Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Christiecrats Roiling The New Jersey Democratic Base


-by Jersey Jim

When 22 Democrats in the New Jersey Legislature-- eight in the Senate and 14 in the Assembly-- joined their Republican colleagues in voting yes on S-2937, a bill to eliminate collective bargaining for public employees in June, they hurt the party’s chances of maintaining control of the legislature in November (New Jersey holds all its elections for state offices in odd-numbered years). 

Fifteen of the Democratic defectors-- six in the Senate and nine in the Assembly-- are from South Jersey. The others are all connected to the Essex County machine, which is beginning to look like a branch office of George Norcross’s Camden County machine.

While nearly all Democratic office holders and party officials are putting on a brave face in public, many fear that those legislators who voted for the measure are not only in danger of losing their own seats, but could also hurt many down-ticket Democratic candidates at the county and local levels in places where labor support is essential for any Democrat to win. They’re well aware of how Obama’s failure to live up to progressive voters’ expectations caused many of them to stay home last year, allowing the U.S. House of Representatives and some state legislatures to fall to the GOP.

The sellout was coordinated by State Senate President Steve Sweeney, who represents District 3. In his day job, believe it or not, he’s business manager for a local of the Ironworkers Union.

Sweeney, as most politically aware New Jerseyans know, is a creature of South Jersey Democratic boss George Norcross, a wealthy insurance executive. So is District 5 Sen. Donald Norcross (George’s brother), who’s an IBEW official in his day job, as well as president of the Southern New Jersey AFL-CIO Central Labor Council. (For background on Norcross and his machine and the Essex County connection, see the two Steve Kornacki “War Room” pieces from Salon that Ken cited in an earlier post:  Chris Christie's Democratic helpers and The rise of the Chris Christie Democrats.)

And thereby hangs a tale, because the perfidy of those 22 turncoats, led by Sweeney, has hurt more than just the state Democratic Party. It’s also caused a rift within organized labor in New Jersey.

Before the vote, several unions, including the UFCW, the Steelworkers, the UAW, the SEIU and the Painters, along with public sector unions, went on record opposing the bill. They enjoyed the full support of state AFL-CIO President Charles Wowkanech and Secretary Treasurer Laurel Brennan-- “in spite of threats from the Sweeney building trades,” according to a letter to sent CWA members and signed by the presidents of 20 CWA locals.

Then on July 7, according to a report in PolitickerNJ, the state’s public sector unions wrote to national AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka demanding the removal of Don Norcross as president of the South Jersey AFL-CIO Council. On July 18, Norcross announced that he was moving up the date of his resignation as president of the council from December 31 to Labor Day. But he denied that opposition from the public workers had any effect on him-- and even denied any knowledge of the letter, dismissing it as “bogus.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Courier-Post and the Gloucester County Times all reported that Norcross was stepping down, saying he wanted to devote more time both to his family and to the Fall campaign, but none of them mentioned the public sector unions’ letter to Trumka.

Then on July 22, the South Jersey AFL-CIO Council announced its endorsements for the November elections. Only one of the endorsed candidates-- District 1 Assemblyman Nelson Albano, a shop steward for the UFCW-- voted no on S-2937. It probably would have been a little too obvious if they’d omitted him.

There was already some animosity between the UFCW and the building trades even before that vote, because the building trades have always supported WalMart in its fights with local zoning boards. That ill feeling is even worse, since leaders of the building trades unions are threatening a mutiny if the AFL-CIO opposes those legislators who voted against public employees. But there’s no indication that the rank and file share their leaders’ views.

New Jersey Democrats are in trouble because of internal strife, and labor here has factional squabbles, too. And the divisions in both are largely the work of George Norcross and his minions.

Belatedly, a progressive response is beginning to take shape. Tonight, a yet unnamed group will hold its third meeting in Collingswood (see the poster above). The group is seeking write-in candidates to run against the “Christiecrats,” i.e., the Democrats who voted for S-2937. They’ll probably endorse the 33 Assembly Democrats and the 16 Senate Democrats who voted no on the bill, as well as CWA Local 1038 President Paul Alexander, who filed to run as an Independent for the District 4 Senate seat currently held by Christiecrat Fred Madden.

And on Wednesday, the New Jersey Industrial Union Council will be meeting at the headquarters of CWA Locals 1038 and 1085 in Woodbury Heights. The IUC represents the more progressive factions in labor, and some members of the Collingswood group will be at the IUC meeting, too.

It would be easy to condemn this effort. Third party and independent are often seen as nothing more that spoilers. But the anger toward the turncoat “Christiecrats” in New Jersey is so great that write-in candidates could conceivably win. At the very least, they could hold down the GOP’s percentages by bringing out labor and progressive voters who are so disgusted that they otherwise wouldn’t even go to the polls-- as so many didn’t last November after becoming disillusioned with Obama.

It’s shaping up to be battle between the Third Way “centrists” and Not Ready for Prime Time Blue Dogs on one side, and the true heirs of FDR on the other. A fight between the Norcross Christiecrats and the real Democrats.

Sounds like a reality show, doesn’t it? “Real Democrats of New Jersey!”  

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