NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Lambasting his opponent's fundraising and campaign spending as "pay-to-play at its worst," a Middlesex County politician running for Governor took aim at the system of how political parties select candidates that appear on the "party line."
A Sayreville native who has been an Assemblyman for 21 years, John Wisniewski survived his own campaign finance scandal in 2012, but re-invented himself after becoming the lone member of the legislature to support the Presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders.
He also gained national attention for his role exposing the "Bridgegate" scandal, widely credited with de-railing the ambitions of outgoing Governor Chris Christie, who is not allowed to run for a third term.
Wisniewski used the platform of a recent taxpayer-funded debate to slam the frontrunner in the Governor's race, Phil Murphy, which has proven to be the name of the game in the six-candidate field competing in the Democrat primary.
The Assemblyman called out the system where county political party organizations use allegedly undemocratic tactics to select who they endorse in primary elections, and specifically mentioned how things went down at the Middlesex County Democratic Organization (MCDO).
Murphy has given over a quarter-million dollars to the 21 county Democratic Party organizations since 2014, leading to criticisms that he purchased their support.
"There was no process. It was pay-to-play," said Wisniewski in an exclusive interview on the New Brunswick Today Show, where he took aim at MCDO Chairman Kevin McCabe.
McCabe has not responded to multiple inquiries from New Brunswick Today about the process used to select Murphy as the county party's preferred candidate.
“Middlesex County’s Democratic leadership’s support in this Governor’s race is already preordained,” Wisniewski wrote on the eve of the vote.
Wisniewski accused McCabe of “rigg[ing] the rules to ensure he gets the results he wants” as “part of a larger campaign by a handful of party bosses to coronate one candidate,” referring to Murphy.
In response, Chairman McCabe called Wisniewski “hypocritical,” and pointed out that “this is not the first time Assemblyman Wisniewski has complained about a ‘rigged’ process when faced with losing the support” of a county committee.
Previously, McCabe asserts, Wisniewski had challenged the fairness of the Monmouth County Democratic Organization and Bergen County Democratic Committee’s votes.
"We shouldn't have this rigged system," Wisniewski told New Brunswick Today. "My county chair, Kevin McCabe, had a convention that made it a voice vote that was discretionary."
By "discretionary," Wisniewski means that, if by some miracle, another candidate defeated Murphy, that McCabe could still give Murphy the party's official endorsement and, therefore, favorable ballot position.
By "voice vote," Wisniewski means that the endorsement was decided without using electronic voting machines that offer a "secret ballot," widely considered to be a best practice for preventing undue influence in such decisions.
"If the support for the candidates seems equivalent at the end of the forum based upon a showing of hands or other method," explained East Brunswick's Democratic Party Chairman David Lonski, "the Chairman retains the discretion to hold a ballot using voting machines similar to those used in regular elections, at a formal convention convened at a later date."
Lonski added this same procedure was used to select Hillary Clinton for the "party line" endorsement over Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primary election. That race also saw accusations of a "rigged" primary process.
While the primaries are open to all Democrats, New Jersey allows privately-run political organizations to select the candidates that get the so-called "party line," which provides the most impressive ballot positioning and the deepest team of candidates possible.
Winning a county’s endorsement is especially important in New Jersey, since, in all but two counties, the endorsed candidate gets the party line.
As Bruce Caswell, professor of political science at Rowan University, explains, “The ballot position does make a difference… In a general election, if voters don't know anything about a candidate, even about the race, people are looking for a cue, and most often the cue is political party… You don't have that in a primary."
As a result, county party organizations make their own endorsements as a way of grouping their preferred candidates in the same column on the ballot, forcing any challengers to run "off the line."
While McCabe did not defend the process used to select Murphy, at least one of his commtitee members did.
"The By-Laws of the [MCDO] authorize the… Chairman to grant the official Democratic line in a primary for President, U.S. Senator and Governor in the Chairman’s sole discretion, without any formal vote of the Democratic Committee," explained Lonski.
"Rather than simply use his discretion, the current… Chairman has allowed the County representatives to attend a forum which he has hosted, and inviting the candidates or surrogate speakers to address the forum to determine the relative support for the candidates," said Lonski.
"Kevin McCabe sold the Middlesex County party line to Phil Murphy. He told me that," said Wisniewski. "He told me it was about money, and that's the end of the day, what it's been about for party leaders."
Murphy has raised more than $18 million for his campaign, more than the ten other candidates appearing on the ballot in the June 6 primary election.
Murphy also donated $62,000 to the Middlesex County Democratic Organization between 2014 and 2015, according to public records from the state Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC).
McCabe did not respond to repeated questions from New Brunswick Today about issues related to the selection of Murphy.
Murphy issued a response of his own during a televised gubernatorial debate: "I haven't bought any county chairs with all due respect. I am proud of the endorsements we have… We've worked very hard to earn those endorsements."
Inevitably, Murphy drew comparisons to another Goldman Sachs bigwig who wrote big checks while trying to become the state's Governor, Jon Corzine.
It worked for Corzine in 2005, when he left a prestigious seat in the United States Senate to become Governor.
But Corzine lost to Chris Christie four years later, with Middlesex County's political machine rumored to have stood down and allowed the Republican to take over.
A repeat of this dynamic occurred in 2013 when the local party bosses half-heartedly supported Metuchen's Barbara Buono, who lost to Christie.
This time around, there was again a feeling that the fix was in.
On February 21, the MCDO hosted its gubernatorial forum at Middlesex County College in Edison, and there were a few conspicuous absences.
Believing that New Jersey’s political machine had unfairly and prematurely coalesced around the frontrunner, Wisniewski and another candidate, former federal prosecutor Jim Johnson, did not show up.
Other candidates got into the mix in response to the "party bosses" question, including Johnson, a Montclair resident who has run an impressive campaign that has some thinking he has the best chance of beating Murphy out of the field.
"The county chairs decided in the fall who they were going to endorse, and then the conventions were held in the spring," said Johnson. "That's not democracy. The way to combat organized money in a democracy is organized people."
Murphy ended up winning 97% of the nearly 300 votes cast at the convention and received MCDO’s endorsement in the Democratic primary race. There are 1,230 seats on the MCDO, with each election district sending a man and a woman to serve on the committee.
Wisniewski won three votes, and Bill Brennan, a retired firefighter from Wayne who gained notoriety for filing a criminal complaint against Governor Christie in 2016, secured six votes.
For his part, Brennan was excluded from the two tax-payer funded debates organized by ELEC.
Although both will be on the ballot, he and Tenafly Councilman Mark Zinna were not permitted to debate due to an arbitrary requirement that candidates must raise more than $430,000 to participate.
The New York Times also used that arbitrary standard to exclude Brennan and Zinna from their coverage of the primary, even in an article focused on "progressive" issues like the ones they have championed.
Both Brennan and Zinna participated in a number of other debates sponsored by respected community organizations, and both did not need to be persuaded to sit down for live video interviews with New Brunswick Today.
Murphy and another candidate who was able to reach the $430,000 mark, State Senator Raymond Lesniak, signed a letter supporting the inclusion of Zinna and Brennan in those debates.
Lesniak, a longtime Senator who spent months flirting with the idea of seeking for the state's highest office, said he decided to stay in the race after Union County Chairman Jerry Green tried to convince him to drop out of the race.
"We're going to get whatever we want from Phil Murphy for eight years," Green allegedly told Lesniak, in a story he has told many times on campaign trail, including during an exclusive interview on the New Brunswick Today Show.
"Candidates Phil Murphy and Ray Lesniak have demonstrated their commitment to an open process, unimpeded by that arbitrary financial threshold and I salute them for their integrity," said Brennan in a press release titled "Murphy and Lesniak support Brennan and Zinna!"
"Remarkably, the 2 biggest complainers about Mr. Murphy's financial advantage (Johnson and Wisniewski) are happy to use this financial restriction to keep Councilman Zinna and I from debating the issues."
But, ELEC made no changes in response to the letter, continuing with the two Democratic debates excluding Zinn and Brennan, who had each raised only modest amounts in their campaign funds.
It seemed like just more of the same undemocratic brand of "democracy" that played out earlier during the county conventions, and others before them.
Wisniewski said the 2017 gubernatorial endorsement vote in Middlesex County was just one of several "fake conventions" held with the explicit intention of selecting Murphy.
Similar scenarios played out across the state, as Democrats repeatedly annointed Murphy as their choice.
Meanwhile, Republican county organizations split their endorsements between two candidates, with some picking Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, and others supporting Assemblyman Jack Ciatarelli, who has deep ties to Somerset County.
However, in the Democrat party, one-third of the party chairs declined even to hold a vote of the elected committee members that make up their party organization.
Murphy's opponents agree it probably had something to do with generous donations from Murphy, a wealthy ex-Ambassador who made millions working for the much-maligned bank Goldman Sachs.
"This wasn't democracy. This was backroom party dealing that the people of New Jersey are tired of," said Wisniewski, as Murphy bit his lower lip and shook his head at the May 11 debate.
Murphy later said he was the first candidate to declare his candidacy, "because I didn't know anybody and nobody knew me."
"I made a commitment to invest money and to raise money, and we've raised a lot of money."
Indeed, in addition to the $62,000 he gave to the MCDO, Murphy donated hundreds of thousands of dollars more to the Democratic Party county organizations since 2014, giving at least:
- $74,850 to the Democratic Committee of Bergen County
- $63,000 to the Passaic County Democratic Committee
- $60,000 to the Union County Democratic Committee
- $25,000 to the Mercer County Democratic Committee
- $22,000 to the Somerset County Democratic Committee
- $15,500 to the Morris County Democratic Committee
- $20,000 to the Monmouth County Democratic Organization
- $7,500 to the Sussex County Democratic Committee
- $7,500 to the Warren County Democratic Committee
- $6,000 to the Essex County Democratic Committee
- $5,000 to the Hunterdon County Democratic Committee
- $2,500 to the Burlington County Democratic Committee
- $1,500 to the Ocean County Democratic Committee
- $1,000 to the Atlantic County Democratic Committee
"We have a candidate who has made the system awash in money. It's an obscene amount of money," said Wisniewski during the May 11 debate.
Wisniewski once chaired the NJ State Democratic Organization, deciding not to seek re-election to the position in 2013.
"We need to take away the connection between money and those endorsements. We need to take away the power of county chairs to give the line way before the primary even started," said Wisniewski.
"He may be trying to buy the election, but the people aren't buying him," has been Wisniewski's catchphrase to slam Murphy during the campaign.
But Wisniewski has his own issues with campaign finance and pay-to-play, though they are an order of magnitude smaller than Murphy's.
In 2012, Wisniewski was caught up in a scandal that revealed nearly a dozen shady political action committees that effectively cirumvented pay-to-play laws. In his interview on the New Brunswick Today Show, Wisniewski denied involvement in the organizations.
On Easter Sunday that year, the Star-Ledger's Matt Freidman broke the big story:
Some of the other PACs are run by people close to Wisniewski. The lawmaker acknowledged being acquainted with some of the organizations, but said he has no role in administering them. Others close to him do.
In 2008, when Democracy in Motion registered as a PAC, its chairman was listed as Nicholas Fixmer, who at the time was Wisniewski’s chief of staff. Wisniewski said he asked him to step down when he learned of the affiliation.
The treasurer of Democracy in Motion — which donated $7,200 to Wisniewski’s campaign account last October — is Christina Montorio, another of the lawmaker’s former chiefs of staff.
Montorio is also paid $800 a year by the 19th District Democratic Leadership Fund for "technical assistance." The treasurer of that PAC is Michael D’Addio, a Wisniewski ally who has said publicly he switched from the Republican Party because of Wisniewski’s "strong leadership and hard-working philosophy."
And Mary Lou McCormick, a legislative aide to Wisniewski, is paid by the Raritan Bay Leadership Fund, also a PAC, to prepare its reports….
Wisniewski also denied having ties to the 19th District Democratic Leadership Fund, which is named after his district.
"I don’t own the name 19th District and I don’t own any name, so anybody’s free to use it," he said.
When questioned about the scandal just four days before the election, Wisniewski attacked the reporter, who has since moved on to work for POLITICO.
"The reporter who did that, Matt Freidman, likes to omit facts and not really tell the whole story, and so he's a great guy for doing guilt by association," said Wisniewski.
"He was trying to blame me because people I knew were engaged in fundraising. You know, we're a small universe of people, both here in Middlesex County and statewide, who do fundraising," the Assemblyman continued.
"So, to automatically cast the aspersion that somehow, because you know them, because they used to work for you… makes you responsible for their actions down the road, is absurd."
Known in political circles as "The Wiz," he also runs his own law firm that has given more than $13,000 to politicians across the state since 2009. That's in addition to donations distributed by his own election fund.
About 20% of the firm's business comes from government entities, but Wisniewski says the firm wins those contracts in competitive public bidding processes.
"The implication that somehow you write a check and you get the work? All the work that we've gotten we've had to compete for, and we've lost some of those competitions."
"A lot of the people that I've supported are people I've supported long before I got any government contracts," contined Wisniewski.
"Look, you know, it's a sexy charge. It makes for interesting copy and it makes for an interesting TV show. But the reality is that's just not how it works," said Wisniewski.
But it's perhaps the other 80% of the work at Wisniewski & Associates that might be more concering for voters, such as US Metals, a private client that led to the headline "Exclusive: Wisniewski Represents Polluter Against NJ Town in His Own District."
Similarly, Lesniak is a partner in Weiner Lesniak, and Johnson is a partner in Debevoise & Plimpton LLP. Both firms have questionable clients of their own.