By BERTIN LEFKOVIC
If Peter Jacob, Jim Keady, or Dana Wefer had run against Bob Menendez in New Jersey this year, what happened in New York, when a Berniecrat named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset Rep. Joe Crowley of New York in the Democratic primary election would not have been nearly as big of a story as it is, because any of them and possibly a few others might have defeated him. Who knows? Maybe the shock of Menendez’s defeat here in New Jersey would have better prepared the New York Democratic establishment for what was figuratively and literally coming up the pike their way and it wouldn’t have happened. If our failure made your success possible, New York Berniecrats, you’re welcome.
Now that the 2018 primary election season is over and the New Jersey Democratic establishment exited mostly unscathed from yet another rigged cycle, the opportunity presents itself to look at this year of disappointment and failure on the part of New Jersey’s progressive insurgent community, particularly magnified by Lisa McCormick performing significantly better than anyone might have imagined, not because of any merit of her own candidacy, but simply because she was the only opposition that our state’s senior senator, Bob Menendez, faced, despite being indicted last year and censured by his own Senate colleagues earlier this year, and because Menendez’s likely Republican opponent, spent millions of dollars reminding people about how corrupt he truly is.
McCormick’s campaign manager/significant other, James Devine, has already declared victory and named himself and McCormick the leaders of New Jersey’s progressive community, because he has been involved in New Jersey politics long enough to know that the truth is irrelevant. Against a legitimate incumbent with even neutral approval ratings, it would be a miracle for a candidate as poorly organized and unqualified as her to crack 5% of the vote, much less 10% or 20%, yet on a purely percentage point basis, she outperformed Bernie Sanders and she received more votes than Rob Andrews got against Frank Lautenberg (who was, interestingly enough outpaced by Menendez) in 2008 with organization support in 1/3 of the state (although some have speculated that she might have been unofficially supported by the same Norcross political machine that backed Andrews ten years earlier with the hope that a poor showing from Menendez might embarrass him out of the race, creating an opportunity for George’s baby brother, Donald, to replace him).
But the point of this article is what might have been. What would have happened if we could turn the clocks back by a year or so and if any of the people who ran for Congress in 2018 or Governor in 2017 would have filled the leadership void for New Jersey’s progressive Democratic insurgents and taken on Bob Menendez in an all-out war for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party? The basic premise of this speculation is that a legitimate candidate, launching their candidacy last summer and leveraging all of the negative publicity that the Menendez trial would have provided, would have had the time to fundraise and organize sufficiently to not only support their own challenge, but the challenges of like-minded downticket candidates.
If the disconnected efforts of progressive insurgents in CD2, CD4, CD7, and CD11 were enough to get Lisa McCormick from the 5-10% range to the 35-40% range, what might the coordinated efforts of progressive insurgents in all 12 congressional districts, all 21 counties, and a significant percentage of the municipalities throughout the state have accomplished? Even if it didn’t produce a statewide victory, it might have produced an unexpected number of upsets up and down the ballot throughout the state.
Who are some of the men and women who could have beaten Bob Menendez in 2018?
TIER ONE: THE TRUE PROGRESSIVE CHAMPIONS
One could liken Peter Jacob and Jim Keady, the most popular and well-known Bernie Sanders disciples in New Jersey politics to the Biblical sons of Isaac, Jacob and Esau. Peter has the book of Bernie committed to memory and is significantly better at communicating Bernie’s message than Bernie himself, particularly when it comes to Medicare for All, while Jim tends to blaze his own path, while still arriving at many of the same places.
Either could have easily and quickly mobilized the Bernie Sanders faithful to bracket behind them and run for Congress as well as county and local offices throughout the state. If they had asked them to, nobody would have hesitated to take on incumbent Democratic Congresspersons like Josh Gottheimer (especially Josh Gottheimer), Donald Norcross, Frank Pallone, Donald Payne Jr., Bill Pascrell, Albio Sires, and Bonnie Watson Coleman and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo.
Peter would have had the added benefit of exciting New Jersey’s fast-growing and highly-educated Indian-American community, which doesn’t have much of a presence in CD7, but could be very impactful in a statewide race as Vin Gopal will prove when he runs for the Senate in 2020 or 2024 or Governor in 2025 or 2029.
Unfortunately, both Jacob and Keady were committed to running for Congress in their respective districts, believing that they could mobilize enough grassroots energy on their own to overcome the monolith that is the “party line”, ignoring the simple fact that if either had run statewide, they could have mobilized far more grassroots energy and built a “party line” of their own to compete with that of the Democratic establishment and help downticket progressive insurgents.
The big difference between them and one that might have enabled Keady to perform better against Menendez than Jacob is a killer instinct and willingness to go negative, which a race like this most certainly would have required. There were many issues on which Jacob could have hammered his CD7 rival, Tom Malinowski, like his support for Trump’s bombing campaign against Syria, rendition, and unwillingness to support Medicare for All, yet throughout the campaign, Peter chose to stay the positive course. The fact that most Democrats in CD7 did not hear more about these issues and Malinowski’s position on them is probably why he performed better than the CD4 winner, Joshua Welle, who faced a much tougher fight from Keady.
Even though David Pringle had no history with Bernie Sanders or his 2016 Presidential campaign, he might have been an even stronger statewide candidate than either Peter Jacob or Jim Keady. With decades of experience as one of the leading environmental activists in the state, Pringle had a vast network of relationships throughout the state that he could have leveraged to a far greater degree as a statewide candidate than as a congressional candidate arriving late to the game against an already very crowded field of candidates. It was very hard for him to make a compelling argument for his candidacy when there was already a true progressive champion in Peter Jacob in the race.
However, even if he had announced a run against Menendez instead of a congressional run at the same time that he entered the CD7 race, he would have still been Menendez’s only legitimate challenger. The Intercept’s lazy and uninformed reporting notwithstanding, Michael Starr Hopkins was never a serious contender. He campaigned solely through social media and one could argue that his entire candidacy was geared more towards raising his television profile than winning an election. He made zero effort to engage any community or constituency on the ground, grassroots, progressive, or otherwise, and did not respond to any of the efforts made by many to engage him.
Pringle, on the other hand, would have been quickly embraced by progressive insurgents in the state as soon as he would have announced his candidacy and being the experienced and intelligent organizer that he is, would have built a coordinated campaign, identifying and recruiting downticket candidates with which to bracket just as quickly. Fundraising would have come very easily to him as he would have been able to employ both the social media-based grassroots fundraising approach that has now become commonplace in the political realm as well as the door-to-door canvassing model used by the New Jersey Environmental Federation and similar organizations.
Unfortunately, David Pringle was neither willing nor able to make an enemy out of the entirety of the Democratic establishment by taking on Bob Menendez and becoming a pariah with the very same people that he would have to lobby on behalf of his environmental issues of concern if he had lost and returned to his regular life of activism. It was far too great of a risk, albeit with a potentially great reward. Endorsing Chris Christie for Governor is probably the last political gamble that we will ever see him make.
TIER TWO: THE GUBERNATORIALS
John Wisniewski is the ultimate “what might have been” candidate. Forgetting about the 2018 Senate race for a moment, if he had not been so badly torn between maintaining his façade as the leader of the Bernie Sanders campaign in New Jersey and his true desire to be the fallback plan for George Norcross when Steve Sweeney decided to stay in the State Senate, he might have been able to defeat Phil Murphy last June.
If instead of being a diplomatic and loyal Democrat as John Currie was kicking him out of New Jersey’s DNC delegation, he had gone on the warpath and immediately announced his gubernatorial candidacy, he would have had the full-throated support of Bernie Sanders from day one and could have recruited 120 State Assembly and State Senate candidates along with candidates from every county and most municipalities with whom to bracket.
With this kind of energy and enthusiasm behind him, there would not have been a Jim Johnson in the race with whom to compete for the anti-Murphy vote. As small as their percentage of the vote might have been, there would also not have been a Bill Brennan or Mark Zinna in the race. As ego-driven as he was, Ray Lesniak might have run and might have been the difference between victory and defeat for Wisniewski, but with an organization like the one that John could have had if he had been truly committed to Bernie’s vision, the anti-Murphy voter universe would have been large enough to tolerate whatever votes Lesniak might have pulled.
Fast forward to 2018 and either Johnson or Wisniewski would have been able to retain most, if not all, of the 200,000-plus votes that they received collectively plus all of Brennan’s, Lesniak’s, and Zinna’s votes plus a significant percentage of the votes that Menendez would have received from voters who blindly and mindlessly vote the “party line”, because for the first time, there would have been two full lines of candidates side by side on their ballot, one of which was topped by Menendez, who had been attacked with millions of dollars of negative ads for weeks prior, and the other topped by someone who probably had the financial resources and organization to promote an almost purely positive message. It could have been a victory and not necessarily a close one.
It is hard to say if Brennan, Lesniak, and Zinna would have outperformed McCormick. As the only alternative to Menendez, they might have been able to build a legitimate statewide organization, but since Lesniak never bothered to try and neither Brennan or Zinna were able to find many, if any, candidates with which to bracket in 2017, it is unclear if they would have been able to do so in 2018 as well. They would have undoubtedly had a better organization than McCormick, but at the same time, in this year of the female candidate, it is possible that any organization that they would have been able to put together might not have been as impactful as McCormick’s gender.
TIER THREE: THE OUTSIDE-THE-BOX THINKERS
If there is any advice that I could give Gina Genovese and Dana Wefer, it is that when a tire gets a flat, you fix the flat. You do not remake the wheel. The democratic process in New Jersey’s Democratic Party is most certainly broken, but it is most certainly fixable, primarily by playing the game by the Democratic establishment’s rules and being better at the game than they are.
With all of her brilliant ideas for municipal and school consolidation at her disposal and the strong statewide coordinated campaign that she could have built around them, had Gina run for Governor in 2017 as a Democrat instead of an independent, she probably finishes a much closer second to Murphy than either Johnson or Wisniewski and we would probably be calling her Lieutenant Governor or at the very least Education Commissioner or Consolidation Czar right now. Instead, she took these brilliant ideas, ran as in the general election as an independent and with zero money and organization finished a distant third place.
It is unclear if her issues would have translated to a Senate campaign to the same degree that they did a gubernatorial campaign, but Genovese still would have been able to build a much better and stronger organization than McCormick did and would not only have had all of the same gender benefits as McCormick, but also the added benefit of being lesbian, running against an incumbent Senator who voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. The national LGBT money would have been flowing in big time.
There is no doubt in my mind that if Dana Quixote Wefer had chosen to run against Bob Menendez instead of tilting at Republican windmills, trying to make feminist arguments for opposing trans-inclusive policies, and even agreeing with Donald Trump on occasion, not only would she have had more than enough legitimate signatures, unlike those illegitimate McCormick signatures that went unchallenged, to get on the ballot, she would have defeated Bob Menendez.
Wefer would have been as strong a candidate as Peter Jacob, Jim Johnson, Jim Keady, and John Wisniewski if not stronger, because she would have been able to build as strong of a coordinated statewide organization and she would have had the additional gender benefit. If Wefer runs as a Democrat, she might have come close to getting 300,000 votes, which is almost what Bernie Sanders received in a Presidential cycle.
So nu. She had to be the smartest person in the room and if there is one truth to political organizing, it is that anytime that you are the smartest person in the room, you are probably in the wrong room. She thought that because the Republican Party so badly underperforms the Democratic Party in statewide elections, it would be possible to get enough Democrats to register as Republicans to win a Republican primary election and then combine those Democrats with Republicans to defeat a corrupt Democrat in the general election. Easy, peasy, lemon squeezey or Japanesey or rice, and cheesy. Not quite.
It is hard enough to get people to vote in primary elections much less register to vote with a political party with whom they have never before voted. Heck, it is hard to get 1,000 registered Republicans to sign the petition of a candidate who had been a Democrat for decades. Democrats will far more quickly embrace a Republican than Republicans will embrace a Democrat, although that might change when Steve Sweeney runs against Phil Murphy in 2021 as a Republican maybe with Dana Wefer as his LG candidate.
TIER FOUR: FAILED CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATES WITH MONEY TO BURN
Without doing the research or the math, I am going to guess that Tamara Harris probably spent more money per vote than any other candidate running for any office in New Jersey, including Republican Senate nominee, Bob Hugin, who spent money on both his winning campaign and McCormick’s losing one. If Lisa McCormick was able to get over 150,000 votes while spending next to no money, imagine what Tamara Harris might have been able to do with a half-million dollars of her own money to spend.
With than much money, she probably would have been able to raise ten times as much. The progressive grassroots would have been very quick to embrace her, enabling her to build a statewide coordinated campaign. Not only would she have had the benefit of being a woman, she would have had the added benefit of being an African-American woman. Kamala Harris would have been the only African-American female in the country who would not have been excited about her candidacy.
Unfortunately, with Norcross hired gun, Steve Ayscue as her consultant, a Harris run against Menendez was never going to happen. George Norcross only wanted Menendez damaged enough to have to drop out of the race so that his spot could be filled by his baby brother, Donald. The last thing that he would want is for someone to actually defeat him and then go on to win the Senate seat in a landslide. If that happened, he would have to throw the race to Hugin like he did for his good buddy, Chris Christie, in 2009 and 2013.
It is hard to imagine either Lisa Mandelblatt or Linda Weber exciting progressives since neither bothered to run for Congress as progressives, but beggars cannot be choosers. Most of the people who voted for McCormick did so because she was not Menendez. The fact that she was reading from the Bernie Sanders playbook, even as ineloquently as she did, probably helped but the hundreds of thousands of dollars that Mandelblatt and Weber would have brought to the table, which could have been as much as a million dollars for a Senate race, would have probably helped even more.
If there is an FEC report that everybody should be looking forward to seeing with baited breath, it is the one filed by Goutam Jois. The strongest argument that Jois was able to make for himself as a congressional candidate in CD7 is the money that he raised/lent his campaign. What is unclear is how much of that money was actually spent. I would not be surprised if he raised enough to pay the loan back to himself and actually spent far less than Peter Jacob did.
The goal of his campaign was never to win the nomination in CD7, but simply to make it as difficult as possible for Peter Jacob. He will eventually be rewarded for his efforts by the Democratic establishment with an Assembly run in 2019 or another congressional run in 2020 if Malinowski doesn’t defeat Lance this year.
If he had run for the Senate and actually wanted to win instead of just positioning himself for a future run, he probably would have been able to raise more than enough to not only pay himself back, but also finance a decent coordinated campaign. His candidacy would not have generated much excitement amongst progressives, but like Jacob, he would have been able to benefit from a significant amount of support from the Indian-American community.
Unfortunately, a run against Menendez never would have happened with Joey Novick running his campaign. Joey talks the progressive talk but rarely walks the progressive walk. A stand-up comic by trade, Novick’s politics are more performance than substance. Yes, he is a card-carrying board member of New Jersey’s ACLU (and their support for money equals speech), but he has had far too many nice things to say about people like Ray Lesniak and Bob Torricelli to be taken seriously as a progressive.
To be fair, Joey probably does have the heart of a progressive insurgent, but the head of someone loyal to the Democratic establishment. When the CD7 race began, he was regularly seen at Peter Jacob’s meetings until it wasn’t and the next thing you know, he is running the Jois campaign, cock-blocking Peter at every imaginable turn. At the same time, Peter’s former campaign manager, Joshua Levin, quits after spending most, if not all, of the campaign’s money and then Jois announces that he has hired Peter’s 2016 campaign manager. Coincidence? I think not.
TIER FIVE: SCRAPING THE BOTTOM OF THE BARREL
People with political strong opinions are almost always very quick to blame everybody else for everything that is wrong in the world, but rarely, if ever, do they take a look in the mirror and ask themselves what they might have done better or differently to be the change that they want to see in the world. I hope to be the exception to this rule.
It is very easy for me to sit in front of a computer and take shots at people like Lisa McCormick, Jim Devine, Peter Jacob, Jim Keady, Dave Pringle, John Wisniewski, Jim Johnson, Gina Genovese, Dana Wefer, and everybody else that I have mentioned for what they did or did not do this election cycle. The hard thing to do is to come up with a good reason why when nobody else was willing to take on Bob Menendez, I was not willing to do it myself.
As a former Bernie Sanders delegate who has worked on political campaigns in New Jersey in a professional and volunteer capacity for nearly two decades and is as well-versed on the issues of concern in a Senate race as anyone, why didn’t I stand up when the opportunity presented itself to take on someone as damaged and vulnerable as Bob Menendez? There will most likely never be an opportunity like this ever again and like everybody else mentioned in this article except McCormick, I missed out on it.
The simple fact of the matter is that I waited too long. I spent the better part of the last year waiting for someone else to come to their senses and see what I saw in Menendez’s vulnerability or trying to connect with the candidate-in-name-only, Michael Starr Hopkins. I even did the unthinkable and opened up a Twitter account, because that seemed like the only way to reach him, but even that didn’t work. By the time I got around to talking to a few people about trying to collect signatures for a run, it was too late.
But even if it wasn’t too late to get into the race at the last minute, it was most certainly too late to organize a statewide coordinated campaign. That would have a required a summer 2017 launch. And without the benefit of bracketing and a statewide coordinated campaign, it would be reasonable to argue that even with all of my experience and knowledge, it is entirely possible that I would not have received as many votes as Lisa McCormick. 2018 was the year of the female candidate and there is no guarantee that even if I would have been out there saying the same things as her, but better and smarter, I would have received more votes than her.
Nevertheless, I will always look back at the 2018 primary election cycle with regret, just as much because I didn’t have the guts to take a risk and run against Bob Menendez as for all of the people I have mentioned who could have run against Bob Menendez, should have run against Bob Menendez, and would have beaten Bob Menendez. Win or lose, (and I almost definitely would have lost) it would have been the experience of a lifetime, not only for me, but also for my children.
Sorry, kids! Your Dad is a coward and a procrastinator. Better luck next life. I guess that there is always 2020. If so, bring it on, Cory Booker!
Bertin Lefkovic has been on the outside of New Jersey politics looking in for almost two decades, even while working on former Governor Jim Florio’s Senate campaign in 2000. He was a prominent volunteer leader for the New Jersey for Howard Dean and New Jersey for Bernie Sanders Presidential campaigns and has supported the off-the-line efforts of candidates ranging from Maryanne Connelly in 2000 to Peter Jacob in 2018. If the Sanders-inspired progressive insurgency within New Jersey’s Democratic Party ever prevails, he looks forward to spitting on the graves of ALL of the political machine bosses.
- Albio Sires
- Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
- Bernie Sanders
- Bertin Lefkovic
- Bill Brennan
- Bill Pascrell
- Bob Menendez
- Bonnie Watson Coleman
- Dana Wefer
- Dave Pringle
- Donald Norcross
- Frank Pallone
- George Norcross
- Gina Genovese
- James Devine
- Jim Johnson
- Jim Keady
- Joe Crowley
- Joe DiVincenzo
- John Currie
- John Wisniewski
- Josh Gottheimer
- Leonard Lance
- Linda Weber
- Lisa Mandelblatt
- Lisa McCormick
- Mark Zinna
- NJ Dems
- Peter Jacob
- Phil Murphy
- Ray Lesniak
- Steve Ayscue
- Steve Sweeney
- Tamara Harris
- Tom Malinowski