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.
These two moods best describe how I feel heading into a new year and a new decade. On one hand, I am eager to see how the United States presidential election and how impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump will shake out. On the other hand, I worry voters are prepared to repeat a very dumb decision they made back in 2016 on top of being concerned about the health of the global economy, the future of our planet, and the welfare of the most disadvantaged and disenfranchised segments of the population. I’m getting my popcorn ready—and trying not to bite my nails as I prepare to eat it.
Where do you stand as we turn the calendar to 2020? Are you looking ahead, saying “good riddance” to 2019? Are you pumping the brakes, cautious about the hell that the coming year might have to offer? Or, if you’re like me, are you somewhere in between? Whatever your sentiments, this recap of the past year is designed to reflect on some of its prevailing themes, at least as far as this writer covered it. So without further ado, stop looking at those Baby Yoda memes and let’s take a look back on the year that was.
Tucker Carlson’s white power hour
FOX News has been a repository for false or misleading narratives and opinion journalism masquerading as real news reporting for some time now. Of late, though, its prime time lineup has seemed particularly reprehensible and soulless.
Trying to choose which of FOX’s personalities is the worst is a bit like deciding whether you’d rather be burned alive, poisoned, or shot. However you look at it, there’s a terrible option awaiting you. Sean Hannity is a shameless Trump apologist who serves as a propaganda machine for the president and who regularly traffics in conspiracy theories. Laura Ingraham likewise is a staunch Trump defender who has assailed Democrats for voting to impeach Trump and who has targeted liberal critics of her employer as “journo-terrorists,” inciting her followers to spew venom in their direction.
If one figure takes FOX News’s cake of hateful conservative rhetoric, however, that person might just be Tucker Carlson, who has demonized not just illegal immigration, but all non-white immigration to the United States, lamenting would-be immigrants as making “our own country poorer and dirtier and more divided.” Not exactly lifting our lamp beside the golden door, are we, Tucker?
Depending on how you view American attitudes toward immigration, such an argument is either un-American or distinctly American, but it certainly goes against our stated values as that fabled melting pot of the North American continent. Tucker Carlson is a white nationalist who espouses racist views regularly from his position as a highly-watched political commentator. At heart, it doesn’t matter what he believes. His platform for cruelty and hate outweighs his protestations on the basis of free speech, and calls for boycotts of his program are more than warranted.
Candace Owens is a conservative grifter
Candace Owens makes a legitimate point: Blacks don’t necessarily have to vote for Democrats. In truth, they, like members of other minority groups, have probably been underserved by the Democratic Party. That said, this reality does nothing to absolve the Republican Party of being an exclusionary group of largely white males which harbors actual white supremacists. It also doesn’t mean that Owens has any legitimacy as a political activist.
Conservatives like Owens because she makes their talking points for them and because they can point to her as a token example of how the GOP isn’t just a repository for folks of the Caucasian persuasion. The problem with Owens’s service in this capacity is that she makes her arguments in bad faith and/or in ignorance of the true history of past events.
For example, she downplays the existence of racism in America despite her and her family members being a victim of it. Because she’s NOT A VICTIM, YOU LIBERAL CUCKS. YOU’RE THE SNOWFLAKE. Also, there was the time she tried to claim Adolf Hitler wasn’t a nationalist, as if to say that the Führer was fine except for when he took his act on the road. Right.
Candace Owens is someone who has filled a void among today’s conservatives to rise to prominence despite being a relative newcomer to the fold. But she’s an opportunist who owes her popularity in right-wing circles to YouTube more than the content of her speeches and she shouldn’t be taken seriously—you know, even if she was asked to testify before Congress.
Making America Great Again—whether you realize it or not
Americans frequently lament the political divide which dominates the nation’s discourse. When they can’t even agree on the same set of facts let alone holding different opinions, however, the notion that many of us are living in separate realities becomes readily apparent.
Take the case of a group of students from Covington Catholic High School attending a March for Life rally in Washington, D.C. and Nathan Phillips, a Native American and veteran on hand for the Indigenous Peoples March. Upon members of the Black Hebrew Israelites shouting epithets at the kids on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Phillips interceded to try to diffuse the situation, singing and drumming. The students, meanwhile, several wearing MAGA hats, mocked Phillips, with one boy, Nick Sandmann, standing face-to-face to him and smirking derisively.
Of course, that Sandmann and his family would be sent death threats is inexcusable. That media outlets and public figures would post hasty retractions and hold softball interviews with the fresh-faced white kid, all the while doubting their initial reactions to what they saw, though, is wrong all the same. Spare me the hagiographic sanctification of Sandmann’s “right” to do what he did. His privilege existed before this incident and will certainly continue long after it. Furthermore, the both-sides-ing of this case is appalling in light of the implied racism herein.
Alas, this is emblematic of America in the era of President Trump. If you believe him and his supporters, the economy has never been doing better, immigrants are a danger to the country, Israel is our only ally in the Middle East and that will always be the case, and he alone is the reason why North Korea hasn’t moved to nuke us. These are the falsehoods perpetuated by a Divider-in-Chief who, as he gives as a State of the Union address, only promotes more disunity.
There’s something about “The Squad”
Outside of Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton, whose evident shadow presidency has loomed over Donald Trump’s tenure since before it began, no figures make Republicans and conservative pundits foam at the mouth quite like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib, known colloquially as “The Squad.”
The congressional neophytes have been a frequent target for Trump and others, with the president himself playing every part the ugly American and suggesting they “go back where they came from.” Ocasio-Cortez is of Puerto Rican descent and was born in the Bronx. Pressley was born on American soil, too, as was Tlaib. Only Omar was born outside the United States and she eventually secured citizenship. These women are Americans and their patriotism shouldn’t be questioned.
Omar in particular has seen more than her share of abuse from detractors on the left and right. She and Tlaib, for their support of Palestinian rights and for their attention to the influence of the pro-Israel lobby, specifically AIPAC, have been branded as anti-Semites. Being a Muslim and alluding to the corrosive influence of money in politics doesn’t make you an anti-Semite, however, and Omar’s forced apology only seems to make her point about the Israel lobby’s reach for her.
Party leaders like Pelosi may downplay the influence of these women as limited to their Twitter followers, but going after The Squad is ill-advised no matter where you land on the political spectrum. Centrist Dems may balk at their progressive ideals, but if they are not model Democrats, who is?
The irresponsibility of social media giants
Social media has greatly expanded our idea to communicate ideas to one another and share content. The bad news is not all of this material is equal in its merit and companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter are unwilling or unable to handle it.
On YouTube, for instance, right-wing and far-right content creators have been given effective carte blanche to peddle their hate to impressionable young males, and pedophiles have been given access to random people’s videos through the service’s automated recommendation system. Twitter has been slow to respond to warranted bans for professional liars such as Alex Jones and has seemingly been content to make cosmetic changes to its interface rather than authentically enforce its stated guidelines.
Perhaps the worst actor in this regard, though, is Facebook, whose founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has expressly identified Elizabeth Warren’s prospects of winning the presidency as an “existential threat.” Earlier this year, the company announced a shift that would allow political campaigns to essentially lie with impunity in their advertisements, a shift that favors the Trump campaign, a haven for disinformation.
Zuckerberg has publicly defended this change on free speech grounds, weirdly invoking civil rights leaders amid attempting to justify Facebook’s abdication of its responsibility. But realistically speaking, Facebook has been derelict in its duty for some time now, failing to clearly state rules or enforcing them only in the most obvious and publicized instances. If companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter can’t police themselves, it’s high time we move to regulate them or even break them up to the point they can be effectively managed.
Hey, did you know there’s a process called “impeachment?”
Will they or won’t they? By now, we know they did, although, as some would argue, they could’ve done more with it.
I’m talking about impeachment, in case you were unaware or did not read the heading preceding this subsection. For the longest time, it seemed as if Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats were going to forgo bringing articles of impeachment up for a vote. As Pelosi stated publicly, there was the matter of beating Donald Trump in 2020 at the ballot box. She also insisted Trump impeached himself, even though self-impeachment isn’t a thing and that just made it appear as if she were waiting for the president to self-destruct or for someone else to do the Democrats’ dirty work for them.
Unfortunately for Pelosi and Company, Robert Mueller, while he could not clear Trump of the possibility of obstruction of justice in his report, also wouldn’t move to prosecute the president, citing DOJ precedent. With growing public support for impeachment not to mention an increasing number of House Democrats making their preference for impeachment known, it became harder and harder to resist the calls.
When news broke of Trump’s fateful call to Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky requesting an investigation into Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden as well as an admission of guilt regarding Ukraine’s framing of Russia for interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election (based on a debunked conspiracy theory, no less) all as part of a quid pro quo to secure $400 million in aid already earmarked by Congress, the path forward became clear. In September, a formal impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump was announced and in December, the House voted to impeach Trump on two counts: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Obstruction of justice was notably absent from these counts.
Support for or against impeachment has largely fallen along party lines. Justin Amash deserves at least a modicum of credit for breaking from his fellow Republicans and opting to impeach Trump, though his new identity as an independent who criticizes both parties equally isn’t exactly great. Jeff Van Drew, in switching from a Democrat to a Republican because he was unlikely to get re-elected, deserves nothing but scorn, as does Tulsi Gabbard for voting Present on the articles of impeachment. The concerns of vulnerable Democratic seats are well taken but aren’t numerous enough to merit withholding on impeachment altogether.
While winning the presidential election is critical for Democrats and losing House seats would clearly not be a desired outcome, at the end of the day, accountability matters. For Democrats to sit by and do nothing while Trump continues on a path of corruption and destruction would’ve been unconscionable. It took them long enough, but at least they did something.
The absolute mess that has been the Democratic primary
Joe Biden. Michael Bloomberg. Cory Booker. Pete Buttigieg. Julián Castro. Bill de Blasio. John Delaney. Tulsi Gabbard. Kirsten Gillibrand. Kamala Harris. Amy Klobuchar. Beto O’Rourke. Bernie Sanders. Tom Steyer. Elizabeth Warren. Marianne Williamson. And a bunch of dudes you probably didn’t even know were running or still are campaigning. Welcome to the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primary, ladies and gentlemen.
By this point in the race, we’ve lost some notable contenders, chief among them Harris and O’Rourke. Some, like Bloomberg, joined late. Howard Schultz never even joined and was unmercifully booed along his path to discovering he had no shot. More concessions of defeat will eventually come, but in the meantime, the field remains crowded as all heck in advance of the Iowa caucuses. It’s anyone’s guess as to what will happen in February.
As it stands, Joe Biden is the presumptive nominee, despite the absence of clear policy goals, a checkered record as a legislator, and apparent signs of decline. This is not to say the race is over, however. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are strong contenders, and Pete Buttigieg has seen his star rise in recent weeks. With a significant portion of prospective primary voters yet undecided, it’s still anyone’s proverbial ballgame. OK, probably not Michael Bennet’s, but yes, still very wide open.
In a theoretical match-up with a generic Democrat, Donald Trump loses frequently depending on the survey. While Biden and Buttigieg are seen as perhaps the “safest” bets based on their place in the polls and their centrist stances, in 2016, the centrist Hillary Clinton proved to be the loser and a moderate could well lose again to Trump in 2020.
Establishment Democrats may be loath to have a progressive like Elizabeth Warren or, worse yet, an independent and self-described democratic socialist like Bernie Sanders at the top of the ticket, a feeling exacerbated by Jeremy Corbyn’s and the Labour Party’s recent drubbing at the hands of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party in the UK. There are appreciable differences to be had between someone like Corbyn and someone like Sanders, though, including the very different situations facing the United States and a United Kingdom still trying to come to grips with the Brexit referendum vote. If the Dems are serious about beating Trump this coming November, a Sanders or Warren might just be their best hope to achieve this.
Evidently, some Democratic donors are still in their feelings about Al Franken’s fall from grace. Even though, you know, Franken made his own bed and lay in it. Meanwhile, another fallen male celebrity of the #MeToo era, Kevin Spacey, continues to be creepy AF.
Michael Jackson’s image took yet another hit upon the release of the docu-series Leaving Neverland. Jackson’s most rabid fans, er, did not take kindly to this new production.
Anti-Semitism is on the rise and “lone wolf” attacks carried out by shooters sharing hateful extremist views continue to occur. But Ilhan Omar is the bad guy because she pointed out the connection between the Israel lobby and public positions on Israel. Is that you pounding your head on the table or is it me?
In my home state of New Jersey, so-called Democrats like Steve Sweeney have seen fit to challenge Phil Murphy on various initiatives for daring to question millions in tax breaks given to party boss George Norcross and companies linked to him. Nice to know where their priorities lie.
Sarah Sanders resigned from her post of White House press secretary, allowing the White House to finally, er, continue not having actual press conferences.
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey dared to support Hong Kong protesters in their opposition to heavy-handed Chinese policies aimed at the region. China had a fit and cancelled various deals with the Rockets and the NBA. In general, China has a major influence on our economy and holds a lot of our debt, greatly impacting publicly-stated political positions. But sure, let’s talk about Russia some more, shall we, MSNBC?
Migrant families are still being detained in inhumane conditions at the border, and yes, they are still concentration camps.
Much of today’s political punditry, dominated by white males, continues to suck. Especially yours, Bret Stephens, you bed bug, you.
Mitch McConnell is still, like, the worst.
On second thought, no, Stephen Miller is probably the worst.
I struggled for a while before settling on “No Rest for the Weary” as the title of this post. Why did I choose this? In trying to look back at the 2010s and identify a theme, a lot of what seemed to characterize major events was unrest. A global financial crisis. The uprisings of what was termed the Arab Spring. The emergence of ISIS. The annexation of Crimea. Brexit. The ongoing climate crisis.
Much of this has a chaotic feel to it, and what’s more, there’s little to no reassurance the 2020s will be any better along this dimension. As income and wealth inequality grow in the United States and abroad, and as more people become refugees as a result of a less habitable planet, there are plenty of reasons to worry we’ll reach some sort of tipping point unless dramatic corrective action is taken. In truth, we should really be further along than we are.
All this uncertainty and unrest is, well, tiring. It takes a lot to invest oneself in the politics and social issues and economics of the day. I myself continuously feel as if I am not saying or doing enough to contribute to the betterment of our society. Realistically, depending on one’s immediate circumstances, it can be a real struggle to want to be involved in the first place.
Despite the emotional and physical fatigue of it all, seeing what happens when Americans aren’t engaged with the issues affecting them or aren’t involved with the decisions impacting them at home and at work makes it all the more imperative that we stay informed and politically active. The Washington Post has adopted the slogan, “Democracy dies in darkness.” While they may be overstating their part in this a bit, I feel the maxim holds true. When we cede our power to those who seek to diminish us for theirs or someone else’s personal gain, we have lost a great deal indeed.
My hope is that all is not lost, however. I would not have wished President Donald Trump on this country for anything, but in the wake of his catastrophe, ordinary people are organizing and making their voices heard. This may have happened regardless of who won in 2016, but in America, Trump’s political ascendancy sure seems to have accelerated things.
What needs to happen and what I believe is already underway is a political revolution. You and I may have different ideas on how that will manifest. I believe a progressive direction is the best and perhaps only path forward. Much of our story has yet to be written. Whatever happens, though, it is through our solidarity as everyday people that positive change will be achieved.
In all, here’s hoping for a better 2020. There may be no rest for the weary, but there are enough people and big ideas at work to suggest a new dawn is on the horizon.
In politics, corruption is often presumed to be so much of a tradition and so pervasive that at times we become inured to it. As my father is wont to say, “They’re all crooks,” before summarily ending all seeing of, hearing about, and speaking about politics until further notice like the three wise monkeys of lore.
As it frequently manifests itself, the political response to alleged malfeasance on the part of one or more public figures involves members of the opposing party decrying these heinous acts and demanding accountability. The hubris! The outrage! This is unacceptable! That is, until one of the party’s own is caught with his or her proverbial hand in the cookie jar. Then, as the saying goes, all bets are off.
In my home state of New Jersey, meanwhile, even with understanding of a tradition of backroom deals and other less-than-transparent arrangements, one set of circumstances involving misuse of the state’s economic resources is shocking if only because of the breadth of the scandal. Moreover, the resulting war between factions of the same party is striking for its rancor.
At issue are millions of dollars in tax incentives included as part of more than $11 billion facilitated by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority under Gov. Chris Christie. An audit of the EDA by the state comptroller published earlier this year found that “New Jersey’s lavish corporate subsidy programs operate with little oversight and no evidence of spurring economic growth.” Of particular issue, especially as the news has grabbed headlines from local outlets and even national publications like Politico, are the findings that businesses and individuals linked to insurance executive and Democratic Party boss George Norcross benefited disproportionately from the tax breaks authorized by the NJEDA.
As this opinion piece from the New York Daily News editorial board explains, Norcross is South Jersey, “controlling just about everything in and out of sight. One of his brothers is a congressman; another is managing partner at a big law firm. A solid bloc of loyal state senators are always ready to bend the family’s way.” In other words, Norcross has connections—to put it mildly.
That he would leverage his influence to steer economic benefits to those personal connects is, while again not terribly surprising, nonetheless remarkable for its brazenness and its magnitude. An investigation by WNYC and ProPublica found that of the $1.6 billion in tax incentives greenlit for capital investment in Camden, Norcross’s hometown, $1.1 billion went to Norcross’s insurance brokerage, his affiliated businesses and charities, and clients of his brother Philip’s law and lobbying firms. Camden also received better than four times as many tax breaks as the combined benefits provided to other designated “growth zones.”
With all due respect to the city of Camden, New Jersey’s poster child for the ravages of income and wealth inequality and thus a city in legitimate need of investment, this reaping of the lion’s share of the EDA’s incentives seems excessive with respect to the way in which it was achieved. It’s especially egregious when considering claims by activists and community developers that the employees coming to work in Camden from the suburbs aren’t really contributing to the local economy. They’re not living there. They’re not spending there. They’re out by five each day, effectively rendering downtown Camden a ghost town. This does not appear to be what the NJEDA’s designs are all about.
In response to findings of abuse of its programs, Gov. Phil Murphy, Christie’s successor, created a special task force to investigate the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. This prompted George Norcross, the good Democrat that he is, to do the logical thing: sue. That’s right—Norcross alleges in a suit that Murphy “unlawfully empowered the task force with powers he did not possess and authorized the retention and payment of New York lawyers who proceeded to commence and conduct an investigation in violation of multiple provisions of New Jersey law.”
To the degree Norcross’s case has any merit is beyond me. From the outside looking in, the aspect of the task force’s lawyers allegedly not being able to practice law in the state of New Jersey could be problematic. There are also questions about what the task force is able to legally do (according to Norcross’s legal team, it can’t issue or enforce subpoenas) and who it can investigate (Norcross and Co. claim that because he isn’t a public official, he is out of bounds). In addition, the plaintiffs in the case have stated they have “made an enormous investment in the revitalization of Camden” and have been “falsely” accused of misconduct.
Norcross’s and his cronies’ purported innocence notwithstanding, their protestations strike one as weak sauce. Realistically, their arguments against Murphy’s task force involve technicalities such as legal standing, not a resounding repudiation of their guilt. And if Norcross’s motives seem petty or suspicious related to this lawsuit, what do we say about fellow Democratic politician Stephen Sweeney, president of the New Jersey Senate since 2010 and someone backed by Norcross?
And this is before we get to other criticism of Sweeney for his steering of the state Democratic Party as one of its leaders. Doing a 180 from his position during Christie’s tenure as New Jersey governor, Sweeney has backed off his support of a millionaires tax now that Murphy is in the governor’s seat, echoing Republican talking points. To boot, his proposed “Path to Progress” initiatives have been slammed by public workers who stand to see cuts in their health care and pensions to pay for them while the pensions of other public workers (notably firefighters, law enforcement, and judicial employees) are evidently sacrosanct. That Sweeney has few qualms about bypassing Gov. Murphy to achieve these goals would only seem to speak volumes about dysfunction among New Jersey Democrats.
In all, these events paint New Jersey politics, already murky in its expression, in a harsh light, not to mention they cast a pall over a key victory for Democrats in the Trump era in Gov. Murphy’s triumph over Chris Christie’s lieutenant governor Kim Guadagno. On top of this, they underscore a more global tension between establishment politicians and progressives who are new to the political process or otherwise can be characterized as “outsiders,” a divide which tends to get played up for effect by news media to generate sales and clicks but one that does exist and which shines a spotlight on the roadblocks leftists face from actors on both sides of the political fence in advancing their ideals.
It’s a conflict worth fighting, though everyday voters are still caught in the middle, chiefly poorer New Jerseyans, women, and people of color, distinctions which recognizably aren’t mutually exclusive of one another. If we’re assigning blame, however, the best place to start might be with the persons of George Norcross and Steve Sweeney. After all, they’ve been playing this game for a longer period of time.
It admittedly feels strange to talk about Phil Murphy as the “progressive” politician of the bunch here given that his track record leading up to becoming an elected official wasn’t exactly a grassroots organizer’s dream. Murphy, a Goldman Sachs alum, bought his ticket to the gubernatorial general election by opening his personal checkbook and donating generously to the various county wings of the Democratic Party in New Jersey.
Before that, as a prominent Democratic Party donor, his finances were also key to his securing an ambassadorship to Germany under Barack Obama, a tenure that saw him have to weather a diplomatic storm after his negative comments about Angela Merkel and other German officials were made public as part of WikiLeaks’s U.S. diplomatic cables leak. With the memory of Jon Corzine, another ex-Goldman Sachs who ended his run as governor at a mere 33% approval rating, fresh in the minds of New Jerseyans, there was every reason to be wary of Murphy. Especially when his campaign strategy appeared to be little more than running against Donald Trump, not his actual competitor in the gubernatorial race, and his ads involved repeated promises that he “doesn’t owe the insiders anything” and that he’s “got our back”—all delivered with a cheesy smile.
Heretofore, though, the results have been better than perhaps many would’ve expected. Murphy signed a bill banning offshore drilling in state waters. He has also signed into law legislation to automatically register voters at Motor Vehicle Commission offices and other agencies, to close the gender pay gap, and to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2024, among others, and his Cabinet has been the most diverse in the state’s history.
As with any administration, there has been room for criticism. Murphy has taken a lot of heat from environmentalists for his failure to more strongly oppose the construction of a proposed natural gas power plant in the Meadowlands amid a push for a more robust commitment to renewable energy sources. In addition, Murphy’s administration met with scandal after Al Alvarez, one-time chief of staff of the Schools Development Authority, was accused of rape by fellow Murphy campaign staffer Katie Brennan (now chief of staff of the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency) but officials couldn’t (or wouldn’t) say who had hired him or how he was allowed to remain on the payroll for months after the accusations. Not a highlight of Murphy’s tenure, to be sure.
By and large, however, Gov. Murphy has been a marked improvement over Gov. Christie, who, like Gov. Corzine, ended his governorship in ignominy. Going back to the New York Daily News‘s editorial on his spat with George Norcross, too, if their opinion is any indication, it’s the latter who is the fly in the ointment. From the piece:
Phil Murphy is the elected governor of New Jersey and he’s asking crucial questions about who got what in tax breaks from the state Economic Development Authority.
Norcross doesn’t like it one bit, but he can go suck an egg, because the people’s money demands an honest accounting.
That’s really the crux of the matter. Murphy is an elected official accountable to taxpayers. Norcross is not and has materially benefited from the public’s contributions. This is a serious subject deserving more than Norcross’s legal team’s attempts at an end-around and warnings by Camden mayor Francisco “Frank” Moran that Murphy is not welcome in the city until he stops “attacking” it. Think about that. He’s the governor of New Jersey and you’re telling him to stay out. That’s quite a show of chutzpah from South Jersey Democrats toward a member of their own party.
Ditto for Steve Sweeney. He has protected himself better in terms of public opinion relative to Norcross, but as progressives might argue, he’s playing hardball with the budget and advocating for cuts for certain public sector employees in the name of “responsibility” when significant approval exists for raising taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents and legalizing marijuana, potentially viable sources of revenue. Sweeney is making a power play here, seeking to take advantage of Murphy’s rising disapproval from moderate voters. But he is out of step with public opinion on these issues and risks overplaying his hand in advance of a possible state government shutdown this summer, particularly when considering his past support for such a tax during the Christie era.
Political figures should be held accountable regardless of experience and party affiliation. This applies to Phil Murphy, at the top of the New Jersey hierarchy, but equally so to “power brokers” like George Norcross, Stephen Sweeney, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin. In an age in which people-powered solutions to political dilemmas are in increasing demand, we don’t need a political machine dominated by a few to dictate our future.
Though you probably don’t need a reminder, in 2016, Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election. Despite getting fewer votes than Hillary Clinton overall, Trump won enough states—and the right states, at that—to secure victory under the current system. In the minds of many voters, Trump’s lack of experience in public office, his moral failings, and his platform predicated on demonization of “the other” were negligible next to their dislike of Hillary Clinton and her perceived corruption.
Pundits and average voters alike (rightly) have criticized this viewpoint in the endless postmortem dissection of the election to follow. But the notion remains that Americans, jaded about the country’s politics and/or susceptible to political rhetoric, viewed these candidates on par with one another. This, despite Clinton’s obviously superior comprehension of D.C.’s workings and her message—however genuine—that “love trumps hate.” Trump’s triumph seemed to be a clear signal to establishment politicians that voters are fed up with the status quo and are willing to roll the dice on an unpolished outsider, even if it risks further damaging the institutions they regard as broken.
It’s 2018 now and the midterms are fast approaching. As evidenced by the race for Bob Menendez’s seat in the Senate, though, little has changed in the Democrats’ approach to winning elections. At a time when winning back the House and/or Senate is a priority for the Democratic Party, it bears wondering whether history will repeat itself and the Dems will find themselves on the losing end once more, even with apparent momentum.
First, a little background re Menendez. Back in June, in a piece for The Intercept, journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote about how Menendez was set to garner the Democratic Party nomination for New Jersey’s Senate seat up for grabs this November, and how his nomination serves as a symbol of how “calcified” the party really is. For Greenwald and numerous New Jerseyans, the issue with Menendez, who is seeking a third term in the Senate and is a veteran of Congress of 26 years, is his—how shall I put this?—questionable attention to ethics.
As Greenwald details, the public integrity unit of the Obama administration’s Justice Department began prosecution of Sen. Menendez in 2015, bringing him up on a dozen federal corruption and bribery charges. Allegedly, Menendez accepted lavish gifts and donations from friend and supporter Salomon Melgen, a Florida-based ophthalmologist, in exchange for helping Melgen resolve disputes with federal health agencies, secure contracts, and obtain visas for three of his female “associates.”
Ultimately, the case against Menendez was dismissed because of a hung jury, but as Greenwald characterizes this situation, the New Jersey senator benefited from federal bribery statutes diluted “to the point of virtual impotence” by the Supreme Court over the years. Without the presence of a “smoking gun,” as several jurors in the case cited in their refusal to convict, convictions of public officials are “close to impossible to obtain.” The Trump DOJ, as apparently litigious and vindictive as it is, opted not to re-try Menendez. All of this occurred amid Menendez receiving a public admonishment by the Senate Ethics Committee for accepting and failing to disclose gifts, effectually bringing discredit to a legislative body that hasn’t been all too credible of late, especially in the minds of everyday Americans.
And yet, as Greenwald explains, Menendez’s fellow Democrats, including Chuck Schumer, Cory Booker, then-governor-elect Phil Murphy, state senate president Steve Sweeney, then-incoming State Assembly president Craig Coughlin, and influential party leader George Norcross, were quick to rally around him. Thus, with an advantage in party support and finances, any primary challenge was all but a non-starter.
It bears highlighting that Greenwald criticizes more than just Menendez’s ability to skirt convictions owing to lax bribery statutes, and that his fault-finding is indicative of larger reservations about the Democratic Party on a national level. For one, as chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Menendez is an influential and outspoken Iran hawk, and during George W. Bush’s tenure, he voted with Republicans to authorize the Bush-Cheney Military Commissions Act, which later would be deemed unconstitutional. Menendez also has been a staunch supporter of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and for his trouble, has received donations from AIPAC supporters and officials, including significant sums for the costs of his legal defense.
Greenwald sums up his case against Menendez thusly:
This is how calcified the Democratic Party is: They even unite behind an incumbent who is drowning in sleaze and corruption, who was just “severely admonished” by the Senate Ethics Committee, whose legal defense was funded by far-right figures, and who has used his senior leadership role to repeatedly join with the Bush-Cheney and right-wing GOP factions against his own party’s supposed positions. Not only do they unite behind him, but they ensure that no primary challenge can even happen — they deny their own voters the right to decide if they want Menendez — by making it impossible for any such challengers to raise money from funders who rely on the largesse of Democratic officeholders and who thus, do not want to run afoul of their decreed preferences.
Whether New Jerseyans outside the progressive vanguard are fully aware of Bob Menendez’s profile as a U.S. senator is a matter of debate. His very public corruption charges, on the other hand, are fresh in the minds of voters, and likely explain why Menendez performed relatively poorly against Lisa McCormick, a virtual unknown, in the Democratic Party primary. It also likely explains to a large extent why a recent Stockton University (GO OSPREYS!) poll has the race between Menendez and his Republican opponent Bob Hugin essentially in a dead heat.
So, who is Bob Hugin? Hugin grew up in Union City, NJ, and attended Princeton University as an undergraduate, later earning an MBA from University of Virginia. He also served as an active duty infantry officer in the 70s and 80s, and a reserve officer after that. In terms of his professional life, Hugin has worked at J.P. Morgan, and most recently, spent close to two decades with Celgene Corporation, a biotechnology company which manufactures drugs for cancer and other chronic illnesses.
As for Hugin’s positions on the issues, among other things, he supports the move of the United States Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, increased domestic production of oil and natural gas, opposing “sanctuary cities” and securing our borders, enhancing our vetting process for immigrants, increased military spending, school choice, extraditing Assata Shakur/Joanne Chesimard as part of relations with Cuba, and accountability for North Korea given any denuclearization agreements. Much of Hugin’s platform, meanwhile, lacks specificity, particularly when, say, addressing New Jersey’s finances or the state’s health care. While he may appear more socially moderate than someone like Donald Trump, his stances are, on the whole, generic conservative Republican.
Moreover, Hugin is not without unsavory elements in his past. At Princeton, he fought antidiscrimination protection for gays, and later opposed making an all-male eating club co-ed, describing a lawsuit at the time to overturn the gender exclusivity policy as “politically correct fascism.” Hugin says his views have “evolved” since then. Additionally, as CEO of Celgene, Hugin oversaw significant price increases in cancer drugs. Hugin and the company have defended these increases as necessary to offset expenses, but consumer advocates have accused them of “gaming the system” to prevent generics from reaching the market and artificially keeping revenues high. In an era when executive behavior is under increasing scrutiny, this is not a good look.
For all Bob Hugin’s baggage, however, given how ethically compromised Bob Menendez is perceived to be, it’s hard for him to connect in his attacks on Hugin’s character in a meaningful way. How can one point fingers about the other’s greed when he himself was accused of accepting lavish gifts? Even the indignation about the excesses of Big Pharma seems misplaced considering Menendez has received over $900,000 from the pharmaceutical industry over the course of his legislative career. These monies include 2012 donations from Celgene employees; Menendez was third-highest in Congress in donations from Celgene employees that election cycle. Bob, meet Bob. Pot, meet kettle.
It is no surprise that nearly all of the content of the political ads between Hugin and Menendez has been negative, attack-oriented fare rather than substantive reasons to vote for either candidate. As it concerns the latter individual, the strategy seems to be a shrug and a “take me as I am” attitude, much as it was with Hillary Clinton and the outrage about her E-mails and other scandals, however disproportionately they may have figured into the 2016 election. For most Democratic voters this election cycle, it means biting the proverbial bullet and casting their ballot for Menendez or staying home and risking losing a Senate seat to the Republicans. Electorally speaking, it’s the equivalent of being caught between a rock and a hard place.
In making allusions to Clinton vs. Trump, I recognize that different factors were in play than with Menendez vs. Hugin. Though Hillary and her supporters might’ve been quick to accuse her critics of sexism, gender bias almost certainly had an impact on the race. There also hasn’t been anything close to the magnitude of what happened with James Comey and his fateful letter to Congress—though it’s still early, mind you. Plus, there’s the obvious contrast in the levels of the races being run; Clinton/Trump was a national race for the presidency, while Menendez/Hugin is a state race for a seat in the U.S. Senate. For what it’s worth, Bob Hugin (thankfully) isn’t Donald Trump, to boot.
Differences aside, the essence of the conflict for potential Democratic voters is the same: as with Clinton and Trump, an experienced Democratic Party politician may lose to a Republican with no history of holding public office who touts his ability to create jobs (which he had to do as a function of running a business) as a crowning achievement. In Bob Menendez’s case, it’s particularly bad given a) New Jersey tends to vote “blue,” b) the president, a Republican, is largely unpopular, and c) the state just lived through two terms of Republican Governor Chris Christie, also largely unpopular.
I’m not suggesting it should be a walk-over for Menendez necessarily, and you may well dispute the predictive accuracy of the Stockton University poll or any similar poll. As some observers might argue, however, Menendez and his campaign waited a while to get into the fray with political advertisements, allowing Bob Hugin to strike first. In a blue state like New Jersey, Bob Menendez would be expected to have a lead, even if slight. An effective tie is vaguely embarrassing, and is downright disturbing to those leaning left with visions of “flipping” the House and Senate.
I’m also not suggesting Democrats, independents, and others with qualms about Menendez should necessarily choose otherwise or just stay home either. While I might strongly suggest that my fellow New Jerseyans not vote for Hugin, their vote is their business. Should Hugin end up as the victor, though, blame should be placed primarily on the shoulders of Bob Menendez and his campaign, not his constituents. The onus should be on the candidate to make the case to voters why they should choose him or her, rather than accusing or shaming voters for their choices. Sure, greater turnout should be encouraged. Pointing the finger at average voters who have to work and/or may not have much concern for politics seems like a poor tack to take, meanwhile, notably when both parties are yet more unpopular than individual politicians.
At any rate, voters in New Jersey and other states deserve better than to feel forced to cast their ballots for candidates they feel hard-pressed to endorse without meaningful and robust primary challenges and without room for serious debate. And they shouldn’t have to worry they are giving their implicit consent and reinforcing the bad political strategy of the major political parties with their vote. In the grand scheme of things, Bob Menendez is just one candidate in one race. But his situation is representative of a larger dysfunction within American party politics that beckons substantive reform.