Friday, February 27, 2015

New Jersey Christiecrats and Pipelines-- Perfect Together?


In the 1980s, a New Jersey tourism commercial featuring then Governor Tom Kean, Sr. made Kean famous for the tag line, “New Jersey and you-- perfect together.”

Kean’s idiosyncratic pronunciation of “perfect together” made it a catch phrase, even a punch line in jokes, during his administration and beyond. Thirty years later, it still strikes a chord here. And it aptly sums up the relationship between Christiecrats and pipelines.

Longtime DWT readers will remember the Christiecrats, the nominal Democrats from South Jersey controlled by corrupt South Jersey machine boss George Norcorss III. The Christiecrats earned their name in 2011 when they voted with the Republicans in the legislature to gut pensions and benefits for state employees, giving Gov. Chris Christie a victory that raised his standing with anti-labor Republicans around the country.

One of those Christiecrats was George Norcross’ younger brother Donald, who was then a state senator. The younger Norcross replaced corrupt Democrat Rob Andrews in New Jersey’s First Congressional District after the November election. (The seat had been vacant for ten months after Andrews resigned in February, 2014 in order to avoid an ethics investigation.)

Having been virtually “installed” in Congress by his older brother’s machine, Little Brother Donnie cast his first major Congressional vote in favor of finishing the Keystone XL pipeline. He was one of 31 “Democrats” who voted with House Republicans.

Before the start of his first full term, with less than two months in Congress under his belt, his Progressive Punch score was a pathetic 40.

That was exactly what New Jersey environmentalists expected of Norcross. They considered him the Legislature’s worst Democrat in Trenton on environmental issues. But with his departure for Congress, that mantle now falls on another Christiecrat: Jeff Van Drew, who is by far the most conservative Democrat in the New Jersey Senate on all issues. Consider his record:
In 2010, Van Drew sponsored a bill to allow residents to carry handguns.

In 2011, he appeared with Steve Lonegan (who was there in his capacity as State Director of Americans for Prosperity) to rally support for a bill to repeal cap and trade, and expressed his support for nuclear power and fossil fuels. Also in 2011, Van Drew sponsored a bill to abolish the seven-day waiting period before shelter animals could be killed. And of course, he was one of those Christiecrats who voted to cut public workers’ pensions and benefits.

In 2013, he broke with the Democratic leadership on gun control and marriage equality.
Van Drew’s conservative voting record has made him popular in his Republican-leaning First Legislative District, which lies entirely within the Democratic-leaning Second Congressional District; and his success in LD 1 has made some conservative South Jersey Democrats think he might be able to beat Republican Frank LoBiondo in the state's CD 2. (That idea goes back at least as far as this Daily Kos post from 2005, when Van Drew was still an Assemblyman.)

In view of his record, it’s not surprising Van Drew is a prominent proponent of a plan to run a dangerous and unnecessary gas pipeline through the New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve in order to keep an outmoded electric generating station running. And like a true Christiecrat, he’s allied with Christie on this issue.

The coal-fired B. L. England power plant, sometimes called the Beesley’s Point plant, was built in the 1960s. It couldn’t be built under today’s regulations. It was slated to be closed for environmental reasons at the end of 2013, but the Christie administration gave it a two-year extension. After that, it will have to be either converted to natural gas or shut down.

For the last few years, the plant has operated only during peak demand periods. But with a steady supply of natural gas, it could operate full-time.

Rockland Capital Energy Investments, which owns B. L. England through its subsidiary, RC Cape May Holdings, is one of the two firms that want to build a new gas pipeline to supply the plant. The other is South Jersey Gas, the utility that would supply gas to B. L. England. And both firms have Christie connections.

Rockland’s attorney on the pipeline application is David Samson. You may recall that Christie appointed Samson, one of his principal campaign fundraisers, chair of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Samson resigned that post after the Bridgegate mess. And Rockland president and co-founder Joseph Lambert is another Christie connection. Lambert contributed $3,400 (the legal maximum) to Christie’s 2009 campaign.

The South Jersey Gas connection is Christie’s former director of intergovernmental affairs, Christina Genovese Renna, who resigned after being subpoenaed about Bridgegate. She’s married to Michael J. Renna, the president and COO of South Jersey Industries, the parent company of South Jersey Gas.

The proposed pipeline would violate regulations adopted under the Pinelands Protection Act, requiring a variance from the 15-member Pinelands Commission. Seven commissioners are gubernatorial appointees who must be confirmed by the state Senate; seven represent the seven counties the Pinelands Preserve straddles; and one is appointed by the US Secretary of the Interior. The executive director and all other top staff are appointed by the governor.

In January 2014, the Commission rejected the pipeline proposal in a 7-7 tie vote, and Christie-- and the Christiecrats-- have been fuming ever since.

It would have been an 8-7 defeat if Commissioner Ed Lloyd, a professor of Environmental Law at Columbia University, had been allowed to vote. Christie’s minions had told Lloyd that the State Ethics Commission ordered to recuse himself because his relationship with environmental groups constituted a conflict of interest. But in fact, there was no such order.

No doubt Lloyd, a gubernatorial appointee since 2002, won’t be re-appointed when his current term expires. Some of the Commissioners who voted against the pipeline have already been replaced-- and not only by Christie. For example, Cumberland County Christiecrats replaced their long-time Commissioner, a local environmental activist, with a realtor.

Christie is now close to getting Robert Barr, the president of the Ocean City Democratic Club, president of the Ocean City Community Association and a former Van Drew aide, appointed to the Pinelands Commission. Despite those credentials, Barr has less than solid support in his home town, where he’s seen as little more than Van Drew’s political alter ego. But he has the solid backing of Senate President Steve Sweeney and the entire Norcross machine.

Gubernatorial nominees to the Commission have to be confirmed by the state Senate, and the 13-member Judiciary Committee had already rejected the Barr nomination twice. Then on February 24, Sweeney saw his chance to get Barr approved.

Sweeney knew that Sen. Ray Lesniak, who is an outspoken opponent of the pipeline project (and who is considering running for governor against Sweeney in the 2017 Democratic primary), was going to be away, so Sweeney used his prerogative as Senate President to put the Barr nomination on the agenda-- and to appoint Jeff Van Drew as a temporary member of the Judiciary Committee. (Strange as it sounds, under New Jersey rules, the Senate President can appoint a temporary substitute member to a committee when it suits his purposes, like a coach sending in another player, as long as he’s replacing an absent member, even when’s there’s already a quorum present.)

Worse, Sweeney also worked the room, actively lobbying regular committee members to approve the Barr nomination during the discussion.

Four Democrats-- Chair Nicholas Scutari, Vice Chair Nia Gill, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Brian Stack-- voted no, as did Ranking Republican Christopher Bateman.

The other four Republicans and the other two Democrats (Paul Sarlo and Nellie Pou) voted to confirm Barr-- as did, of course, Van Drew. Democrat Bob Smith abstained.

Thus newspapers reported the vote a 7-5-1.

But after the vote, Stack changed his vote from no to yes, and the official tally is now 8-4-1. (That’s another quirky New Jersey rule: Members are allowed to change their votes after the fact-- for appearance’s sake?-- as long as that doesn’t change the outcome!)

Both Smith and Stack had been skeptical. The fact that Smith could be persuaded to abstain, and that Stack could be persuaded to switch sides after the vote, is grim evidence of the way Sweeney abuses his power.

This pipeline isn’t a strictly partisan issue. Far from it, as the committee vote shows. In fact, four former governors who seldom agree on anything-- Democrats Brendan Byrne and Jim Florio and Republicans Tom Kean, Sr. and Christie Todd Whitman-- signed a joint letter to the Pinelands Commission opposing the project.

South Jersey Gas customers should also oppose the pipeline, because the utility plans to raise its rates (with the blessing of the Christie-controlled Board of Public Utilities) to finance the project if it’s approved.

And because the Pinelands sit above the Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer, which supplies drinking water to much of South Jersey, everyone in the area should oppose it.

If Barr is confirmed, the Commission will almost certainly vote to approve the pipeline. The full Senate will probably vote on Barr’s nomination at its next regular meeting on March 5.

Is it possible that Barr will be rejected? Yes, anything is possible, but it isn’t likely.

Environmental groups will do their part. But without a groundswell of public opposition, Barr will probably be confirmed, and the Pinelands will be wide open for reckless development.

And how likely is that groundswell in a state that keeps electing clowns like Christie and the Christiecrats?

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At 9:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Donald Norcross already has a primary challenger for next year in his D+13 district from a strong progressive, Alex Law. He is running hard on stopping the corruption and machine politics that have dominated the area for far too long. Defeating Boss Norcross would be a monumental task. But these are the battles we need to win to make our government work.

I hope you check into Mr. Law and consider giving him some attention.


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