Former Senate President Dick Codey did the best “Dead man walking” routine in modern NJ political history. NJ ELEC chairman Jeff Brindle could’ve used a tutorial before this week’s hearing on his own job longevity.
We’re about to cover a lot of ground, folks, starting with a little trip back in time.
When the New Jersey Senate first voted on gay marriage legislation on January 7, 2010 the effort was unsuccessful. The final tally was 20 NAYs, 14 YAYs and 5 abstentions, so in the end, it wasn’t particularly close.
The drama was provided by outgoing Senate President Dick Codey who held court that day with knives in his back.
Just weeks earlier, the South Jersey Democratic machine lined up the votes to oust Codey, the longtime Senate President. So when Codey called a marriage equality vote with time running out on his term, he probably had legacy (his and his vanquishers) on his mind.
If Codey’s attempt to legalize gay marriage also highlighted that the same crew who dethroned him were barriers to gay marriage, it might have been a coincidence. Or maybe not. Knowing it would embarrass his vanquishers for all eternity, Codey gave us one last memorable spectacle that enabled lawmakers like Steve Sweeney, who benefitted most from Codey’s ouster, to reveal their true colors.
Sweeney, not ready to legalize gay marriage but too chickensh*t to vote no, joined most of the south Jersey dems to abstain that day. He didn’t vote one way or the other. He just sat there in the well of the Senate, stone-faced and stubborn, as the atmosphere around him grew increasingly dramatic, just like Codey might’ve predicted.
Codey’s farewell gesture not only revealed his own political skills and media savvy, it also made him look sympathetic and clever while making Sweeney look indecisive, flat-footed, and anti-gay.
And with that, Dick Codey transformed a humiliating defeat into a masterclass in how to make the most of your borrowed time in charge.
Jeff Brindle v. Phil Murphy 2023
NJ Governor Phil Murphy really hates Jeff Brindle, the Executive Director of the NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission, aka NJ ELEC, NJ’s election watchdog.
We may never know the real reason Murphy is so keen on Brindle’s ouster, but I doubt it’s really about fighting anti-LGBTQ discrimination. That’s how the governor is framing his repeated attempts to fire Brindle after some cringy emails about queer folks emerged from Brindle to his staff. One email was an unfunny but harmless joke about National Coming Out Day. Another email about a transgender female inmate impregnating fellow inmates inside a women’s prison triggered Garden State Equality to join Murphy in calling for Brindle’s ouster.
Earlier this year, Murphy pushed legislation allowing him to sack Bridle and and replace him with a political appointee. The Murphy-endorsed legislation would also end campaign contribution limits and create slush funds for party leaders. It was truly the swampiest thing Murphy has tried to do in office.
Advocates and Murphy allies cried foul and the bill was pulled only to be replaced by a slightly less awful bill that’s currently sailing though the state house. The old legislation empowered Murphy to fire Brindle directly. The new bill permits an indirect ouster: Murphy appoints a new 4-member commission who’d promptly replace Jeff Brindle with someone from Murphy world.
With the notable exception of Garden State Equality, Murphy’s allies hate this version of the legislation as well.
Arati Kreibich is Director of Democracy Organizing at Working Families Party, a group closely aligned with Murphy.
“This bill is bad for New Jersey and bad for our democracy,” Ms. Kreibich told InsiderNJ. “The passing of S 2866/ A 4372, the inaptly named Elections Transparency Act is infuriating because this bill manages to instead gut New Jersey’s anti-corruption laws, opens the floodgates to more money in NJ politics, threatens the independence of our election watch-dog, and weakens campaign finance enforcement.”
We the People is a left-leaning coalition of labor, advocacy, and grassroots orgs.
“We are deeply dismayed by the so-called ‘Elections Transparency Act’ bill, which would effectively legalize corruption in New Jersey by rolling back important ethics protections and weakening the state’s independent elections watchdog,” We the People said in a statement. “If we want stronger elections and better state campaign finance and ethics laws, our elected officials must push for major changes to this bill – and ensure that any bill that moves forward works for the people of New Jersey, not shadowy special interests and wealthy donors.”
Swampy ain’t it?
The GOP hates the bill as well.
“No one who voted for, or signs, this bill can ever again legitimately claim to give a damn about fair, clean and honest elections,” said Declan O’Scanlon (R-Little Silver) and it’s really hard to argue with that statement.
Later today the NJ General Assembly will probably pass Murphy’s anti-democratic bill. And the ironic thing is that the democrats doing Murphy’s bidding will continue to whine about threats to democracy (Trump lies! January 6th!) without a hint of self-awareness that NJ’s most undemocratic impulses are coming from inside the house.
Sadly, today’s rubber-stamping of bad legislation wasn’t the only ugly scene that unfolded this week in Trenton.
Brindle’s (closed) meeting
Earlier this week there was an in-house NJ ELEC hearing where his fellow commissioners determined that that Mr. Brindle’s emails were in fact NOT racist and/or homophobic. First of all, the self-policing strategy never looks good in Trenton. And by refusing to take comments from the public, NJ ELEC wasted a lot of peoples’ time in the process.
Anjali Mehrotra is a NJ politico and occasional InsiderNJ oped writer.
“I signed up and received confirmation that I was on the list to speak,” Ms. Mehrotra told InsiderNJ. “And yet, when the meeting started, Commissioner Holden likened the hearing to a judicial hearing and said the law did not require them to allow members of the public an opportunity to testify. Members of the public objected but were shut down. As the committee went into Executive Session, I heard on hot mic a male voice joking that he hadn’t been allowed to speak either. The Commissioner retorted that, as a white privileged male, he didn’t count.”
Here’s the thing: Jokes about white privilege are rarely funny, especially for folks who aren’t white. The unidentified commissioner’s flippant attitude towards things like white privilege and systemic racism may have been a direct response to Garden State Equality’s penchant for labeling everything that displeases them as “white privilege” or anti-LGBTQ bigotry.
The lack of decorum and hospitality at the NJ ELEC hearing was a colossal missed opportunity for Jeff Brindle who, despite the reprieve will probably lose his job once the so-called “Election Transparency Act” is signed into law.
And that gets me back to the Dick Codey anecdote.
Jeff Brindle could have used Tuesday’s hearing to flip the script on Governor Murphy, self-appointed friend of the gays, by highlighting the real barrier to LGBTQ getting into elected office: New Jersey’s Democratic Party.
The New Jersey State Democratic Committee has a decades long track record of treating gays like 1) an ATM machine and 2) the help on campaigns.
As many red state republicans seem to want queer people dead legislated out of existence, it’s ironic that the NJGOP does a better job promoting LGBTQs up the ranks of New Jersey politics than the democrats do.
There are no (zero) democratic LGBTQ state lawmakers currently serving alongside republican Assemblyman Don Guardian who alone comprises Trenton’s LGBTQ Caucus. Trenton Councilwoman Jennifer Williams, a moderate republican, is the only transgender municipal lawmaker in the state’s history.
New Jersey is a blue state largely governed by democratic gatekeepers and it’s not working out that great for LGBT candidates.
LeRoy Jones leads the state Democratic Party, George Norcross runs the Camden Machine, and Kevin McCabe chairs the Middlesex Machine. They remain the three most powerful and consequential gatekeepers in NJ politics.
The Camden Democrats have never once in modern history elevated an openly LGBT candidate onto the ballot or appointed an LGBT candidate into office. Still, there’s plenty of room for straight guys who beat up their girlfriend to get multiple opportunities to serve. Another example: there are 7 legislative districts and 21 lawmakers representing Middlesex County, including 18 straight men, three women, and zero gays.
So there’s plenty of evidence where the real barriers lie.
If Jeff Brindle followed Dick Codey’s strategy of swan song management, he could’ve reminded the world that gays already face long odds when running for office in NJ. He could’ve underscored that, given those barriers, the last things LGBTQ candidates need is for Governor Murphy to gut New Jersey’s election watchdog for reasons still unknown.
“Ok so Murphy turned NJ ELEC into a toothless, partisan rubber stamp and then someone like Bill Spadea gets elected. How is that good for gay people,” Mr. Brindle might have asked, rhetorically, if only he had the savoir faire to transform his swan song into a tour de force like Codey memorably did.
But Jeff Brindle lacked the panache for all that. And by treating his confirmed guests like garbage, his poor hospitality skills really made him look charmless and almost vindictive.
So nobody wins.
Except for Phil Murphy, whose reasons for remaking NJ ELEC are still not self-evident.
The ridiculously-named Election Transparency Act will pass the General Assembly today and sail to the governor’s desk. And judging from the political capital Phil Murphy is willing to burn along the way, he’s probably super excited to get it done and dusted.
And New Jersey politics will be more corrupt and less transparent because of it.
Jay Lassiter is an award-winning writer and podcaster based in Cherry Hill. He got into NJ politics straight out of rehab (for meth) and on days like today that feels like a step backwards.