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Can merger policy work in New Jersey?

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In both political parties, in New Jersey and nationally, alienation of those in power is a growing trend. Much of the intra-party intellectual ferment in each party focuses on how at best to give the alienated a share of power and participation, and at least persuade them not to leave the party.

In the Democratic Party, the alienated have-nots are the anti-machine reformers and the far-left progressives. In terms of the GOP, the non-Trumpist and anti-Trumpist Republicans are the malcontents. I have come to refer to these individuals, including myself, as “homeless Republicans.”

As intra-party alienation deepens, the revival of America’s fusion movement in state and local elections is increasingly debated among political intellectuals and bipartisan and bipartisan government reform groups and academics. Fusion, in the modern American historical context, is a means for the alienated in each party to sponsor candidates from both parties in a column.

Typically, Fusion columns don’t have their own candidates, instead choosing their column candidates from existing Democratic and Republican tickets. Before the 1896 presidential election, merger was the rule rather than the exception. The ballots were not pre-printed by the government, but were designed and published by organizations that support specific candidates. Then the voters picked up the ballot papers for the candidates of their choice and handed them in at various polling stations. The candidates were free to use whatever slogans they wanted.

In this pre-1896 era, the entities involved in mergers under the rubric of a political party included peasant and worker groups and trade associations. The candidates from these organizations sought support and involvement from the political parties, and the candidates thus selected by the party were able to run campaigns alongside similarly supported party candidates with different slogans.

The merger era virtually disappeared in America after the 1896 election. States then began printing ballots and designating polling stations. Each ballot had a separate column for each party, and laws were passed, including in New Jersey, prohibiting candidates in the same column, whether in the primary or general, from having different slogans.

Accordingly, in New Jersey, the possibility of a merger has been virtually ruled out, except in bipartisan municipal elections and school board elections, where the mandate of a party pillar, a slogan, did not apply.

Yet in relation to New Jersey’s northern neighbor, New York State, the concept of the merger remained alive and well. The triumph of fusion at its best came in 1933 in the New York City mayoral race. The scandals uncovered by the Seabury Commission forced Mayor Jimmy Walker, who was supported by then-corruption-plagued Tammany Hall, out of office. Fiorello H. LaGuardia, “The Little Flower,” was elected on the Fusion Party platform supported by Republicans, reformist Democrats, and independents, and went on to become one of the greatest mayors in American history.

Nevertheless, to the delight and satisfaction of its electorate, New York State has firmly entrenched the concept of fusion in law and practice in the form of TWO fusion parties: 1) the Working Families Party, a successor to the former Liberal Party; and 2) the Conservative Party. Either party can pick the candidates listed on the ballot from either major party, although the Working Families party obviously picks left-of-centre candidates and the Conservative party picks right-of-centre candidates. You can summarize the votes a candidate receives from two different columns. For example, in the 1960 presidential election, the victorious New York State candidate, John F. Kennedy, totaled 406,000 Liberal Party votes.

In New Jersey, although reformers still voted in favor of merger, as noted above, the law limited its applicability to school board and bipartisan municipal elections. But in 1979 there was a notably victorious bipartisan merger victory in Gloucester Township, Camden County, where bipartisan elections were then held. A merger ticket in the ward race consisting of two Republicans and two Democrats, running under the slogan RAID (Republicans and Independent Democrats), defeated four Democrats aligned with former Camden County Democratic Chairman Jimmy Joyce.

There are fewer municipalities in New Jersey with bipartisan elections than in 1979, and therefore there are virtually no merger elections at the municipal level. The only prospect of increased merger efforts in New Jersey would be for the state legislature to change the existing law to give different slogans to candidates running in the same column. This would lead to a significant reduction in the power of county party leaders. Given that the leaders of the district parties are the most important actors in the selection of legislative candidates, there is practically no chance that such a law will be passed.

The issue of reform legislation that would allow for an increase in merger elections in New Jersey reminds me of a story involving famed Dick Daley-era Chicago councilman Paddy Bauer. His most repeated statement was “Chicago is not ready for reform.” And as the famous Chicago columnist of the time, Mike Royko, used to say, Chicago wanted reform, it didn’t get it. Unfortunately, that seems to be the fate of all legislative efforts, noble as they are, to break down barriers to expanding merger policy in the Garden State.

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA and Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission during the administration of former President George W. Bush.

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