Don’t Count out Party Bosses Just Yet

All Primary

Many people are assuming that because a US judge scrapped New Jersey’s ballot design for June primary that party bosses have lost power.

Progressives and others have been looking for a magic bullet to equalize the advantage the party line gives party candidates, and mistakenly assume that this comes because of the way the ballot is set up – the old political adage of “Vote A all the way” or some other kind of phrasing.

While a federal judge’s ruling to force the state to scrap its primary design may make it more difficult for organization candidates, it hardly destroys the influence of party bosses as is being alluded to.

Political elections are an organized sport, and in New Jersey it is the organization that decides the outcome, how to get the vote out on election day, how to make people aware of the candidates Party Bosses have chosen, and none of these factors have changed.

The party bosses will continue to decide who gets support and funding, regardless of the so called “magic bullet” that changes how these candidates are presented on the ballot.

Political workers loyal to the party will continue to raise money, register voters and get their people out on election day, and the party bosses will continue to decide which candidates the organization is going to support with soldiers and funding.

This is particularly true in primary elections which are often decided by a handful of votes (with the exception of someone like state Senator and Union City Mayor Brian Stack) and those political machines with the most money and soldiers are going to get their vote to the polls and will be able to steer their voters to the “right” candidate.

If anything, the reconfiguration of the ballot is a relatively minor inconvenience for party bosses, who will be required to spend more money and more time “educating” the electorate.

The assumption that placement on the ballot is going to alter the police system is a fantasy, since generally those who run against the machine have fewer workers, little money and even less name recognition.

Progressives and other non-machine candidates are relying on ballot placement rather than on the nuts and bolts of what makes machine candidates successful – and the change imposed by the federal judge may actually force party leaders to revert to an older school of politics, reenlisting ward leaders and require a greater reliance on committee people to get their candidates elected.

We could see party clubs reemerging from which workers and candidates were drafted in the distant past.

The idea that party bosses will lose power is an illusion, as made evident by the upcoming war for chairmanship of the Hudson County Democratic Organization.

If the ruling did what many claim, nobody in their right mind would want to rule the roost.  In the past, reorganization of the party leadership was almost a foregone conclusion, often leaving out those people who are making the most noise about the advantage of a ballot position. The fight over ballot position has always been contentious.  A decade ago, Bayonne candidate Anthony Chiappone forced a change that allowed the selection to be done by lottery. The system did not dramatically change the outcome, nor will the court decision, merely making the machine spend more time and money to achieve the same outcome.

The fact is that the party system in New Jersey and in Hudson County is already much more democratic than it was in the past under party leaders such as Frank Hague.

In Hudson County, party bosses are not nearly as powerful as being portrayed in the aftermath of this court ruling. Most decisions are not made by the party chairman, but rather by the majority of mayors.

Workers generally do not ascribe to a particular political philosophy as many of the progressives do. Instead, they become members of the dominant party because they get benefits such as potential future jobs, or other rewards, and they work very hard to get their candidates to win.

Patronage jobs remain one of the most important incentives for party workers and those involved with the machine. For several decades, North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco has controlled many county jobs. But the machine almost guarantees mayors of the 12 municipalities their fair share – one more good reason why they work so hard to get machine candidates elected, and one that does not vanish simply because a federal judge decided to change the ballot placement.

While it is likely that the upcoming war for control of the county machine will likely be contentious, it is not going to reduce the influence party bosses have, and as long as there are jobs to be dished out or appointments to be made, the party bosses will continue to dominate local politics – simply because they will still have workers, money and the overall machine to win primaries, where others do not.

Changing the ballot doesn’t change the fundamental funding mechanism that comes with home rule. The party that makes appointments to various boards, controlling aspects of development will always have a significant financial advantage over independent or progressive candidates who do not oversee land issues, and under New Jersey law, it is local government that controls where taxes go, who gets hired locally and such, not the state or federal governments.

Discretional power over expenditure gives the local governments a great deal of power. While they are required to maintain roads, schools, municipal buildings, parks and other things, they also get to decide who gets appointed, hired or contracts.

Political machines are strongest in urban areas that have major cities like Jersey City, Newark or Paterson. So, you would think that Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop would be embracing the system rather than running against it. His opposition suggests he did does not feel confident that he can rely on the machine to support him in his run for governor, just as other candidates running for state wide office are looking for a way to counter the roll control of patronage has on getting candidates elected. If you can’t promise something to the workers, it is most likely they won’t be working hard on your behalf. As mayor, Fulop was in a position to reward his supporters, only he will be a lame duck mayor at the time of the Democratic Primary in 2025.

The election of U.S. Senator is even trickier. For all the prestige a Senator has, he or she has very little influence over appointments and jobs, and so, must rely on party bosses in each county to motivate their workers. Changing the ballot doesn’t change that basic reality.

Those cheering the ballot change in the upcoming primary are looking at it as a magic bullet to make up for lack of their ability to offer their followers anything substantial as a reward for their support, and, in fact, the move could actually come back to haunt them as party bossed – who feel threatened by these moves – might work against these candidates or as President Biden learned recently in Michigan – they might sit out the primary and more importantly, the general election, holding back workers and other resources these candidate might need if they are lucky enough to win their party’s nomination.

It is a huge mistake to believe that ballot ruling will destroy party bosses, but it may irritate them. As long as they have patronage to offer, the party bosses will get to decide who runs and who the party will support ultimately.

 

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2 responses to “Don’t Count out Party Bosses Just Yet”

  1. “Non-machine candidates” is an interesting turn of phrase. And they are NOT relying on ballot placement rather nuts and bolts. They just don’t want to be in ballot Siberia where the average voter doesn’t even look.
    And no one doubts that bosses will find new ways to boss.
    Also there are at least two typos in this article.

  2. No one is calling the ruling a magic bullet, but it’s certainly a small start to giving ordinary non connected candidates an opportunity. Additionally, you are claiming that the party bosses will now pivot and register and educate new voters. Those do nothing bosses haven’t done that in years. In fact, most of them don’t even have a real or effective GOTV team. Of course the bosses still have control, but they only control a small minority of people that work city and county jobs. Voters fed up with all of the corruption and poli-tricks have mostly stopped voting, which is why turnout is so poor around the country, or they stay on the sidelines until someone new comes about that inspires them. Party bosses will gradually lose more power as more lawsuits are filed to help even the Political Playing Field.

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