Even after losing their case in court, the Democratic Committee Chairs in Cape May and Atlantic Counties continue their fight to retain power by manipulating the system and disenfranchising voters.
A Letter From The Publisher | David Todd McCarty | Friday, April 10, 2020
It’s indefensible, that in a functioning democracy, the Republican Party continues their machiavellian efforts to disenfranchise voters in America, largely low income, black communities that historically vote for Democrats, so it is all the more egregious and shallowly craven, when our very own local Democratic Party attempts to rig the system simply because it suits their desire to hold onto power. We all really hoped for better.
As the coronavirus epidemic was just beginning to take hold in New Jersey and it became clear that this was going to be a serious public health crisis, Governor Murphy issued an executive order allowing for all ballot petitions in the state to be conducted electronically, That same day, the State Democratic Committee recommended to the County Chairs an option to delay their County Committee Elections for a year, and a few of them immediately seized the opportunity.
“The idea was to give you all a pathway for flexibility,” said Raj Parikh, counsel to the New Jersey State Democratic Party, at the time. “The state committee is not mandating anything, nor would we.”
Democratic State Chairman John Currie added that he didn’t find it likely that the state would move its primary saying, “I think it would have to be something really dramatic and drastic that we change the primary date. It’s possible that we go to all vote-by-mail.”
On that recommendation, Chairmen from both the Cape May County and Atlantic County Democratic Committees made the unilateral decision, endorsed only by their Executive Committees and not presented to, nor voted on, by the Committee members, to suspend the 2020 elections of the County Committee and consequently suspend any re-organization of the Executive officers until June 2021.
They moved to extend the terms of their Executive Committee for a fifth year, instead of the four years granted under the bylaws, and likewise extend for an additional year, all terms of current Committee members.
It was no mystery to anyone involved in local Democratic politics for the past few months, that many grassroots groups across South Jersey, including both Cape May County and Cooper River Indivisible, had been organizing Democratic ballot initiatives to urge voters to run for County Committee. Their express purpose being to vote out the current leadership and institute democratic reforms such as greater transparency, the end to back room deals, and a severing of the all too cozy relationship to unelected power broker George Norcross’s political machine in Trenton.
Brendan Sciarra, the Cape May County Chairman, and his entire Executive Committee were specifically being targeted. While the past three years have seen dozens of empty committee seats remain vacant, since the ballot initiatives began, Sciarra has rushed to fill as many seats as possible by emergency appointment, with members loyal to him and his Executive Committee.
In response to this unprecedented decision to suspend democratic elections, on March 30 the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, NJ CD-2 Progressive Democrats, and two additional plaintiffs Helen Duda and Cassandra Gatelein (both running for County Committee), filed suit in Atlantic County Superior Court in an effort the block the Committees from suspending County Committee elections.
“While Governor Murphy has issued comprehensive rules to protect the sanctity of New Jersey’s elections up and down the ballot, party bosses allied with George Norcross are trying to use this time of crisis to stay in power by eviscerating our most fundamental right — the right to vote,” New Jersey Working Families State Director Sue Altman said in a statement. “It’s unconscionable that the special interests controlling South Jersey’s Democratic Party would use a global pandemic to try to frustrate the will of the voters and to unilaterally extend their own terms.”
On Tuesday, April 7, Judge James P. Savio ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, saying that the County Committees had overstepped their authority under their own bylaws, by not amending their bylaws with a full vote of the committee members, and ordered the ballot petition submission process be re-opened and elections to proceed. In rendering his decision, however, the judge left open the door for an alternative, suggesting that if the Committees were to hold a virtual vote (in keeping with the Governor’s Executive Order with regards to social distancing) with the full committee and subsequently voted to amend the bylaws, then they would be well within their purview as private organizations to hold elections whenever they pleased.
“You would think party leaders like chairman Sciarra would be thrilled that so many new people want to get involved,” said Cassandra Gatelein, one of the lead plaintiffs in the case and co-Chair of Cape May Indivisible. “Instead, Sciarra has actively worked to shut us out. Our goal is merely to make things more democratic – to ensure our process is transparent, fair and accessible. Call me radical, but I think our County Committee should actually be allowed to vote on things. That is the point of democracy.”
A day later, on April 8th, both County Committee Chairs, Brendan Sciarra of Cape May County, and Michael Suleiman of Atlantic County, sent letters out to their committees announcing those very same virtual meetings of the entire Committee membership in order to vote on an amendment to their bylaws, extending the terms of their offices for one year.
According to a letter from Brendan Sciarra to the Cape May County Democratic Committee, he has called for a virtual meeting to be held on Wednesday, April 15, 2020 at 11AM, in order to vote for an amendment to the Committee bylaws.
The statement read in part:
“In response to the Court’s Order, the following proposed Amendment was submitted by a majority vote of the Executive Committee in accord with Article IX, Section 2 of the By-Laws of the Cape May County Democratic Committee, adopted March 16, 2016:”
- Article I. Membership. Section 4.In the event of the present pandemic health crisis in effect as of April of 2020, this Article of the By-Laws is hereby amended so that the terms of all currently serving Democratic County Committee members are hereby extended from four to five years ending on the Saturday following the June 2021 primary election. Those persons then elected shall be elected for a term of three years, ending June of 2024. Thereafter the terms of Democratic County Committee persons shall revert to four years, coinciding with the years of Presidential elections.
The statement went on to say, “The By-laws require the proposed Amendment to be considered at a meeting following its introduction and adopted by a two-thirds vote of the now serving members of the County Committee attending the meeting. Because of social distancing, we cannot meet in person. Accordingly, we will be holding a virtual meeting to discuss and enact the proposed Amendment to the By-laws.”
In a response the ruling, Sciarra said, “America is facing an unprecedented pandemic. The economy is frozen, jobs are disappearing, workers are filing for unemployment by the millions, and lives are literally on the line. Small business owners are in a panic as they struggle to meet overhead, so it is sad to see local activists being co-opted by their agenda driven political bosses to do their dirty work. Rather than putting the health and safety of their fellow constituents first and follow the recommendation of the NJDSC to postpone committee elections a selfish group of publicity seeking instigators would rather play partisan games that would put the public’s health at greater risk.”
“This is fundamentally about protecting voting rights and upholding our democratic process—and I can’t think of anything more significant than that,” countered Gatelein. “I’m glad chairman Sciarra is finally consulting his membership. It’s a shame that we had to take him to court for him to do that. Let’s remember that elections are an essential service—the bedrock of our democracy. How would you feel if Donald Trump canceled an election in order to extend his term? We urge all Committee members to vote NO on changing the bylaws to cancel the election.”
The Governor’s Executive Order 105 from March 9th, allowing for electronic collection of all petition signatures, would appear to completely undermine Chairmen Sciarra and Suleiman’s argument that holding Committee elections would put the health and safety of the public at risk, since no face to face meetings are necessary in order to get on the county ballot.
How would you feel if Donald Trump canceled an election in order to extend his term?Cassandra Gatelein
“The decision to arbitrarily postpone County Committee elections goes against the spirit of Executive Order 105,” said Helen Duda, one of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, “which Governor Murphy issued to ensure that our election process could continue in a safe and secure way during this unprecedented time. The executive order allowed prospective candidates together and submit nomination petitions electronically to allow for proper social distancing. It did not cancel the upcoming elections.”
“Even the [Cape May County] Republicans are moving forward with their County Committee election, simply because there is no rational reason not to,” argued Gatelein. “All other elections are moving forward as well. Canceling only the Democratic County Committee election is blatant voter suppression. It is exploiting a global pandemic to stop progressives from getting on the ballot. Voters are smart enough to see this for what it is – a shameful attempt to maintain power.”
On April 8, the same day as the judge’s ruling against the County Committees, Governor Murphy issued an executive order moving the primary election from June 2, to July 7, 2020, and suggested that going to all VBM (Vote By Mail) was also very likely.
“Preserving basic functions of our democracy is critical in this unprecedented time,” said Governor Murphy said when announcing EO105 a month ago. “Postponing our primary elections is a difficult, yet necessary, choice to ensure that our citizens can partake in their civic duty of voting.”
It should be no less important to be able to freely vote for Party leaders who hold an immense amount of power in deciding not only who can run for office, but also who gets preferential treatment on the ballot. Political Parties may be deemed private organizations, but they serve a critical function in our democracy and are therefore not just some social club that doesn’t affect the lives of thousands of registered voters.
It is worth nothing that Chairman Sciarra is currently on the ballot and running for Cape May County Freeholder as a Democrat, an election he apparently deems worth holding regardless of any perceived public health risk, especially given the likelihood of an all VBM (Vote By Mail) election, while an election for his own seat of power, and for which he is currently being challenged, is not. This is nothing short of selective logic and antithetical to participatory democracy.
Beyond the usual machinations of political parties to maintain power and control within their own little fiefdoms, it is further evidence that the Democratic Party in South Jersey, after decades of control by a corrupt political machine, is indeed broken and in need of reform. This is the very reason why activists, “co-opted” by values shared by the current leadership or not, have been clamoring for change. This is the reason so many interested Democrats ran for County Committee this year in an effort get involved and change things. And this is the reason why the Democratic Party is so dysfunctional right now.
This is, in fact, the same leadership that convinced us we had to vote for Jeff Van Drew, because he was the candidate of choice of power broker George Norcross, and who subsequently abandoned the Democratic Party while pledged his undying loyalty to Donald Trump. If that’s not disqualifying, in and of itself, I don’t know what is.
We have come to expect the Republican Party’s nefarious tactics and underhanded methods to disenfranchise voters in order to maintain power. But when you get the same treatment from the Democratic Party, the supposed Big Tent party, it’s hard to know where to turn, especially when they are blocking you from getting involved in the very party you wish to engage.
This is no way to run a democracy, even if it follows the well-worn rulebook for running a political machine, and it’s certainly no way to beat the party of Donald Trump and Jeff Van Drew. The Democratic Party is in no position to turn away those who want to get involved in the political process. The Democratic Party is not a monolithic entity like the GOP, but a coalition cobbled together from a diverse electorate. If one group of old white men believe they can hold onto power indefinitely, without sharing the reigns of power, that Party will eventually wither and die, just like those in charge.
The Democratic Party establishment has lost nearly every local election in the last half century in Cape May County. They are completely out of political power in both Cape May and Atlantic Counties, with both Counties and most municipalities within them, being run almost entirely by Republican majorities, if not absolutely. It’s even more curious in Atlantic County where Republicans aren’t even in the majority.
Which begs the question, what is the real motivation behind the local Democratic Party to act in this matter? Is it to energize the electorate, change government for the better, reengage the disenfranchised, and improve the lives of its citizens? Clearly not.
Without a logical alternative, we are left with the conclusion that the goal is no more complicated than the desire to maintain whatever power and prestige the current leadership assumes that they have. There is no other plausible answer when you go to such extreme measures in order to hinder the election of members of your own party. This certainly isn’t about public safety, which is an insulting claim to make in light of the seriousness of the current crisis.
Whether the current leadership can whip the votes they need to get 2/3 of the Committee membership to suspend democratic elections that will likely be entirely Vote By Mail (VBM) and involve zero threat to public safety, simply to maintain their own power structure, remains to be seen. Regardless of how this ends, the Party will emerge asking these same groups that they feel no compulsion to engage, to help them get out the vote, to canvass for candidates, put signs in their yards, call their neighbors, and do whatever is necessary to ensure that Democrats win in November.
But after this shameful display of petty, political rivalry, it is unclear how much appetite there will be to support candidates endorsed by the current leadership, let alone actually support its leadership moving forward.
The Democratic County Committees in Cape May and Atlantic Counties have a decision to make. Vote to embrace change, to expand the party, to engage a broader coalition of voters including minorities, women and traditionally disenfranchised groups, or to embrace the status quo, continue to lose elections year after year. You have to ask yourself, if the current party leadership is not winning elections, what are they doing to promote the Democratic Party? Are they raising money? Building the base? Engaging the electorate? Making policy? The answer to all these questions is an unequivocal no—and therein lies your answer.
If you want to see new life in the Party, vote NO on an amendment to the bylaws to suspend democratic elections. Vote NO on the status quo. Vote NO on a party system that rewards the powerful and ignores the powerless. Vote NO on suspending democracy. Vote NO on failed leadership.
Due to these meetings being part of a political party, and therefore considered private organizations, the virtual meetings are for current County Committee members only, all members were sent an email announcing the meeting and are supposed to be getting a follow-up letter in the mail giving them direction on how to participate in the meeting and cast their vote.These details could change on the whim of the Chairmen. If you are on the Committee, contact your Municipal Chair with questions on when the meeting is and how to vote.
Cape May County Committee Virtual Meeting. Wednesday, April 15, 2020 at 11AM
Atlantic County Committee Virtual Meeting. Thursday, May 7, 2020. No time provided.