Supreme Court ended a dispute between New Jersey and New York this week with a unanimous ruling that says New Jersey can exit the Waterfront Commission after 70 years.  Governor Murphy led the fight to get this done, and Justice Kavanaugh wrote the Supreme Court’s decision.  It doesn’t get any more bi-partisan than that, but why should New Jerseyans care about this?

Dan Bryan: I’m not sure they should, or will. This is a fairly wonky issue, and not one that I’ve ever heard a real voter bring up in conversation.

The Waterfront Commission is an outdated bureaucracy, and the Supreme Court was right to side with New Jersey’s right to withdraw. The ever-capable New Jersey State Police will now take over their territory, and I’m sure that they, led by Colonel Pat Callahan, will do New Jersey proud.

Importantly, it also shows that New Jersey is finally holding its own against our neighbor to the north. For too long, New York has been a dominant partner, but Governor Murphy has finally pulled equal, showing the ability to work with New York and to take them on when necessary. It’s something that will benefit all New Jerseyans on issues like congestion pricing, the Port Authority, Gateway, and much more.

Alex Wilkes: So much for the claims that confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh signaled the end of times (though we still mourn the collective loss of brain cells that occurred during Cory Booker’s “Spartacus” speech).

The important point is that both Republicans and Democrats here in New Jersey had felt that the Commission had run its course over the years, and the Supreme Court agreed applying basic contract law.

I think that upcoming interstate battles, such as New York City’s proposed congestion pricing, will be more significant to both New Jersey and Phil Murphy’s future. Why is it that Phil Murphy can’t come to an agreement with his fellow progressive Governor Kathy Hochul for the good of his state? Republicans and Democrats in Congress on both sides of the Hudson can only push back so far. This is where New Jersey needs a decisive executive with the courage to tell a bunch of woke New York City councilmembers to go scratch.

NJ Globe: The U.S. Supreme Court is also weighing whether an appellate court ruling establishing extensive restrictions on an abortion pill, mifepristone, should be blocked pending further appeals.  We watched the Dobbs decision affect elections in New Jersey last year – can we expect the issue to spur voter turnout in this year’s legislative races?

Alex: Dobbs (properly, in my opinion) sent the issue of abortion back to the states, and for that reason, we will overwhelmingly see these debates continue at the state level. There will, however, still be some questions for federal courts (e.g. Medicaid funding, procedures on military bases, etc.). The mifepristone matter falls into this category because it implicates the decision-making process at the Food and Drug Administration.

I think it will be difficult for proponents to argue how this case directly affects New Jersey, particularly as abortion groups have already signaled that they would rather take their resources to states where more restrictions are in place. If the Supreme Court grants the emergency appeals, the pill will stay on the market as litigation continues, and even if they deny the appeals, a ruling from the Fifth Circuit has no bearing on New Jersey.

(I’ll note that the Supreme Court could also decide to take up the case in its entirety, but with pending litigation at the lower courts, that seems less likely. Even then, the pill would stay on the market in the interim.)

This doesn’t absolve the need for Republican candidates to articulate a position on abortion going forward. Voters may not necessarily agree with that position, but I think that history shows that voters respect candor and will consider abortion among many other issues (look at Governor Christie’s two terms here as evidence of that). In the same way, though, we ought to force Democrats back on their heels to defend their support of New Jersey’s abhorrent elective abortion up to birth policy. No Democrat on the ballot should get a free pass on that question.

Dan: I think there’s no doubt that we will continue to feel the aftershocks of the Dobbs decision this November. And every time far-right extremists continue to overreach on blocking access to women’s healthcare, it reminds the public that the modern GOP is far too extreme.

Most voters simply do not see a woman’s right to choose as a “state’s rights” issue – they see it as a human rights issue. The fact that women in New Jersey have access to safe, reliable healthcare is comforting, but the stories we hear from women in red states are heartbreaking. Republicans shouldn’t expect this issue to go away any time soon, regardless of how many Democratic states protect the right to choose for their citizens.

This year’s midterm elections will be New Jersey’s first with our new vote-by-mail laws. I’m interested to see if they will help convert some “federal” voters into being more consistent voters. If so, Republicans have a long way to go to catch up with the work Democrats have done to embrace early voting over the last few cycles.

NJ Globe: There’s a huge fight going on between Bill Mullen, the head of the building trades council, and Greg Lalevee, who runs Operating Engineers Local 825, over Mullen’s involvement in a non-profit aimed at signing up Democrats to be permanent VBM voters, but only in seven South Jersey counties.  Is Lalevee right that this is just a front for a partisan vote-by-mail operation to help South Jersey Democrats pick up legislative seats?  And shouldn’t Republicans be doing the same thing?

DB: I will break the first pundit commandment and admit that I don’t know the first thing about this situation, and have no informed opinion of it. 

But that said, Republicans have dug themselves a big hole on vote-by-mail. Former President Trump has eviscerated the faith that a large portion of the GOP’s voter base had in vote-by-mail after his 2020 election loss, and his party is still paying the price. Expanding the access to vote shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and if New Jersey Republicans are smart, they’ll sell vote-by-mail and in-person early voting to their voters. Either they adapt to the times, or they lose.

AW: Two things can be true: Mullen is a patsy for a last-ditch effort for Democrats to return to power in South Jersey and Republicans need to keep pace with vote-by-mail efforts to remain competitive.

With respect to the latter, I can confidently say that I have personally seen Republicans begin to turn the corner on this both from a conceptual and operational standpoint – just in time for a once-in-a-generation chance to change Trenton.

I do think it speaks volumes about the state of the Democratic Party in South Jersey that they have pulled this too-cute-by-half stunt to cling to relevancy. In fairness (I guess), which part of Phil Murphy’s ban your gas stoves, but teach your second graders how to change their gender agenda is exactly appealing in that part of the world?  

NJ Globe: This week, the administrative director of the New Jersey courts told the Assembly Budget Committee that the judicial shortage – now at 58 vacancies, about 12% of all judgeships — had created an unmanageable crisis.  Civil trials and divorces in six counties have already been halted.  A total of 19 nominations haven’t been confirmed by the Senate.  At what point do real voters start to be concerned about this?

Alex: Democrats control the Governor’s Mansion and the Statehouse in New Jersey. They are 100% to blame for the dangerous number of judicial vacancies that they have allowed to accumulate on their watch. Voters can easily see the dysfunction here in the same way that they have at the Motor Vehicle Commission and Department of Labor, and they will hold the party in power accountable. The judiciary touches everyone.

When New Jerseyans seek legal redress before our court system, they are coming from a place of vulnerability and desperation. It turns my stomach to think about children left in potentially violent and unstable custody situations because Phil Murphy and his allies in the legislature can’t – or won’t – move fast enough to solve the crisis.

While Murphy is off decorating his wife’s office in a fashion reminiscent of Versailles or renaming rest stops on the Parkway, voters will take note of who has left them in a lurch.

Governor Murphy and the Senate continue to make progress in confirming new judges, with 16 new judges confirmed in just the first three months of this year. But the number of Superior Court vacancies is still too high. I hope to see the recent progress continue and to see the Administration and the State Senate chip away at this issue until it’s manageable.


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