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As the Bergen Record‘s Charlie Stile sees it, Gov. Murphy’s move to weaken New Jersey’s independent elections watchdog (ELEC) amounts to “New Jersey politics at their worst.”
There’s a lot not to like about the Orwellian-named “Elections Transparency Act” but the weakening of ELEC is the most consequential. The bill looks like it will be passed by the legislature, and there’s no doubt Gov. Murphy will sign it because it gives him the power to remove ELEC’s executive director, Jeff Brindle.
Criticism of the bill has been widespread and bipartisan, but Republican State Sen. Holly Schepisi captured the essence of the issue: “We are enabling the administration to weaponize ELEC against any person who may speak out and taking away the abilities of this Legislature to ensure an impartial ELEC.’’ Stile sees it as an “audacious power grab” intended to “bolster the governor’s power and remove the buffer of independence.” Politico‘s Matt Friedman simply calls it “the ELEC death bill.”
By almost all accounts, ELEC under Brindle has been a model of independent good governance. As InsiderNJ‘s Carl Golden described: “Investigations of reported violations of the state’s election laws and regulations, decisions and enforcement actions have been fair and even-handed, free of partisan or political taint or influence.” Ever watchful of the hygiene of New Jersey’s political system, Brindle has consistently criticized the role of dark-money Super PACs and has sought legislation to make them more transparent.
But dark-money Super PACs have been Murphy’s bread and butter. InsiderNJ‘s Bob Hennelly notes that throughout Murphy’s political career, he has “benefited from millions in media buys executed by so-called ‘dark-money’ non-profits.” Super PACs Committee to Build the Economy, New Direction New Jersey and the current Stronger Fairer Forward have served as the perfect vehicles for deep-pocketed special interests like the NJEA to use unlimited amounts of money to dominate New Jersey’s political system — by supporting pols like Murphy. So Brindle’s quest for transparency has run up against an entrenched and powerful status quo.
The New Jersey press sees this as Murphy’s political payback against Brindle. Golden: Murphy’s move can be seen as a “personal vendetta,” and “political payback for Brindle’s advocacy for removing the anonymity of donors to ‘dark money’ groups.” Hennelly describes it as a “coup attempt” targeting Brindle. And Stile: the bill gives Murphy “the ability to get his pound of flesh.”
Unsurprisingly, Brindle is suing the Murphy administration, alleging that Murphy illegally pressured him to resign, and when Brindle and the ELEC commissioners resisted, pushed for this legislation.
Tellingly, even progressive organizations that supported Murphy’s gubernatorial candidacies condemned the bill. New Jersey Citizen Action’s Maura Collinsgru (as reported in NJSpotlight): “This is a transparency bill that runs counter to transparency. It erodes public faith in government at a time when we need faith in government more than ever. It’s just bad policy.”
New Jersey politics at their worst, courtesy of Governor Murphy and his special-interest-dominated status quo.