Thursday, July 21, 2011

Disclosure Shoe on Other Foot Now

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

A new 501(c)(4) – i.e. a “shadow PAC” – is on the block in New Jersey and the criticism has been fast and furious.  I’m referring to One New Jersey, started by a group of Democratic strategists as a counterpoint to similar Republican-sponsored efforts.

The main charge leveled against this group is hypocrisy.  During the past year, Democrats assailed two GOP non-profit groups – Reform Jersey Now which promoted Governor Christie’s agenda and The Center for a Better New Jersey which assisted the Republicans’ legislative redistricting efforts – for not revealing their donor lists.  [Note:  Reform Jersey Now did release its list shortly before it disbanded.]

Taking a page from the opposition, One New Jersey’s founders say they will not release their donor list either.  That sound you now hear from the Democratic side of the aisle is the chirping of crickets.

To their credit, some Democrats, such as Senator Linda Greenstein, are sticking to their guns and calling for this group to be transparent as well.  However, there has been a deafening silence from most of her Democratic colleagues.  As columnist Charlie Stile puts it, “fear of losing” rather than the taint of hypocrisy is “what has them pacing the floor at night.”

I do agree that transparency should be a hallmark of government.  Direct and immediate disclosure can do a lot more to temper the negative effects of money in politics than most laws designed to set limits and restrict funding.  However, I’ll leave the moralizing on the disclosure issue to others.  My reason for writing this column lies more with this group’s public roll out.

In short, I’m a bit surprised by the clumsiness with which this effort was unveiled.

According to its website, the purpose of One New Jersey is to “shine a light on those elected officials who act against the best interests of New Jersey’s residents.”  Seems like a good idea at first glance, but it’s clear they have only one party’s elected officials in their sights.

More importantly, it’s not clear how substantive their critiques will be.  The only “light” shed so far is a press release drawing attention to some bad polling numbers for the governor.  Thanks for blowing the lid off that one!

But the real clunker was how they handled the disclosure issue itself.  First, the group’s founders said that One New Jersey will abide by the law, which does not require transparency – the same argument Democrats took the Republican groups to task for.

They also claimed that One New Jersey needs to keep its donors anonymous for fear of reprisal from the Christie administration.  There may be some truth to that – Trenton politics is getting pretty personal – but I highly doubt that any of the donors to this group are not already known to the world as critics of the governor.

And most incredulously, One New Jersey claims that it doesn’t need to reveal its donors because their motives are pure, unlike the self-serving interests of the donors to those Republican groups.   All I can reply to that is, “Says you!”

Do they really think anyone will buy that?  In fact, it’s exactly that kind of self-righteous smokescreen that gets New Jersey’s media commentators’ blood pumping.  You’re just asking for negative media coverage – and public cynicism – when you try to claim that justification.

The astonishing part of all this is that One New Jersey was started by the principals of well-known Democratic campaign strategy firms, namely White Horse Strategies and the powerhouse Message & Media.  These are supposedly the folks who launched the careers of Bob Menendez , Jim McGreevey and Jon Corzine.  And this is the best opening message they could come up with?  [Of course, two of those three clients eventually crashed and burned, so…]

Wouldn’t it have been better to roll out this group with something like the following statement?

"Our Democratic friends in the legislature have proposed disclosure legislation for these groups, but there is no chance that Republicans will support it or the governor will sign it.  Since the other side continues to use these groups to push their agenda, we’ve decided our only response now is to fight fire with fire.  Ultimately, we hope this effort will prod the GOP to change its mind on disclosure.”

Of course it won’t, but such a statement would have given One New Jersey better political cover. Instead they fell back on the trite – “we’re abiding by the law” – and the perennially unbelievable – “our purpose is noble”.

It’s worth noting that in December of last year, Joshua Henne, one of the masterminds behind One New Jersey, tweeted his endorsement of a Star-Ledger editorial that “Reform Jersey Now must go.”

Then, as now, the rationale for withholding these groups' donor lists rings hollow.  It only serves to reinforce the final sentiment of that editorial:  "The last thing New Jersey needs is another reason to mistrust its political leaders."

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Sweeney or Christie: Who’s More at Risk?

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

Here’s the story line so far.*

After successfully corralling enough Democratic legislators to pass pension and benefit reforms, Senate President Steve Sweeney allows the liberal wing of his party to control the budget process in order to score political points off Governor Chris Christie.  The governor won’t be outplayed and exacts revenge by making bigger cuts than he initially proposed without giving Sweeney a heads-up.  Sweeney knows he has to make amends with the liberal wing of his party and launches a staged tirade against the governor.

I buy most of this storyline up until the final scene.  There is no other way to put it.  Steve Sweeney was pissed.

I’m not saying that he is unaware of his precarious political position within his own party.  Just that the expletive-laden rant was genuine.

He was mad about two things.  First, as he states, he feels that the cuts were punitive and landed too harshly on the poor.  Regardless of how you view Christie’s line item veto choices, I take Sweeney at his word that the cuts upset him.

Secondly, he’s mad not only at the governor, but at himself for misjudging the governor’s willingness to play along with the political script that the Democrats had crafted for the budget process.

The verdict on this drama is that Sweeney ended up the big loser in this political game.  I disagree.

Certainly, there is a chance that disgruntled Democrats could oust him as Senate President.  But I think he will remain in his post as long he goes to his fellow legislators with a mea culpa:  he was played by Christie, he was mistaken for assuming Christie would be more judicious in his cuts, etc. etc.

Whether Sweeney stays or not, though, the bigger risk is run by Chris Christie.  His political capital, both in the state and nationally, is built on his reputation for shaking up the system and getting big things done with bi-partisan support.

The risk for Christie lies in two areas.  First, he has given his political opponents a new epithet to use against him: "mean-spirited".  The “bully” attack never really worked.  Few voters who don’t already disapprove of the governor’s policies think of him as a bully.  Among the remainder, bully may actually be a good thing considering what low opinion they have of the Trenton status quo.  However, mean-spirited is another matter entirely.

You can be a bully and still make decisions in the best interests of the state.  Being mean-spirited, on the other hand, means you make decisions based on personal political calculations in spite of what may be good for the state.  Whether or not you agree with Christie’s cuts, this line of attack can have some traction among female independent voters who have been wavering in their support for the governor.  [See here and here for a discussion of these voters.]

The other risk for Christie is where this leaves his erstwhile political allies in the legislative majority.  Steve Sweeney has been the single most important factor in the governor’s legislative success.  He has been the one thing standing between Christie and governmental deadlock.

While the other South Jersey Democrats and their Hudson and Essex coalition partners have supported the governor’s reforms, it is Steve Sweeney who has actually been a vocal advocate of these reforms for years.

If Sweeney is ousted from the leadership, Christie can bank on a complete shutdown of his legislative agenda.  But even if Sweeney stays on, Christie’s future success, particularly with education reform, is no sure bet.

The conciliatory tone of the governor’s office response to Sweeney’s diatribe is not part of a pre-orchestrated political gavotte, as some would have us believe.  It is the realization that Chris Christie needs Steve Sweeney more than Sweeney needs Christie.

While Steve Sweeney firmly believes in the education reforms that sit on his legislative docket, he now has little political or personal incentive to move them forward.  If he doesn’t, the big political loser in this dust-up may ultimately be Chris Christie.

The Record’s Charlie Stile lays out the scenario in more detail.