New Jersey’s Got Some Impressive Progressives Running for Office

Arati Kreibich is one of a number of strong progressive candidates looking to make change in the political machine state of New Jersey. (Photo Courtesy of Arati for Congress)

Anyone remotely familiar with New Jersey politics knows it is a machine state.

When Governor Phil Murphy’s administration dared to kick the hornet’s neck and shine a light on potential abuses of the NJ Economic Development Authority by George Norcross, Democratic Party boss, it made quite a few waves felt even outside the Garden State. Within the Democratic Party structure, it intensified if not created a rift between Murphy and Democratic leaders in the state loyal to Norcross. In a largely blue state, the Democrats were divided in a very public fashion and once-stated legislative priorities mysteriously vanished.

There are yet other examples of essentially naked acts of corruption or malfeasance. Senator Bob Menendez, for one, has managed to retain his seat in Congress despite revelations about his impermissible acceptance of benefits, the beneficiary of congressional standards watered down to the point of absurdity. After a stint as governor that saw his popularity steadily decline over his tenure amid scandals and uneven handling of the state’s budget crisis, Goldman Sachs alum Jon Corzine presided over MF Global, a futures broker and bond dealer, ultimately overseeing the company file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and settling with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to the tune of $5 million for his part in the firm’s collapse. And this is just the Democrats. Don’t even get me started about Chris Christie, Bridgegate, and his abuses of his position.

In short, at every level, New Jersey politics of late has been marked by a rigid adherence to big-money establishment politics and prominent political figures compromised by conflicts of interest. Thankfully, though, the hegemonic power structure of the state isn’t going uncontested.

As Ryan Grim and Akela Lacy wrote about in an article for The Intercept last month, New Jersey’s “cartoonishly corrupt Democratic Party is finally getting challenged.” Referencing the Corzine, Menendez, and Norcross scandals as part of this profile, Grim and Lacy highlight a wave of progressives who not only are challenging entrenched party loyalists, but doing so with serious campaigns, notably in the House. Hector Oseguera’s bid to unseat Albio Sires, a congressional veteran who has been a member of the House since 2006 with little to show for it in terms of legislative achievements or name recognition, is the main focus of the piece.

Oseguera, an anti-money-laundering specialist, isn’t the only progressive name-checked in the article, however—nor should he be. Whether it’s Democratic Party primaries in the House or Senate or even county freeholder races across the state, there are a number of primary challengers championing progressive causes and giving New Jersey voters credible options in the upcoming July 7 primary.

In New Jersey’s fifth congressional district, for instance, Dr. Arati Kreibich, a neuroscientist who immigrated to the United States at the age of 11 with her family, is challenging Josh Gottheimer, a centrist Democrat with a war chest upwards of $5 million who serves as co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan congressional group that seems to cause more problems than it actually solves. In my home district, NJ-9, octogenarian Bill Pascrell faces competition from Zinovia “Zina” Spezakis, the daughter of Greek immigrants with a strong focus on addressing climate change. Cory Booker, fresh off his failed presidential campaign, is opposed by Larry Hamm, a long-time community activist, leader, and organizer. Even Bonnie Watson Coleman, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, faces a challenge from Lisa McCormick, who previously managed 38% of the vote against Sen. Menendez in his latest reelection bid and, like Spezakis and Hamm, is inspired by the presidential runs of Bernie Sanders.

As Grim’s and Lacy’s report underscores, citing the sentiments of Eleana Little, a candidate for Hudson County freeholder, the progressive left in New Jersey has people. It has grassroots funding/organizing and volunteers phone-banking and sending out postcards. Despite setbacks at the presidential campaign level, there is real energy behind down-ballot candidates fighting for Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, cancellation of student debt, and a $15 minimum wage, among other things. For a movement inspired by the likes of Sen. Sanders, these primary challengers are proving that “Not Me. Us.” is not just a campaign slogan—it’s a mantra.


Can one or more of these candidates win? It’s possible, even if the odds (and fundraising) are against them. Following Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s sensational upset primary win over Joe Crowley in NY-14, progressives and political news media alike are looking for “the next AOC.”

One race being watched closely because of its perceived similarities (not to mention its geographic proximity) is Jamaal Bowman’s bid to unseat Eliot Engel, a 16-time incumbent and high-ranking House Democrat. In case you missed it, Engel was recently caught in a hot mic situation in response to speaking at an event related to the protests following George Floyd’s death, telling Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.” Please, New York’s 16th, vote for Bowman and refuse to stand for that level of apathy.

AOC’s success story is yet an outlier, as numerous progressive challengers to established names in Congress have failed to match her electoral success. This doesn’t mean their efforts were without merit, however. Moreover, the political calculus has changed appreciably since this election cycle began. Obviously, there’s the matter of COVID-19, which has changed so much about our everyday lives, at least for the time being. The ongoing Black Lives Matter protests happening here in the United States and elsewhere, too, have ignited calls for meaningful change. People are fed up, to put it mildly. Whether that sense of outrage translates to increased voter turnout remains to be seen. Then again, if you had told me a month ago that protesters would compel a major city like Minneapolis to consider disbanding its police force and that Confederate symbols and statues of Christopher Columbus would be getting upended, I would’ve stared at you in disbelief. At this moment, everything seems possible.

While not to compare the state of New Jersey politics to protests of that magnitude, along these lines, if you would’ve told me a year ago we’d have a group of progressives this impressive running for office in a state this hostile to primary challenges, I would’ve looked at you sideways. At a time when ordinary citizens are demanding accountability and substantive action from the people meant to protect and serve them, it feels like only a matter of time before people ask for better with their ballots.

Why not now?

On Black Lives Matter, George Floyd, and Challenging Viewpoints

“A riot is the language of the unheard.” That’s Martin Luther King, Jr., folks. (Photo Credit: Rob Bulmahn/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Admittedly, I am sometimes reticent about opining on movements like Black Lives Matter and the types of protests set off by George Floyd’s murder at the hands of uniformed police. I feel that black activists should be in the lead on advancing the national conversation on issues relevant to BLM, and moreover, I realize I am not the most educated and certainly not the most qualified to speak on these matters, my experience grounded in middle-class, mostly white suburban life.

All these things considered, and under the premise that “silence is violence,” I feel as though I have to say something, to take a stand. Over the past two weeks, I have had numerous conversations with friends, family, and co-workers regarding the protests and riots that have swept America and have even manifested in other countries where disproportionate brutality against blacks is very real. Some of the responses were illuminating, to say the least, and suggest to me that we need to keep (or, in some cases, start) having uncomfortable conversations about race, class, politics, social issues, and every intersection therein.

The following are some thoughts on topics related to the wave of protests we’ve seen. These thoughts are mine, meaning I take full responsibility for them, though I acknowledge that people with more complete perspectives have helped influence my views as they currently stand.

George Floyd was murdered.

Not killed, murdered. Derek Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for close to nine minutes, with Floyd indicating at various points that he couldn’t breathe and numerous observers noting that Floyd wasn’t resisting (a common defense of police officers in situations like these which clearly doesn’t apply). Chauvin should’ve gotten at least a second-degree murder charge and the officers accompanying him likewise deserved their aiding and abetting charges for doing nothing while Floyd was being effectively choked to death.

I don’t give a shit about Floyd’s medical or criminal history.

So what if Floyd had underlying health conditions that contributed to his death. So what if he had a criminal record, and no, I don’t know anything about whether he does or doesn’t have one. The man had someone kneeing on his neck for close to nine minutes. That’s why he died.

I also don’t care if he was apprehended for paying with a counterfeit $20 bill. If Dylann Roof can shoot up a church in a racially-motivated attack and walk away with his life, it’s ridiculous to invoke Floyd’s reason for apprehension. George Floyd shouldn’t have died as a result of that encounter, full stop.

There’s no way Amy Klobuchar should be considered as a vice presidential nominee.

I feel like this goes without saying now, and even before the revelation she failed to hold Chauvin accountable for his role in prior incidents as Hennepin County attorney, Klobuchar was arguably a weak pick given her poor standing with voters of color and the idea that she wouldn’t have much to offer in the way of policy ideas to buttress a campaign in Joe Biden’s that has been largely devoid of specifics. With what we now know, picking Klobuchar for VP would feel downright suicidal.

Looting is not violence.

I get that people see looting and have strong opinions about it. I mean, who wants to have their things stolen or destroyed? Also, there’s the matter of not all businesses/structures being the same. If the target is, ahem, Target? I’m not very sympathetic. If people are looting a small business, especially a minority-owned business? That’s more deserving of sympathy.

To the extent that some individuals might be using these protests as an excuse to purely wreak havoc, I can’t say I support their actions. That said, looting is still a form of protest against an unjust system, one that has thus far resisted peaceful attempts to promote reform. Furthermore, property can be rebuilt or replaced. Human lives cannot. For this reason, equating looting with police brutality is a false equivalency and anyone wielding this argument in bad faith should be summarily dismissed.

Who has been responsible for most of the violence since these protests began? The police.

In video after video, the scene is set: Protests are peaceful until the cops come or decide to intervene. Whether it’s beating people with batons, pepper spray, rubber bullets, tear gas, or simply going out of their way to push, kick, drag or otherwise physically abuse civilians, uniformed police have frequently been among the worst agitators and perpetrators of violence of anyone involved. Even when there has been provocation, such as throwing bottles or rocks, often there’s a clear disparity of power and resources at work. These officers will be equipped with riot gear and weapons against otherwise unarmed protesters. If it comes down to it, that’s not a fair fight, and it’s not even close.

In one particularly egregious example, Aaron Torgalski, a member of Buffalo’s police department, intentionally knocked a 75-year-old man to the ground, whereupon he hit his head and started bleeding profusely. Not only did most officers not immediately rush to help the man, however, but some officers either walked past him or seemed to barely notice him lying motionless on the ground. To make matters worse, Buffalo PD tried to claim the man tripped and fell, when video evidence clearly indicates otherwise.

At this writing, the victim (who was white, not that it should matter, but just in case you were thinking this was purely about race) is thankfully stable but in serious condition. Regardless, this kind of unprovoked attack is reprehensible. It should be noted too that protesters aren’t the only ones who have felt the wrath of police brutality in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Numerous journalists have been arrested, beaten, shot at, or otherwise intimidated by police despite clearly identifying themselves by their profession.

In one instance, CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez was arrested on live television by Minnesota state police. Sure, there were apologies following this incident, but it’s absurd that it even happened in the first place, and journalists shouldn’t have to be afraid of doing their job. These examples of police violence against journalists are part of a disturbing global trend of increased violence against journalists. So much for the constitutional guarantee of a free press.

No, Senator Cotton, don’t send in the troops

That President Donald Trump would seek to invoke the Insurrection Act to send the military to states and quell protests unsolicited is enough to give one pause. That he would be echoed by sitting members of Congress, meanwhile, is unconscionable.

Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who indicated on Twitter earlier in the week that he would support offering “no quarter” to rioters (which, to be clear, is considered a war crime), penned an editorial titled “Send in the Troops,” which ran in The New York Times Opinion section on June 3. That the Times would even run this piece railing against antifa and “insurrectionists,” let alone have its inclusion later defended by editorial page editor James Bennet, has prompted a sizable backlash from the public and staff alike, notably for its potential to put black people in danger.

Cotton’s editorial, which the Times eventually said in a statement did not meet the publication’s standards for editorials, has been labeled as “fascist” by several critics. Whatever you call it, Cotton should never have written it and The New York Times should never have published it. Shameful.

Antifa is not a terrorist organization

It’s not even a real “organization,” lacking formal leadership. Either way, anti-fascists haven’t been responsible for any killings here in the United States. Police forces, on the other hand, obviously have.

The “outside agitator” narrative is BS

One last thing: Claims that “outside agitators” were responsible for destruction and looting in various cities have long been used to undermine protest movements and were cautioned against by Martin Luther King, Jr.

They discredit the ability of protesters to organize effectively, they distract from the central issue of police brutality, they downplay the spiritual connection of these protests, they are designed to make protesters’ cause look unsympathetic, and on top of all this, they can be used to justify violence against protesters because they communicate the sense that these are not our fellow constituents who are being beaten and harassed. You are advised to regard this narrative with skepticism, especially if the source appears suspect on this issue.


As always with mass protests like these, the question of what to do next is a pressing one. To act like we haven’t tried to formulate answers prior to George Floyd’s death, though, obscures the efforts of activists to design and implement interventions meant to reduce deadly police violence. As part of Campaign Zero, a campaign created in the wake of Ferguson protests after Michael Brown’s killing designed to end police violence, its organizers have outlined eight ways police forces can modify their use of force policies to produce better outcomes.

The Police Use of Force Project prescribes actions to be taken against these failings of forces around the country:

  1. Failing to require officers to de-escalate situations.
  2. Allowing officers to choke or strangle civilians.
  3. Failing to require officers to intervene and stop excessive force.
  4. Failing to restrict officers from shooting at moving vehicles.
  5. Failing to develop a Force Continuum (which limits the types of force and weapons that are used in situational responses).
  6. Failing to require officers to exhaust all other reasonable means (before deadly force).
  7. Failing to require officers to give a verbal warning (before firing).
  8. Failing to require officers to report each time they use force or threaten the use of force (on civilians).

A review of 91 of the 100 largest cities in the United States revealed no police departments of those surveyed employing all eight interventions. Fewer than half required officers to de-escalate situations (#1), outlawed the use of chokeholds/strangleholds (#2), required officers to intervene to stop another officer from using excessive force (#3), restricted officers from shooting at moving vehicles (#4), required exhaustion of means before deadly force (#6), or reported all uses of force including threatening a civilian with a firearm (#8). Minneapolis, in theory, requires officers to intervene in cases of excessive force. Until very recently, it did not ban choking or strangling civilians. Whatever the rules at the time, on both counts, the officers culpable in George Floyd’s death failed their duties, demonstrating the notion guidelines must not only be created, but enforced.

As noted, restricting the use of force is just one part of Campaign Zero’s agenda, which also involves ending “broken windows” policing, community oversight and representation, independent investigation/prosecution, expanded use of body cams, training, an end of for-profit policing, demilitarization of police forces, and fair police union contracts. Calls for de-funding, if not abolishing police forces, have been widespread. In light of the short shrift community social programs seem to suffer in so many cities at the expense of soaring police budgets, the former, at least, seems overdue.

These are common-sense reforms. As protests continue across America, what is vital in preserving momentum for enacting real change is having the uncomfortable conversations we need to have and should’ve been having with those around us who don’t approach these matters from a progressive bent and who conceivably might be allies in the struggle to recognize that black lives matter. We can’t keep refusing to talk about politics and social issues because it is awkward or upsetting. We have to rip off the proverbial bandages and examine the deep wounds in our society for what they are if we ever hope to heal as one people.

George Floyd’s killer and his accessories have been charged. The winds of social change are blowing. Long after these riots and protests subside, however, and outside the scope of ending police brutality, there is much more work to be done to address systemic racism in our world and widening income and wealth equality that threaten to swallow the lot of us whole. This includes stepping outside our bubbles and challenging the views of those not yet committed to a better future for all.

We all have a part to play in this. Whose side on are you on?