Money continues to corrupt politics, and it starts locally

Every once in a while, a political figure’s private, uncensored comment becomes public and becomes legend.

Readers of a certain age may recall Michael “Ozzie” Myers, a rude and strutting Congressman from the Philadelphia area who was recorded in 1979 by the FBI during a corruption sting, boasting, “Money talks in this business and bullshit works”.

Then there’s South Jersey political boss George Norcross, who boasts of his ability to force New Jersey’s Democratic governors to seek his blessing at his base of operations in Camden.

“I’m not going to tell you that [to] insult you, but in the end the McGreeveys, the Corzines, they’re all gonna be with me,’ Norcross told a Burlington County official in a recording that was released as part of a political retaliation investigation. at the beginning of the 2000’s.

“Not because they love me, but because they have no choice,” he said.

And now, in the age of the smartphone, we have the text of Matthew Gilson, a Republican lawyer and political consultant from Bergen, offering what appears to be concise and essential advice to Frank Pallotta, a former Republican investment banker from Mahwah , sent during the preparation of Pallotta’s bid for the 2020 5th congressional district seat.

“Buy the line,” Gilson wrote to Pallotta in May 2019.

In Pallotta’s view, Gilson was leading him down the path of de facto corruption.

It boiled down to this: filling the coffers of the Bergen County Republican Organization with large contributions. In return, grateful party leaders would grant him the coveted “line” or favorable position on the primary ballot, bracketed by other BCRO-blessed candidates.

In most cases, this is priceless. In New Jersey, “online” contestants almost always win.

Challengers who run “offline”, without organizational support, almost always lose.

Pallotta didn’t get the Bergen line, but still won the nomination in the chaotic, pandemic-delayed primary that year. He was finally defeated in November by incumbent Democrat Josh Gottheimer.

This year, Pallota, a former investment banker, is seeking the nomination again, and as happened two years ago, he was denied organizational support from the BCRO for the June 7 primary for the 5th District, which also includes parts of Passaic, Sussex and Warren counties.

U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran Nick De Gregorio won BCRO support at the party’s nominating convention in April. Shortly after his loss, Pallotta adopted the underdog pose against the machine, calling the convention “rigged” but vowing to persevere.

The publication of these three-year-old texts last week was an attempt to reinforce this personality, citing it as evidence of entrenched institutional corruption. He also started a war of interpretation with Gilson.

“That’s just not what you do. And I couldn’t live with myself,” Pallotta said, referring to Gilson’s texts urging him to donate money to BCRO. “I couldn’t look my dad in the eye who’s voted for every Republican since Eisenhower… That’s the only thing my dad talks about is running for office. So I never would have done that. “

Campaign consultant Matt Gilson texts Frank Pallotta about the 2020 House primary

Gilson took issue with Pallotta’s interpretation and argued that “buying the line” was part of an ongoing joke the two shared about another contestant. And, Gilson argued, he was simply advising him to invest big and early in order to scare off potential major rivals.

Gilson denied that there is a quid pro quo for an endorsement and noted that winning the party line is a much more complex undertaking. This requires campaigning for the support of grassroots party committee members. Yet Gilson did not dispute the fundamental role of money in a candidate’s pursuit of the party line.

“It’s, I mean, I don’t see any text in there…that shows anything saying ‘give me this and you get this,'” Gilson said last week. “It just shows the harsh reality that getting support in politics takes money, and I don’t think that’s a revelation to anyone.”

Campaign consultant Matt Gilson texts Frank Pallotta about the 2020 House primary

Yet the kerfuffle cast another unflattering spotlight on the county’s party machines, the corroded undercarriage of New Jersey politics.

Dangling the promise of winning the “line” has become the great source of power for party chairmen, who often have near-autocratic power to mobilize support behind favored candidates. And contestants who come with bags of cash often walk away with the coveted prize.

Reformers say it is at the root of everything that is wrong and inherently corrupt with the political system. The arms race for support often leaves less well-funded challengers on the party’s doorstep with no chance of winning.

It is an anti-democratic relic that reinforces patronage, critics say. Candidates remain beholden to county machinery throughout their careers, from city council to the Statehouse. Staying in favor of the boss at home helps lock the line for the next election. They become cogs in the machine.

And one way to get the line is to pay for it. That’s how New Jersey Democrats rallied around two exiles from Goldman Sachs and put them in the governor’s office.

Neither Jon Corzine nor Phil Murphy had ever held elected office, but they used their huge checkbooks to sideline far more experienced rivals.

And Republicans also rallied around Bob Hugin, a wealthy pharmaceutical executive who had never held elected office but still grabbed the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in 2016. He lost to Democratic U.S. Senator Bob Menendez in 2018, but is now the state’s Republican party. President.

“Maybe the language is different, but when they give county committees a lot of resources before the approval process, what is it to buy the line?” said Julia Sass Rubin, a professor at Rutgers University who has researched the role of the party line and advocates for reform at the grassroots level.

Change is wanted, but unlikely

Attempts to change the system remain elusive.

Lawmakers won’t touch the issue. Most of them are by-products and beholden to the boss at home.

A lawsuit seeking to reform the ballot process by grouping candidates by position rather than by organization has dragged on in federal courts.

And last year, Morris County Republicans chose to abandon the traditional open ballot process and replace it with the organizational line system. Party leaders said it was necessary to counter Democrats, who are steadily gaining ground in the longtime GOP stronghold.

Still, there are glimmers of change. And it bubbles from the base.

Party officials in the Liberal stronghold of Maplewood voted in February to allow all candidates to tie the knot, including those who failed to win the endorsement of Maplewood’s Democratic City Committee. They tried it for a year.

Officials there feared the traditional system would stifle competition. Candidates who failed to get the go-ahead from the city committee simply ended their candidacy, thinking they simply had no chance.

In Red Bank, another Democratic stronghold, a study is underway to consider moving to nonpartisan elections, which reformers say would reduce the need for primaries and open the process to more independent candidates. Frustration over factionalism within the local Democratic Party has prompted consideration of changes.

And some residents of Holmdel, a Republican stronghold also in Monmouth County, are pushing to replace the township’s five-member partisan committee with a nonpartisan system in hopes of weakening the hold of the party apparatus.

“I ran and didn’t even get a sniffle, a call, an interview, a glimpse of who I was from the local Republican Holmdel Committee,” said Ron Emma, ​​former candidate for the Holmdel Committee, in a public hearing. in February. “The party bosses made their decision, and I finally found myself in an election on line seven, which is, in other words, political Siberia.”

This is the start of a small, smoldering revolt. But maybe that’s where it should start. Starting from the top in Trenton is a waste of time.

As Ozzie Myers might say, money talks in New Jersey and the machine contestants go to Trenton. And they often stay there as long as the machine gives them the line.

Charlie Stile is a seasoned political columnist. For unlimited access to his unique knowledge of New Jersey’s political power structure and powerful surveillance work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: stile@northjersey.com

Twitter: @politicstile



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