Is New Jersey’s Progressive Movement Dead or Dying?


When Lisa McCormick ran against United States Senator Robert Menendez in the 2018 Democratic primary election, her campaign’s alleged usage of bogus signatures was probably one of the worst kept secrets in progressive politics.  Anyone and everyone who followed the race knew that neither she nor her diminutive (I vaguely remember someone else referring to him in the past as Lilliputian and I refrained from using this adjective out of fear of being accused of plagiarism) campaign manager, Jim Devine, had the capacity or the reach to find at least 1,000 registered Democrats who would sign her nominating petition.

However, despite this shared wisdom among progressives, neither Senator Menendez’s re-election campaign nor anyone else associated with New Jersey’s Democratic Party establishment challenged her nominating petitions, most likely because he had more than enough negative baggage of his own that election cycle after barely surviving criminal corruption charges and a senatorial censure and probably did not want to add charges of bullying a female opponent during the height of the #MeToo movement, especially when that female opponent was unlikely to have the resources or support to provide him with a serious challenge.

At the same time, very few progressives shared my opinion that her gadfly candidacy in particular and Devine’s tenacious refusal to recognize how toxic he had become would be the cancer on the progressive movement that they would become if allowed to continue to fester, especially if she was able to get on the ballot and by some miracle would be able to meet or exceed Bernie Sanders performance two years earlier.  I knew full well that if she received 35% of the vote or more against Menendez, they would never go away.

Even though any progressive insurgent candidate who was savvy enough to Google “Jim Devine” knew that bracketing with Lisa McCormick would damage their miniscule chances of defeating their establishment opponent more than the improved ballot position would help them, rather than recruit a legitimate candidate to run against Menendez, who at the very least would not have a negative downticket impact, they chose to either enable, ignore, or tolerate her carcinogenic candidacy rather than radiate it before it could metastasize into something that would become more than just a minor annoyance.  Maybe this tortured cancer metaphor is somewhat of an overstatement.  Devine and McCormick are more like COVID, an opportunistic infection that preys worst on those with underlying conditions.

For the more than two decades that I have been involved with New Jersey politics, the underlying condition that has plagued the progressive movement, making it especially vulnerable to opportunistic infections like Devine and McCormick is a lack of leadership and organization.  Howard Dean’s Presidential campaign produced a great crop of leaders and organizers and the Democratic establishment harvested almost all of them.  Rosi Efthim is still probably out there calling herself the head of Democracy for America – New Jersey whatever that means.  Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign had a similar impact.

Bernie Sanders’ Presidential campaign should have been different.  Neither Dean nor Obama were true insurgents.  They were just insiders who were able to appeal to outsiders as well.  Bernie Sanders was the consummate outsider.  Unfortunately, even his Presidential campaign had insiders pulling strings that would make any true progressive insurgency here impossible.  I knew that the day he received and accepted the endorsement of the Communications Workers of America was the day that any chance of his campaign producing the next generation of progressive insurgent leadership in the state ended.

Far too many Bernie Sanders progressives assumed that CWA-NJ and their then-leader, Hetty Rosenstein, would be with John Wisniewski when he ran for Governor in 2017, but I never doubted for a moment that she and they would be with an establishment candidate.  It did not help the Wiz that he missed his best chance to get Bernie and other progressives to join him when he did not capitalize on being thrown off of the state’s Democratic National Committee delegation.  If he had announced his gubernatorial candidacy at that moment instead of conceding that the NJDSC Chairman has the prerogative to appoint who he wants and waiting far too many months to announce, he could have made it much harder for Bernie, Hetty, and others to ignore him the way that they did.

I don’t doubt that Hetty believes what she says when she talks the progressive talk, but neither she nor any other labor leader will ever put principles, progressive or otherwise ahead of the best interests of her members and when push comes to shove, being in bed with the Democratic Party establishment is what is in the best interests of their members, which is why when Steven Fulop’s gubernatorial candidacy crashed and burned, it was no shock that they went with Murphy.  To add insult to injury, not only was the Wiz unable to get Bernie to endorse him, Murphy got Bernie’s son, Levi Sanders to endorse him.

Interestingly enough, Murphy failed to get 50% of the vote in the 2017 Democratic Party gubernatorial primary election as five opponents combined to get 52% of the vote.  Would that have happened if the Wiz had been able to unify progressives early?  Who knows, but it was yet another example of New Jersey progressives never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.  2018 would provide another example as McCormick gets 38% of the vote against Menendez, aided by millions of dollars of negative advertising, purchased by his Republican general election opponent, Robert Hugin.

Once Menendez was indicted in 2017, I tried to explain to every progressive insurgent congressional candidate who would listen to me that winning a congressional primary election off the line, even against relatively unknown opposition, would be harder than beating an incumbent who was as badly damaged as Menendez was, but none would consider running against him.  I don’t know for a fact that someone like Peter Jacob or Jim Keady would have been able to defeat Menendez in 2018, but I think that with the same help that McCormick got from Hugin’s negative ads, they would have run a much closer race, probably getting somewhere between 45% to 49% of the vote if not more.  They would have also been able to bracket with many other progressive insurgent candidates running downticket races.  Alas, they chose their path and were soundly defeated as was McCormick, even though she and Devine would use their performance in this race to justify their existence for the next several years.

2019 was yet another missed opportunity to create a foundation for 2020 with far less well-known State Assembly incumbents at the top of the ballot.  Progressives could have run insurgents in every district in the state and, regardless of whether they won or lost, could have built a political infrastructure that would have served both their efforts here in New Jersey and the Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign very well, but it never happened.  Why?  Because they were all fixated on 2020 and did not see the value in running candidates in 2019.  Were they ignorant or did they have people telling them that it was all well and good to fight the good fight on behalf of Bernie Sanders, but not to mess around with the elected offices and elections that truly matter in this state?

This question becomes even more worthy of consideration when you look at what went down in 2020 as Bernie Sanders progressive insurgents succeeded in recruiting a credible candidate for United States Senator in Larry Hamm as well as great candidates for congressional and other downticket races, building a legitimate opposition slate of candidates for the first time in 20 years since Maryanne Connelly defeated Mike LaPolla in the CD7 congressional primary election, running on former Governor Jim Florio’s line.  However, their efforts were betrayed when Bernie Sanders’ National Political Director and former Executive Director of New Jersey’s Working Families Alliance negotiated open primary elections in most of the counties in New Jersey, decapitating the Hamm-led opposition slate from Bernie Sanders.

Considering what progressives had been able to accomplish by being able to recruit as many candidates as they did in 2020, one would have thought that the progressive movement would have tried to build upon these efforts by running someone against Governor Phil Murphy this year.  Surely, they could find someone better than Lisa McCormick to carry the progressive banner.

Larry Hamm, who did an admirable job against Cory Booker last year and was especially effective at ensuring that the #BlackLivesMatter protests here in New Jersey following the George Floyd murder were peaceful, could and should have been the obvious choice.  Former Perth Amboy Mayor, Wilda Diaz, who endorsed Bernie Sanders last year and excited the audiences that she addressed while campaigning for him, would have been another great candidate.  Zina Spezakis, who gave Bill Pascrell a tougher fight last year than former Congressman Steve Rothman did in 2012 could have been a very interesting candidate.

Former Long Hill Township Mayor, Gina Genovese, who ran for Governor in 2017 as an independent, was one of the few leaders of Howard Dean’s Presidential campaign in New Jersey to not get co-opted by the Democratic establishment.  Much of her Courage to Connect initiative can be found in Senate President Steve Sweeney’s Path to Progress effort.  If she had run for Governor again as a Democrat, she would have been a very strong adversary in a primary election against the incumbent Governor, who has been very cold to the Senate President’s proposals.  Could she have been the rare candidate to unite progressives with the Norcross political machine in New Jersey?

Female candidates like Diaz, Genovese, and Spezakis could have also reminded primary election voters about the Governor’s myriad of problems with toxic masculinity in both his gubernatorial campaign and his administration.  Murphy does a great job at pretending to be a progressive, especially with the full-throated support of women like NJDSC Executive Director, Saily Avelenda, and New Jersey Working Families Alliance Executive Director, Sue Altman, who have been quite effective at silencing other women like Katie Brennan and Julie Roginsky.  A strong woman opponent, however, could have provided women like Brennan and Roginsky with the voice that they need to get the justice that they deserve.

Instead, progressives got Lisa McCormick and Jim Devine, once again, because anytime that progressives drop the ball and miss an opportunity, you can expect these opportunistic infections to pick it up and run the wrong way.  This is why I had such mixed emotions when I learned that someone finally challenged McCormick’s nominating petitions and that the fraud that they had perpetrated was so blatant that they may both be facing criminal investigations.

As relieved as I am that New Jersey may finally be rid of these two fraudulent gadflies, it also serves as a reminder about how completely and totally bankrupt the progressive movement has become in this state.  If nothing else, McCormick’s performance in 2018 served as a source of shame as to what might have been if the progressive movement had a modicum of leadership and organization.  Now, it won’t even have their shoddy example to remind it of how much of a failure it has become.

With the exception of a couple exercises in vanity in Camden and LD37, progressives have completely punted the 2021 election cycle.  The funniest thing about both of these races is that the Altman-backed candidates in both of these races are running against a line that is headed by Altman’s ally, Governor Murphy.  One would think that if this so-called leader of South Jersey Women for Progressive Change had any real interest in advocating for these female candidates, she might have tried to convince the Governor to run off the line in Bergen and Camden counties, especially since he is running unopposed.

Where have progressives chosen to direct their energies instead of challenging establishment Democrats in primary elections this cycle?  Their mission du jour is to get rid of the party line ballot and have filed a federal lawsuit.

There was a time when I used to believe that doing away with the party line ballot was the answer for progressives, but I was wrong.  If there was no party line ballot in 2000 when Maryanne Connelly beat Mike LaPolla, she may not have won that race.  She won, because she was able to beat the political machine bosses at their own game.

She helped Jeff Golkin, a favorite son candidate in Somerset County, win the Somerset County Convention, leaving LaPolla without a line to run on in that county while she ran on the Florio line and was able to keep LaPolla’s margin of victory in Middlesex County and Union County small enough that when she ran up the score against him in Somerset County, it put her over the top.  It was pure brilliance.

This race taught me that the only way for progressive insurgents to beat the establishment candidates running on the party line is to build a line of their own.  If they succeed in winning this lawsuit and the ballot that is used in Salem County and Sussex County becomes the ballot that is used everywhere, it will be the last major victory that progressives ever enjoy in this state.

Yes, on a rare occasion, progressives might find a candidate who is charismatic and well-funded enough to win a close race on her/his own merits, but that will be the exception that proves the rule.  How many AOCs have there been since AOC?  Not many.

Without the collective strength that comes from working together to build a full slate of candidates, running for elected offices up and down the ballot in every county in the state, progressive energies will dissipate and float towards the most interesting flavor of the month.  Today, it is Kate Delaney.  Who knows who it will be next year?  Who cares?

The core problem is that working together to build a full slate of candidates requires a tremendous amount of work and progressives are much better at talking than working.  Progressives also suffer from the delusion that they are the smartest people in the room and as I have said on many occasions, if I am the smartest person in the room, then I am in the wrong room.

Whether they win this lawsuit or not, and I hope that they do not, progressives will still never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.  They have two years in a row that are as big of opportunities as they will ever get and nobody is even thinking, much less talking, about them.

The 2022 and 2023 election cycles will both have no statewide election driving turnout.  Low-turnout cycles always represent the best opportunity for progressives to pull off upsets, because a smaller voter universe minimizes the benefits of the establishment line, because the voters who tend to automatically vote the party line are the less informed voters that also only tend to turnout to vote during high turnout gubernatorial and presidential cycles.

In addition to being lower turnout election cycles, these will also be the first two election cycles with new congressional and legislative district maps.  Redistricting often leads to division within the political machines as new maps create new opportunities for ambitious politicians who are unwilling to wait their turn.  A civil war in a blue county between two establishment factions could create an opportunity for a third progressive insurgent line.

Not only are progressives not paying attention to these upcoming election cycles, they are also not paying attention to the redistricting process that will draw the new congressional and legislative district maps.  They dismiss the redistricting process as “inside baseball” and accept whatever the “insiders” do as a fait accompli, once again missing an opportunity to create change and have an impact.

Thus, whether Devine and McCormick are in any serious trouble or not over their nominating petition shenanigans, their loss will not be anybody else’s gain, because there is nobody in the progressive movement in New Jersey with any interest in learning from their mistakes, which means that they will keep on making them year after year after year and losing year after year after year.  The progressive movement in New Jersey may not be dead, but it sure as hell is dying, and if progressives win their lawsuit and succeed in getting rid of the party line ballot, that may just be the final nail in its coffin.

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