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Local NJ Democrats want electoral reform, but party bosses are skeptical

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“There wasn’t a single race where it didn’t make a significant difference,” said Julia Sass Rubin, an associate professor in the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University and a Better Ballots NJ volunteer. In a 2020 analytical report she conducted on the state’s June primary, she found that county line candidates had won the primary by an average of 35 points.

“It’s almost insurmountable,” she said.

Sass Rubin found that placement on the county line gave candidates an even greater advantage than incumbents.

“The incumbents often win. But what we’ve seen in this final cycle in 2021 is that every incumbent who lost the line – and this time there were a surprising number of them – either lost or lost in that county,” Sass Rubin said. “So the incumbent was inferior to the line. The line was stronger.”

The group takes its case to organizations, elected officials and party organizations and asks them to sign a petition for electoral reform. So far it has 79 signatories, including a few party organizations and elected officials.

But part of the problem, says Sass Rubin, is the way the county line is blocking reform.

An ongoing struggle in the town of Maplewood, home to 25,000 residents, is a case in point.

Sass Rubin recently presented her research to Democratic committee members in the city, where a subcommittee led by former Mayor Fred Profeta is advocating for change.

“Ironically, the most serious impact on the Maplewood democratic process has come from the total collapse of the Republican Party,” Profeta said.

Just like in much larger cities like New York or Newark, the winner of the Democratic primary easily wins the general election in Maplewood, a progressive and diverse Essex County suburb that’s home to one of the state’s most powerful Democratic machines.

Because the Democratic Committee chooses who runs for office in the county line party primary, it effectively chooses who holds elected office in Maplewood.

“It’s troubling that there’s no real competition in the primary, but it gets worse when there’s no Republican running in the general election,” Profeta said. “There are no more debates, there is no vigorous campaigning and the primary challenges are few and far between.”

A Maplewood Democratic Party meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, focusing on maintaining the county line. Among the guests who will campaign to keep the line are retired Senator and Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, Essex County Clerk Chris Durkin and Leroy Jones, who is also Chair of the state’s Democratic Party and Essex’s Democratic Committee county is.

The Maplewood meeting is behind closed doors. Neither the public nor the press are admitted.

Profeta sees their involvement as a way to pressure locals to back off their electoral reform efforts.

Jones declined to be interviewed for this story. Ian Grodman, chair of the Maplewood Democratic Committee, says there has been no pressure on its members.

“I invited these people to come and speak to our local democratic committee. They didn’t ask to speak,” Grodman said. He invited them because he wanted knowledgeable people to explain the benefits of the endorsement process.

Grodman said the committee could do more to educate voters, but noted the confirmation process was working well.

“We have worked very, very hard at Maplewood over the years that I have served as Chair to open up this process further,” he said. “We involved more people in this nomination process than ever before we involved more people in the decision-making process.”

Most voters don’t pay attention to local races and rely on the vetting process conducted by his committee, Grodman said.

“The party met with these people, interviewed them and learned a lot about them and supported them. I think [that] can be very helpful at the local level,” Grodman said.

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