Morris County Republicans long have practiced an admirable type of democracy – that’s with a small “d.”
Whether that continues – at least in its current form – is an open question and one that is bound to be raised at the June 12 party convention.
In short, the issue revolves around what is known as the “county line,” a system in which a county political organization endorses candidates in primaries. Those so anointed run with the imprimatur of party leaders, which can be quite an advantage.
The Morris GOP to its credit does thinks differently.
There are no party endorsements in primaries. If someone wants to run for Congress, freeholder, or whatever, they need not make a pitch to party leaders seeking an endorsement three months before the primary as is often the case elsewhere. All they need to do is fill out a nominating petition and their name goes on the ballot. In political-speak, this is an “open primary.”
Why is this a good thing?
It’s very simple. Everyone who runs has an equal chance. And saying the same thing in a different way, no one has the advantage of running as the candidate of the Morris County Republican Party. Primary voters get to decide who the favored candidate is.
Over the years, this process has had the desired effect of allowing individuals to challenge the political status quo and to sometimes win. Edward Rochford retired a year or so ago as county sheriff.
When he first ran in 1992, the incumbent was the late John M. Fox. By this time, Fox had his detractors, but it’s hard to see party leaders giving the line to Rochford, a largely unknown deputy police chief from Morris Township. Rochford ended up serving 22 years as sheriff, but without an open primary he probably would not have won in 1992.
Similarly, there seems no way at all Hank Lyon would have won a freeholder seat in 2011 against incumbent Margaret Nordstrom without an open primary.
And if you look between those two years, you can’t ignore 1994 when a young Chris Christie won a freeholder primary. No county committee would have given an endorsement to an unknown candidate who had recently moved into Morris County.
The point here should be obvious. An open primary allows new candidates to run – and sometimes win – potentially bringing different ideas and energy to the party.
Why would anyone want to change that?
This is not all that hard to figure out. Many in politics dislike surprises and an open primary certainly can provide them. And if you get rid of the open primary, you give party leaders more control.
Then there’s money.
Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco recently told NJ Spotlight that worthy candidates who deserve to win can be at a disadvantage in a primary if they go up against wealthy opponents who can spend lavishly.
OK. But under our current campaign finance system, rich candidates always have advantages over those of modest means. That’s certainly not unique to an open primary system.
Next Tuesday’s convention will settle a long and sometimes nasty fight for county Republican chair between Ronald DeFilippis of Roxbury and Robert Zwigard of East Hanover. The winner will replace Patti Page, who is not seeking reelection. Page has been just an interim chair anyway; she took the job a year or so ago after long-time chair John Sette resigned.
Chairman fights often have more to do with personality than issues and this is no exception.
In fact, both candidates say Morris Republicans need rejuvenation in the face of a greater threat – imagined or real – from Democrats.
Zwigard notes that “Morris County (now) has general elections and they’re not going away.” He wants to upgrade the party’s social media presence and to divide the county into four quadrants with party leaders in each to improve communication.
DeFilippis and his supporters say the committee is not doing as poor financially as their detractors claim. He says he also is determined to make engaging in Republican activities more rewarding for people than they are now.
But what will happen with the open primary?
Zwigard noted that no change can be made without the support of the full county committee, adding that it would take a minimum of 50 signatures on a petition to bring the matter up for discussion.
Asked his view, Zwigard said, “My feeling is let the county committee decide.”
DeFilippis was not available for comment late yesterday and early today.
State Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, R-Dist. 26, who backs DeFilippis, said that he (Pennacchio) would be open to considering a “hybrid” primary. That could be a system in which the county organization endorses for federal and high level state offices like governor, but not for those running down ballot.
Pennacchio noted that Assemblyman Jay Webber, who was privately backed by most Morris County Republican leaders, just ran in a congressional primary without the benefit of a county line.
True. But Webber won the primary, suggesting that he wasn’t hurt by the lack of an official county endorsement.
The upcoming convention definitely will decide who gets to run the Morris GOP..
But it also may help decide if Morris Republicans continue to practice their traditional form of democracy.