A Progressive’s Defense of the Party Line Ballot

You know that New Jersey progressive politics has truly entered Bizarro World when Congressman Andy Kim, the so-called progressive insurgent candidate for the Democratic Party’s nomination for the United States Senate, can go on the record in opposition to Medicare for All, a core progressive issue for decades, and the only thing that anybody, including CNN, wants to talk about is the party line ballot and Kim’s lawsuit to try to abolish it.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I used to be an opponent of the party line ballot as well.

That is, however, until the 2020 election cycle, when in response to Bernie Sanders supporters organizing an opposition line, led by Larry Hamm’s United States Senate primary election campaign, numerous Democratic Party county chairs made backdoor deals to make the Presidential primary election in their counties an open primary election, effectively decapitating him from Hamm, congressional, and other down-ticket candidates.  What this told me was that the county party organizations that have used the party line ballot for decades to maintain their power knew that this same party line ballot could also be used by their opposition to take away this power.

This is why ever since progressives announced that they would be going to federal court to abolish the party line ballot, I have been the lone progressive who has been opposed to this effort.  The argument that progressives make is that if the party line ballot is abolished and replaced with the block ballots that are only used in Salem and Sussex Counties (standard-bearers for progressive leadership that they are), New Jersey will, miraculously and suddenly, have competitive primary elections.  This is simply not true.  If anything, the opposite is true.

Progressives will have you believe that the only reason that their insurgent candidates lose Democratic Party primary elections to establishment candidates is because most voters vote down the regular organization line and ignore candidates who are running “off-the-line”.  The fact of the matter is that this is only one of several reasons why establishment candidates usually defeat insurgent candidates.  The other reasons have more to do with the money and (wo)manpower advantages that establishment candidates have over insurgent candidates.

It is no secret that incumbent candidates for elected office and party organizations are able to raise a lot of money from special interests, because they are in a position to influence policy-making that benefits those special interests.  Conversely, insurgent candidates can only count on small dollar donations from like-minded people and despite the fact that some high-profile progressives like Howard Dean, Barack Obama, and Bernie Sanders were very successful at grassroots fundraising, they are the exception rather than the rule.

For every Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who came out of nowhere to shock the political world in 2018 when she defeated Joe Crowley in a congressional primary election, there are thousands more like Zina Spezakis, who ran against Bill Pascrell, Jr., on the decapitated Larry Hamm line in 2020, and lost.  However, even in losing, Spezakis performed much better than past primary election challengers who did not run as part of an opposition line, even a decapitated one.  Historically, primary election challengers to incumbent congressional candidates struggle to get 5% of the vote.  Zina Spezakis received 17% of the vote against Pascrell in 2020.

Even more important than the power of money is the power of people.  Organization-backed candidates have county committeepersons advocating on their behalf in nearly every election district in the state.  Insurgents only have like-minded individuals.  In Democratic Party primary elections, organization-backed candidates, more often than not, have the support of labor unions, whose thousands of members campaign on behalf of endorsed candidates.

Yes, the party line ballot plays a role in the outcome of primary elections, but establishment candidates almost always win primary elections, because they have more money, are better organized, and the people involved in their organizations work very hard to help them win elections.  And on the rare occasion when an insurgent candidate is better organized than her establishment candidate opponent, she wins.

The candidate who I am always reminded of when I think about the party line ballot is former Fanwood Mayor Maryanne Connelly, who was able to defeat the Union County Manager, Michael LaPolla, in the 2000 Democratic Party primary election in New Jersey’s 7th Congressional district.  Connelly had been the Democratic Party’s nominee in 1998 and came closer to defeating then-Congressman Bob Franks than any Democrat had in that district in decades.

However, after Franks decided to run for the United States Senate in 2000 instead of for re-election to his congressional seat, State Senator Ray Lesniak recruited LaPolla to run for the Democratic nomination instead of Connelly.  Once Connelly realized that she was not going to be able to run on the organization line in Middlesex and Union Counties, she agreed to run on an opposition line with former Governor Jim Florio.

In addition to bracketing with Florio, Connelly also did something very clever.  At the Somerset County Convention, she encouraged the County Committeepersons who were supporting her to vote for Jeff Golkin, a favorite son candidate who finished behind LaPolla in the first round of voting.  With her support, Golkin defeated LaPolla and was placed on the line in Somerset County.

With her ballot position on the Florio line in all three counties and LaPolla having to run off the line in Somerset County, Connelly was able to overcome LaPolla’s narrow margins of victory in Middlesex and Union Counties by winning big in Somerset.  This proved that it is possible to win a primary election in something as big as a congressional district.

It is even more possible in counties, large cities/towns, and legislative districts.  In 2002, Joe DiVincenzo defeated then-Essex County Chairman Tom Giblin in the County Executive primary election, running off the line.

In 2003, incumbent State Senator Nia Gill, backed by progressive supporters of Howard Dean’s Presidential campaign, defeated her primary election challenger, Leroy Jones.  Gill had been denied the party line in the primary election campaign, because she had supported Giblin against DiVincenzo, while Jones backed DiVincenzo.

In 2005, Jun Choi, another progressive insurgent candidate, backed by Dean supporters, was able to defeat Edison Mayor George Spadoro in the township’s mayoral primary election campaign.  In addition to having the support of progressives, Choi was able to do something that no other candidate had ever been able to do previously in the township’s history, which was to unite its East Asian and South Asian communities.

In 2017, Governor Phil Murphy received less than 50% of the vote in the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial primary election, running against five opponents who divided the anti-Murphy vote.  Murphy was on the party line in all 21 counties.  This clearly proved that whatever impact the line may have, it is far less impactful on races at the top of the ballot than those further down on the ballot.

This may be one of many reasons why Congressman Kim is not doing what Governor Florio did in 2000 against Jon Corzine and what Congressman Rob Andrews did in 2008 when he challenged incumbent United States Senator Frank Lautenberg, which is to build opposition lines by bracketing with down-ticket candidates.  For a Senate race that is only one row column over or row down from the Presidential race, which is all but uncontested with only Congressman Dean Phillips, who recently finished far behind the Michigan Uncommitted movement, representing token opposition to President Joe Biden.

Kim knows that the only real advantage that having an opposition line gives to the candidate at or near the top of the ballot is that it gives him an equal chance of being placed in Column/Row A as opposed to Column/Row B.  He also knows that if he brackets with down-ticket candidates, it would require the county party organizations to work harder to drive turnout on behalf of their challenged candidates, which would likely in turn drive turnout on behalf of his opponent, First Lady Tammy Murphy.

This raises the question of how committed Congressman Kim is to the so-called progressive organizations that are supporting him and their issues of concern.  We already know that he is opposed to Medicare for All.  At least he is being honest about this now.

Back when he first started running for Congress in late 2017, he would tell anyone who asked that he supported Medicare for All.  I can only guess that he did not want to deal with a primary election challenger, running against him from his left.  Once he became the Democratic nominee and had to win a general election in a historically purple-pink district, he quickly developed selective amnesia.

Clearly, Kim is unconcerned about alienating progressives with his position on Medicare for All.  The only progressive organization in New Jersey that has ever advocated for Medicare for All is Our Revolution-New Jersey and they are supporting Patricia Campos Medina for Senate, not Andy Kim.

Is it possible that neither these so-called progressive organizations nor their endorsed candidate, Congressman Kim, are progressive at all?  Except for their advocacy against the party line ballot, are there any issues for which they stand that would clearly define them as progressive?  Green New Deal?  Student Loan Forgiveness?  Tuition Free College?  Buehler?  Buehler?  Buehler?

If you believe that the party line ballot is inherently anti-democratic, it would stand to reason that opposing it is progressive.  However, is it anti-democratic, much less regressive?

You could make that argument if you live in Camden County, Essex County, Hudson County, Passaic County, or Union County, where the line is not awarded by a vote of all County Committeepersons, who are elected by the registered Democrats in their election district to represent them.  However, if the party line ballot is only as democratic (or anti-democratic) as the county or local party organization that awards it, then it isn’t the ballot itself that is anti-democratic.  It is the organization.

If the county party organizations were the only organizations that were allowed to bracket candidates, opponents would have a much stronger argument against it.  However, we know for a fact that this is not the case.  So what is preventing progressive insurgents throughout the state from working together to build an opposition line against the organization-backed establishment candidates in every election district, municipality, county, and congressional/legislative district?

This is the question that I have been asking for the last two decades.  Res ipsa loquitor.  The thing speaks for itself.

In the wake of the Presidential campaigns of Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders, a myriad of so-called progressive organizations (Progressive Democrats of America-New Jersey, Democracy for America-New Jersey, Blue Wave New Jersey, Organizing for America-New Jersey, Indivisible-New Jersey, and Our Revolution New Jersey to name a few) came into existence along with some that were simply focused on turning their Republican-represented congressional district Democratic.

The problem with having so many organizations in the state that consider themselves to be progressive is that there is no central leadership that works towards knitting them together into some kind of meaningful alternative and opposition to the regular county and local Democratic Party organizations.  Each organization believes that they and their members are the most progressive in the state, so why would they ever cede anything to any other organization.

In addition, many of these organizations have very little, if any, interest in opposing county and local Democratic Party organizations and candidates.  They have only latched onto the party line ballot as their cause celebre very recently and it is possible that they would not have even considered backing Kim against Murphy if he had not come out against the party line ballot.

What nobody in any of these so-called progressive organizations is talking, much less thinking, about is what primary elections in New Jersey would actually look like if the party line ballot was abolished and every primary election ballot looked like the Salem/Sussex ballot.  Does anybody honestly believe that there is going to be a flood of ambitious progressive insurgent candidates all over the state who were waiting for the day that the party line ballot was abolished so that they could finally have a chance to compete against establishment incumbents on a level playing field?

Of course not.  If there were hundreds, if not thousands of serious progressive candidates waiting for their chance to run for local, county, state, and federal offices, they would have filled up our ballots in 2016 and 2020 when we were building opposition lines for Bernie Sanders.

The simple fact of the matter is that it is not easy to recruit people to run for elected office.  The party organizations often struggle to find good people to run for office, which is why they usually have to settle for someone who is either controllable or inherently loyal.

Progressives most certainly do not want to run for office.  More than anything, they like to be keyboard warriors who can scream about whatever issue du jour is bothering them on any given day.  On occasion, they might be willing to go to a meeting, but only if they know that they will have a chance to talk.

Progressives waste countless minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years of time in meetings where nearly half of the meeting is spent going around the room and giving everybody the chance to introduce themselves and talk about what brought them to that meeting.  As soon as that part of the meeting is over and whatever unfortunate soul has found themselves in a position of leadership of the meeting tries to talk about the work that needs to be done to accomplish whatever the goal of the meeting might have been, the attention spans of everyone in the room go anywhere but where it should be.  Your average kindergarten class is more productive than a room full of progressives.

Progressives do not like to work.  They like to talk.  They like to feel heard.  They do not like to work, and when push comes to shove, that is the big difference between local and county party organizations and progressive organizations.

Yes, the local and county party organizations are able to raise money from special interests and that money buys TV time and paid walk programs, but in addition to all of that, most committeepersons are serious people who take their role very seriously.  Many are public employees and/or union members/leaders who have been able to get/keep their jobs, because of their role as a cog in the political machine.  Others are ambitious people who want to have the chance to run for office someday and believe that the work that they do will lead to that opportunity.

Progressives are for the most part neither ambitious nor serious.  They might think that they are, but they are not.  Most don’t have time to be.  Most have families and jobs that consume most of their lives and what little free time they have, they spend ranting about everything that is wrong in the world to whomever will listen to them.

Occasionally, a rare ambitious and charismatic person will emerge from the progressive noise and that person will be just exciting enough to attract just enough attention to themselves to be somewhat interesting.  For a while, that person was Jim Keady until hubris and his libido got the best of him.  Then it was Larry Hamm.  Now, it is Patricia Campos Medina.  I did not include Sue Altman and Andy Kim in that group, because they are establishment candidates, posing as progressives.

This is why I believe that the abolition of the party line ballot would be the final nail in the coffin for progressive organizing in New Jersey.  The only hope for progressives is that they come to the realization collectively that the only way that their candidates can ever have a chance to seriously compete with establishment candidates is to build local, county, state, and national organizations that actually mirror local, county, state, and national party organizations, not the scattershot alphabet soup of progressive acronyms that mean absolutely nothing.

The only thing that might force them to do that here in New Jersey is the party line ballot.  The party line ballot is the discipline and organization that progressives and progressive organizations must have if they want to actually win elections and influence policy-making.

The party line ballot demands that progressives build local organizations in every municipality ensuring that they will have both candidates for elected office and party office throughout the state.  From this base, everything can be built upwards.  Candidates for county, state, and federal offices will emerge.

By building and maintaining an opposition line year in and year out, this progressive infrastructure will be better able to engage the voter universe and that voter universe will be trained (just as they have been trained to vote the party line) to recognize an expect both an establishment line and a progressive insurgent line.  Victories will not happen overnight, but they will happen, most likely somewhere that nobody would have every expected.

It’s not that challenging for a progressive insurgent to win a contested primary election in somewhere like Cape May, Hunterdon, or Warren Counties.  This is probably the reason why the Salem/Sussex ballot exists in these counties.  Nobody in either county was ever invested enough in the outcome of primary elections there to implement that degree of organizational discipline.

However, if progressive insurgents could actually commit and dedicate themselves to something other than the sounds of their own voices in less than a decade of organizing and hard work, they would start to pull off some upsets in purple and blue counties.  At the same time, the energy and enthusiasm that they would produce from these years of hard work would also help them to begin the process of changing red counties and towns to pink and purple counties as well as purple counties to blue counties and so on and so forth.

However, that will never happen If the party line ballot is abolished.  If progressives ever won a major victory in court and the party line ballot was actually abolished, they would spend no less than five years afterwards taking a victory lap and feeling self-important.

During that same amount of time, the local and county party organizations would become even more disciplined and organized.  They would leverage even more money out of their donor base.  They would lean into their financial and people power.

The outcomes of primary elections would be even worse, because progressives would become even less organized and more complacent than they were before.  The rare progressive insurgent candidates who are ambitious and charismatic enough to attract attention to themselves will suck up all of the oxygen and less ambitious and charismatic candidates will find themselves even more isolated.

Previously, when we were building opposition lines for Bernie Sanders, we had a mix of all kinds of candidates, varying significantly in terms of quality, but because they were part of our line, they became a team.  Like any team, there are stars and there are role players and great teams need both.

Abolishing the party line ballot would disconnect candidates who might have otherwise benefitted from being connected.  Every candidate would have to be a star to have any chance to compete and even the stars would not have the support of the role players that they might have otherwise needed to succeed.

As the parent of two children, I often hear them complain about fairness.  It is the go-to of the participation trophy generation.  Personally, I don’t have a problem with participation trophies when it comes to children’s activities where winning and losing is less important than trying, regardless of whether the outcome is failure or success, especially since we learn more from failure than success.

However, when I hear progressives complain about the party line ballot, I am reminded of my children complaining about fairness.  The big difference is that democracy is an adult activity for the most part and while I believe with every fiber of my being that every adult (and even some teenagers – ages 15 to 17) citizen of the United States should have the right to vote in our elections, not everyone is qualified to be a candidate for elected office.  Sue Altman, the Democratic congressional nominee in CD7 could not even get herself on the ballot for a County Committee seat a few years ago.

In the film, “A League of Their Own” Tom Hanks has a great line about baseball and it applies to politics as well.  He said, “It’s supposed to be hard.  If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it.  The hard is what makes it great.”

The Republican Party has clearly forgotten this because they have lowered the barriers to entry for their elections to such a degree that any dimwitted wingnut like Lauren Bobert and Marjorie Taylor Greene can get elected.  The Democratic Party should be better than this and the party line ballot helps them be better here in New Jersey.

Fortunately, I do not believe that the party line ballot will be abolished regardless of the outcome of the Senate primary election.  If Andy Kim is able to convince enough progressives that he is one of them and he pulls off one of the biggest upsets in New Jersey political history, it will prove to whatever court is considering this challenge that the party line ballot is not as impactful as its opponents say that it is and they will dismiss the case with extreme prejudice.

But even if progressives come to their senses and realize that 1) the Andy Kim who is now lying to them about opposing the party line ballot is the same Andy Kim who lied to them about supporting Medicare for All back in 2018, 2) both Tammy Murphy and Patricia Campos Medina are far more progressive than he is, and split their vote between them, resulting in a landslide victory for Murphy and a disappointing fourth place finish for Kim behind Bob Menendez, it will be clear that the outcome of this election was less about the party line ballot and more about candidates being honest with the voters about who they are and what they stand for.

For decades, the courts have viewed party organizations as private entities and allowed them to operate under the bylaws that they have established to govern their operations.  They have been reticent to interfere in those operations in the past and I expect that they will remain reticent going forward.

If I am correct about this, New Jersey progressives will have no choice but to become as disciplined and as organized as their Democratic establishment adversaries or they will continue to be irrelevant and have no influence over policymaking.  If I am wrong and they win their court case, it will be the last victory that they experience in this state for a very long time.

Jamesburg Borough Councilperson Bertin Lefkovic was a Bernie Sanders delegate to the 2016 Democratic National Convention and is the Vice Chair of the Democratic Organization of Jamesburg and a Middlesex County Democratic Committeeperson.

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7 responses to “A Progressive’s Defense of the Party Line Ballot”

  1. Lefkovic went on for thousands of words and never once explained why the country’s 49 other states made the wrong choice use using block instead of line ballots for primary elections. I agree with him that ending the line won’t lead to a resurgence of progressives or decline in machine politics with county bosses. But that’s not a reason to keep the line.

    I invite anyone to compare a Democratic primary block ballot from Salem Co. and a line ballot from Camden Co. and tell me Camden County’s is the better design. I couldn’t care less about a ballot advancing progressive politics; I simply want a ballot that is easy to understand.

    But that’s not what Lefkovic is about. He apparently wants progressives to realize that they can use the line’s unfair advantage to their advantage, just as the county machines have done for decades. No thanks.

  2. Let’s simplify the process and change the government in the process instead of insanely voting for Democrat-Communists election cycle after election cycle and hoping for a different result.

    Put all Republicans at the top of the ballot line for the next 20 years and let’s see how New Jersey fares.

  3. Fortunately most progressives- heck most fair minded people of all political inclinations – recognize the line is a corrupt way to organize a ballot and is designed to game elections. The writer seems more concerned that his particular ideology can also game some the elections using the line.
    No matter what anyone thinks of specific political positions, Andy Kim has done a great service already to the state by highlighting just how corrupt the county line is in New Jersey.

  4. What this fails to mention is the ballot draw starts with the Senate, so Congressman Kim has little to gain with his lawsuit—worst he will be is “column 4” but the idea he is expected to build 19 brackets on un-uniform ballots is insane.

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