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Disclosure Shoe on Other Foot Now

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

A new 501(c)(4) – i.e. a “shadow PAC” – is on the block in New Jersey and the criticism has been fast and furious.  I’m referring to One New Jersey, started by a group of Democratic strategists as a counterpoint to similar Republican-sponsored efforts.

The main charge leveled against this group is hypocrisy.  During the past year, Democrats assailed two GOP non-profit groups – Reform Jersey Now which promoted Governor Christie’s agenda and The Center for a Better New Jersey which assisted the Republicans’ legislative redistricting efforts – for not revealing their donor lists.  [Note:  Reform Jersey Now did release its list shortly before it disbanded.]

Taking a page from the opposition, One New Jersey’s founders say they will not release their donor list either.  That sound you now hear from the Democratic side of the aisle is the chirping of crickets.

To their credit, some Democrats, such as Senator Linda Greenstein, are sticking to their guns and calling for this group to be transparent as well.  However, there has been a deafening silence from most of her Democratic colleagues.  As columnist Charlie Stile puts it, “fear of losing” rather than the taint of hypocrisy is “what has them pacing the floor at night.”

I do agree that transparency should be a hallmark of government.  Direct and immediate disclosure can do a lot more to temper the negative effects of money in politics than most laws designed to set limits and restrict funding.  However, I’ll leave the moralizing on the disclosure issue to others.  My reason for writing this column lies more with this group’s public roll out.

In short, I’m a bit surprised by the clumsiness with which this effort was unveiled.

According to its website, the purpose of One New Jersey is to “shine a light on those elected officials who act against the best interests of New Jersey’s residents.”  Seems like a good idea at first glance, but it’s clear they have only one party’s elected officials in their sights.

More importantly, it’s not clear how substantive their critiques will be.  The only “light” shed so far is a press release drawing attention to some bad polling numbers for the governor.  Thanks for blowing the lid off that one!

But the real clunker was how they handled the disclosure issue itself.  First, the group’s founders said that One New Jersey will abide by the law, which does not require transparency – the same argument Democrats took the Republican groups to task for.

They also claimed that One New Jersey needs to keep its donors anonymous for fear of reprisal from the Christie administration.  There may be some truth to that – Trenton politics is getting pretty personal – but I highly doubt that any of the donors to this group are not already known to the world as critics of the governor.

And most incredulously, One New Jersey claims that it doesn’t need to reveal its donors because their motives are pure, unlike the self-serving interests of the donors to those Republican groups.   All I can reply to that is, “Says you!”

Do they really think anyone will buy that?  In fact, it’s exactly that kind of self-righteous smokescreen that gets New Jersey’s media commentators’ blood pumping.  You’re just asking for negative media coverage – and public cynicism – when you try to claim that justification.

The astonishing part of all this is that One New Jersey was started by the principals of well-known Democratic campaign strategy firms, namely White Horse Strategies and the powerhouse Message & Media.  These are supposedly the folks who launched the careers of Bob Menendez , Jim McGreevey and Jon Corzine.  And this is the best opening message they could come up with?  [Of course, two of those three clients eventually crashed and burned, so…]

Wouldn’t it have been better to roll out this group with something like the following statement?

“Our Democratic friends in the legislature have proposed disclosure legislation for these groups, but there is no chance that Republicans will support it or the governor will sign it.  Since the other side continues to use these groups to push their agenda, we’ve decided our only response now is to fight fire with fire.  Ultimately, we hope this effort will prod the GOP to change its mind on disclosure.”

Of course it won’t, but such a statement would have given One New Jersey better political cover. Instead they fell back on the trite – “we’re abiding by the law” – and the perennially unbelievable – “our purpose is noble”.

It’s worth noting that in December of last year, Joshua Henne, one of the masterminds behind One New Jersey, tweeted his endorsement of a Star-Ledger editorial that “Reform Jersey Now must go.”

Then, as now, the rationale for withholding these groups’ donor lists rings hollow.  It only serves to reinforce the final sentiment of that editorial:  “The last thing New Jersey needs is another reason to mistrust its political leaders.”