Democrats firmly hold the reigns of power in New Jersey, so why do so many of those elected to office seem to lack the ideological conviction one would expect from a member of the Democratic Party?
In our current hyper-polarized political environment, activists on either end of the political spectrum are fond of purity tests that endeavor to shame anyone brazen enough to sully the ideology of the party by suggesting a more moderate or centrist approach that might appeal to members of the opposing party.
Democrats like to think of themselves as a so-called “big tent” party, meaning they encompass a large contingent of disparate groups representing a wide variety of ideologies, constituents, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. There is, one would expect, an ideological spectrum of ideas, ranging from moderate to fringe, running through the party, much as you might expect to find in any large organization. But the corruption that we have been forced to endure in the Garden State goes far beyond the bounds of being an inclusive party, and is instead a sign of the deliberate and cynical ambition in place of anything that could be remotely identified as ideological or principled.
New Jersey has long been a dependable Blue state, having voted for the Democratic candidate in every election since 1992 and controlling both chambers of the state legislature since 2002, yet there remain deep pockets of red along the Jersey Shore and in northwestern New Jersey, including Ocean, Warren, Hunterdon, and Cape May counties. Somehow we still managed to elect Chris Christie, a tough-talking Republican who sold himself as a moderate and after super storm Sandy was polling in the high 70’s. But after a failed presidential bid and several brutal scandals, he left office with a record-low approbate rating of just 14%.
As a state that has been considered highly diverse since the turn of the last century, New Jersey has gotten even more so in the past decade. Overall the last decade, there are slightly fewer whites (though still the majority at 59%), a growing number of Hispanics (18%), slightly more blacks (13%) and Asians (8%).
New Jersey ranks fourth behind California, Texas and Hawaii as the most diverse states in the country. That should tell you something about how dominant white culture still is in America, when the fourth most diverse state in the country remains 59% white. The US Census Bureau predicts that by 2044 that the US will no longer have a single ethnic majority (currently non-hispanic whites) and will continue to grow even more diverse.
Despite our Blue bonafides, due to our diverse electorate and dense population centers, we have a reputation for electing the kind of conservative Democrats that in any other state might be mistaken for a Republican. There is a simple answer to this phenomenon and that is a lot of them simple aren’t actually Democrats, in name or otherwise. For many of them becoming a Democrat wasn’t an ideological choice, but a path to power.
If you are a Republican, floundering in a deep blue sea of a Democratically-controlled state, and you have a thirst for political power, you have to two choices: Move or become a Democrat. That doesn’t mean you change political philosophies, you just change political parties.
Our most famous recent example of course is Congressman Jeff Van Drew, who was always considered a conservative even though he consistently ran and won as a Democrat. It was clear that if he wanted a political future, he would have to join the Democratic Party because as a State Senator, the political power lay in the hands of the Democratic Party. It didn’t matter that he opposed gay marriage and the right to choose, and enthusiastically supported gun rights and anyone in a uniform. He might have run as a Democrat, but he was always a Republican at heart, and his conservative constituents knew that. It wasn’t really a shock then to ideological Democrats that he switched parties, it was only a shock to the political machine that had counted him as a loyal member of their power structure. In the end, he abandoned the Party when he realized he had no chance of being re-elected as a Democrat. He tied his wagon to the Trump train and is hoping for the best. If Trump ends up derailing the entire Republican party this November, which looks entirely possible, Jefferson’s career in politics will most likely be over in South Jersey.
Van Drew is but a technicolor example of this phenomenon here in the Garden State, where Senate President Steve Sweeney routinely blocks the agenda of the Democratic Governor. The de facto head of the Democratic Party is George Norcross, the unelected businessman, power broker and childhood friend of Sweeney. And right here in Cape May County, the Democratic Party is being run by County Chairman Brendan Sciarra, another opportunistic businessman who saw a path to power within the Democratic Party and conveniently switched parties in order to gain a foothold. After leaving countless Committee seats vacant for years, he reportedly spent $15,000 of his own money to recruit and get elected, persons who would be loyal to his leadership on the Committee, a plan that would appear to have been successful. This was Plan B presumably, after his earlier attempt to scuttle elections this year entirely were overturned by a judge.
The problem with all this is that local Democrats are under the impression that the people in power are fighting for Democratic ideals by electing real Democrats to office. But you have to ask yourself, why are they so terrible at getting anyone elected? What is the purpose of their leadership if they don’t actually win elections? Why are they spending their own money simply to lose elections unless there is another payoff down the road?
Progressive groups, who have been trying to involve themselves in the Democratic Party, have been routinely blocked and shunned by Sciarra and his political supporters such as politically-connected attorneys like Stephen Barry and Liz Casey. This is the same group of political power brokers, under the direction of George Norcross, that engineered Van Drew’s takeover of Frank LoBiondo’s congressional seat, calling it a historic Democratic victory. In essence they took the long way around to return it to Republican hands, to a man who is even more conservative than the Republican he replaced. They’ve appointed party loyalists to State Committee seats and made back-room deals to put their preferred candidates in places where they could influence the right people. They appointed Allison Murphy, Van Drew’s longtime chief of staff, as the County’s Democratic State Committeewoman and they actively campaigned for Bob Andrzejczak, a Democrat on Van Drew’s team, who prior to be voted out of office following his mentor Jeff Van Drew’s departure from the party, told a reporter that he hadn’t entirely ruled out voting for Donald Trump in 2020.
New Jersey claims to be a Democratic State, but be careful who you vote for when someone says they’re a Democrat. They may just be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, especially if the wolf is wearing a blue suit and asking to see your teeth. Your vote isn’t be used to solve the issues of racial inequality, criminal justice reform, better education, addiction or homelessness, it is being used to prop up a powerful political machine and promote cronyism.
You can help to break the cycle of political corruption in New Jersey, and you can start with breaking up the power structure right here in Cape May County. Join Cape May County Indivisible, or one of the other progressive groups calling for change and the end of the political machine. Get involved. Stop voting against your own self-interests. Ask questions. Stop accepting the status quo.