Many of New Jersey’s Democratic Party organizations are already set to endorse Tammy Murphy for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Sen. Bob Menendez. The key endorsements would give her preferred placement on primary ballots in the state’s bluest areas, but some members of those same organizations say the process shows New Jersey’s primary elections are deeply undemocratic.
In several of the state’s largest party organizations, the endorsement choice is made by county party bosses — either without any vote, or with only an advisory vote from the hundreds of community leaders meant to guide the party, according to interviews with more than a dozen people involved in the process.
“All the county chairs tripped over themselves to endorse Tammy Murphy,” said Robert Holzapfel, who is a plumber from Highland Park and an elected member of the Middlesex County Democratic Organization.
County political committees’ endorsements are a source of political power in New Jersey. In all but two of the state’s 21 counties, the candidates endorsed by the party organization for the primary run together on a slate, and the members of those slates are grouped together in a column or row called the “county line” — which would likely have President Joe Biden at the top in the June 4 primary.
Research by academics from Princeton, Rutgers and Oxford universities finds that doing so nearly hands a win to whoever’s on the line — giving them a statistical advantage of 38 percentage points in 45 congressional and Senate races studied over 20 years. New Jersey is the only state with such a system.
“They just think they’re being loyal Democrats,” Holzapfel said. “This is our democracy, you know, [but] people understand the rules of football better than they understand [the county line].”
The ballot design has long been a point of contention for progressives and good government groups. This year, it’s also prompting a backlash among some party faithful, because eight of the Democratic Party county chairs announced their own support for Tammy Murphy, the governor’s wife, in the first five days after she announced her run for Menendez’s seat.
County party organizations include local officials and party members. Many depend on the state budget to get their projects funded — anything from building libraries or recreation centers to fixing potholes. As governor, Phil Murphy has the authority to veto individual lines of the state budget, giving him the ultimate say over state spending on individual projects.
In a statewide election, the county line is most critical in the five counties with the largest number of Democratic voters. In those counties, two of the committee chairs are paid lobbyists who can market themselves as having a relationship with the governor, while another two have state jobs. The governor and his wife also raise money for campaigns and donate to the county parties. In the runup to his first gubernatorial campaign in 2017, Phil Murphy donated more than $250,000 to the Democratic Party committees and racked up most of the endorsements.
For some party members, like Holzapfel, that all adds up to too much political pressure to support the Murphys over other candidates, including Rep. Andy Kim, who is leading in the polls and has a strong base of support among progressive activists despite the party’s support for the first lady.
People understand the rules of football better than they understand [the county line].
“I feel like the governor put our chair in a difficult position where [the chair] relies on the governor for funding and support and elections here at the county level, so of course he has to endorse his wife,” Holzapfel said. Middlesex Chair Kevin McCabe declined to be interviewed for this story.
A group of former candidates and the New Jersey Working Families Alliance has filed a lawsuit against the county line, but that case is not expected to go to court before the June primary.
‘Sing for your supper’
Some Democratic Party county committees hold conventions among their members, and some of those take binding votes before awarding a candidate the county line. Gov. Phil Murphy has defended the county line process as democratic, saying recently on WNYC’s “Ask Governor Murphy” call-in show that would-be candidates need to prove their worth to the committees, often at a “very large convention where you’ve got to get up there and sing for your supper.”
But in four of the five counties with the largest number of Democratic voters, there is no obligation to honor the membership’s wishes. Members of the committees in Essex, Hudson and Camden counties do not vote on the endorsements in the Senate race, leaving the matter entirely up to their chairs. Middlesex will hold an advisory vote, but party officials said it’s up to the chair to decide whether to honor it.
Of the top five, only Bergen will hold what Chair Paul Juliano described as a binding vote “regardless of any personal endorsements made by me or others.”
All five of those party bosses are among those who announced they’d back Tammy Murphy within days of her entry into the race. Collectively, they have influence over the ballots used by nearly half of New Jersey’s registered Democrats.
But Phil Murphy and other supporters of the county line system say support from the party chairs should carry real power.
“First of all – bosses, I hate that word,” the governor said. “That’s just not, that’s not the reality. These folks who are chairs have had decades of experience and why you would ignore that experience is beyond me.”
A statewide coalition of progressive Democratic and good government groups is calling for the Senate candidates to publicly denounce the county line and request that each county put all competing candidates on the same ballot line, like every other state does. Progressive activists are also calling attention to how the endorsement process works.
These folks who are chairs have had decades of experience and why you would ignore that experience is beyond me.
Kim and two other Democratic Senate candidates — progressive reformer Patricia Campos-Medina and longtime Newark activist Larry Hamm — released a letter this week they sent to each county clerk in the state, in which they call for the Senate candidates to be placed together. The letter doesn’t include a signature from Menendez, who’s enjoyed the advantages of the county line in the past but hasn’t said whether he’ll seek re-election.
“The credibility of this primary necessitates your action to ensure that the election is seen as fair for all candidates – and for all voters – with a ballot that does not give any single candidate a state-conferred advantage by design,” the letter said.
But Tammy Murphy has so far defended the county line. She says the support she has received from the party has more to do with hard work she did when her husband was first elected.
“The state party had no money. It had no real leadership to take it to the next level,” Tammy Murphy said. “And so I worked really hard to change that and to bring in the organization and to bring in the structure and to take it to a place where it was on better financial footing.”
She also said she raised money for candidates, showed up for events and built relationships — and that’s simply good politics.
A win in the Democratic primary likely means a win in November’s general election. Seven Republicans have declared their candidacies, but New Jersey hasn’t sent a Republican to the Senate in more than 50 years.
How the decisions are made
Leroy Jones, chair of the Essex County Democratic Committee and the state party, said he consulted with Essex leaders before deciding to endorse Tammy Murphy five days after she declared her candidacy. Essex County has the largest number of Democratic voters in the state.
“I talked to each and every one of our municipal leaders, our elected officials, our senators, our congressmen, our assemblymembers, our commissioners and our mayors, and I stopped there — along with our municipal chairs,” Jones said, adding that it’s his decision whether to hold a convention or get a vote of members in Essex.
But some rank-and-file members of the Essex County committee say they want to vote on the endorsement for the Senate race. Elizabeth Redwine, an elected committee member from West Orange, said she didn’t even know whether there would be a vote, and was met with resistance when she questioned whether electing the governor’s wife was a case of nepotism.
“It was a shocking question that I would even ask that, and other people were afraid to ask,” Redwine said, referring to the power that Jones and other political leaders have over other committee members. “So there’s a culture of fear. There’s a culture of obfuscation.”
She added that she was afraid the endorsement would be made without a vote, and a few days later, Gothamist confirmed with Jones that was the case.
“There’s been no tremendous pushback and the county will be endorsing and supporting Tammy Murphy,” Jones said.
The Democratic Committee of Bergen County will hold a convention in early March — but some members say the vote is a rubber stamp of the chair’s choice.
“By the time the county convention has occurred, each town’s committee has been told this is the favored candidate by the [county committee chair.],” Tenafly City Councilmember Lauren Dayton said. “So they go into the convention and everyone votes, but very few people do not vote for that chosen candidate.”
I wasn’t invited to a vote. I was not invited to a meeting.
Juliano, Bergen’s chair, declined to be interviewed for this story but offered a written statement.
“Over 1,200 voting delegates, comprised of elected county committee members and local elected officials, will make their choices at our annual convention in March,” Juliano said. “Regardless of any personal endorsements made by me or others, the party is bound by the results of the convention.”
Joe Bouvier, an elected member of the Camden County Democratic Committee, said he first heard his county committee was endorsing Tammy Murphy when he read it in the news, the day after she entered the race.
“I wasn’t invited to a vote. I was not invited to a meeting,” Bouvier said, adding the committee rarely holds any meetings at all.
Camden’s chair, James Beach, didn’t return a message seeking comment.
Hudson County Chair Anthony Vainieri was the first to endorse Tammy Murphy, in a show of force by her campaign that aimed to undercut Menendez on the home turf that he controlled for decades. Vanieri proclaimed the endorsement on the day the first lady announced her bid, and did so with the blessing of the mayors of almost every Hudson County town. As with the other large Democratic committees, a vote among Hudson’s roughly 900 members is not required and won’t be held, according to several Hudson County elected officials. Vainieri didn’t return a message seeking comment.
Experiences with the line
“I’ve never thought that the way we conduct primary elections is good for the overall democracy in the state,” former Assemblymember Nicholas Chiaravalloti said. He had served three terms in the state’s General Assembly from Bayonne and Jersey City when he was not endorsed by the mayor of Bayonne in 2021. Hudson County has a unique power-sharing system that allows the mayors to veto the chair’s endorsement. That lost Chiaravalloti the Hudson County line, and he knew re-election would be difficult.
“I had firsthand experience of the advantages of being on the line and what it would take to win off the line,” Chiaravalloti said. “It would have been an uphill battle – it was a long shot.”
Chiaravalloti dropped out of the race despite the power of incumbency, his name recognition and the relationships he built across his district.
The challenge of running off the line is even more difficult for non-incumbent candidates, even if they’re running for an open seat.
In Bergen County, Dayton, the Tenafly city councilmember, told Juliano, the county chair, that she wanted to run for an open Assembly seat in 2021. It was the day she learned there would be an open seat in her district, and she called Juliano to let him know she wanted a shot.
Dayton said he told her he’d call her back. That same day, Dayton said, she got a call from her local Tenafly party chair, who asked if she’d be interested in being appointed to a statewide committee, instead of the Assembly seat. Dayton says she called Juliano back.
“I’m sorry, I’m very confused here, isn’t there a process?” Dayton says she asked Juliano. “And he said, ‘Well, we have our candidate picked.’ And I said, ‘But you don’t know what I stand for. You don’t know why I want to run. You don’t know my qualifications.’”
Dayton ran on a slate with then-Assemblymember Valerie Vainieri Huttle, who ran off the county line for the Senate. They both lost.