Every once in a while, a political figure’s private, uncensored comment goes public — and becomes the stuff of legend.
Readers of a certain age might remember Michael “Ozzie” Myers, a crass and strutting Philadelphia-area congressman who was recorded in 1979 by the FBI during a bribery sting, boasting, “Money talks in this business and bullshit walks.”
Then there is South Jersey political boss George Norcross boasting of his ability to force New Jersey Democratic governors to seek his blessing from his base of operations in Camden.
“I’m not going tell you this [to] insult you, but in the end the McGreeveys, the Corzines, they’re all going to be with me,” Norcross told a Burlington County official in a recording that was released as part of a political retaliation probe in the early 2000s.
“Not because they like me — but because they have no choice,” he said.
And now, in the Age of the Smartphone, we have the text of Matthew Gilson, a lawyer and Bergen Republican political consultant, offering what appears to be pithy, bottom-line advice to Frank Pallotta, a Republican former investment banker from Mahwah, sent during the run-up to Pallotta’s bid for the 5th Congressional District seat in 2020.
“Buy the line,” Gilson texted Pallotta in May 2019.
In Pallotta’s view, Gilson was steering him to the path of de facto bribery.
It boiled down to this: Stuff the coffers of the Bergen County Republican Organization with large contributions. In exchange, the grateful party chieftains would grant him the coveted “line,” or favorable position on the primary ballot, bracketed by other candidates blessed by the BCRO.
In most cases, it’s an invaluable prize. In New Jersey, “line” candidates almost always win.
Challengers who run “off the line,” without the organizational backing, almost always lose.
Pallotta didn’t get the Bergen line but still went on to capture the nomination during the chaotic, pandemic-delayed primary that year. He was eventually defeated that November by Democratic incumbent Josh Gottheimer.
This year, Pallota, a former investment banker, is again seeking the nomination, and as happened two years ago, he has been denied the BCRO’s organizational support for the June 7 primary for the 5th District, which also includes parts of Passaic, Sussex and Warren counties.
U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran Nick De Gregorio won the BCRO support at the party’s nominating convention in April. Soon after his defeat, Pallotta adopted the outsider-against-the-machine pose, slamming the convention as “rigged” but vowing to soldier on.
Releasing those three-year-old texts last week was an attempt to bolster that persona, citing it as evidence of ingrained, institutional corruption. It also set off a war of interpretation with Gilson.
“It’s just not what you do. And I couldn’t live with myself,” Pallotta said, referring to Gilson’s texts urging him to pony up cash to the BCRO. “I couldn’t look my father in the eye who’s voted for every Republican since since Eisenhower … This is the only thing my father talks about is running for office. So I would never have done it.”
Gilson disputed Pallotta’s interpretation and argued that “buy the line” was part of an ongoing joke the two shared about another candidate. And, Gilson argued, he was simply advising him to invest big and early as a way to scare off potential primary rivals.
Gilson denied that there is any quid pro quo for an endorsement and noted that winning the party line is a far more complex endeavor. It requires campaigning to capture the support of the party’s rank-and-file committee members. Yet Gilson did not dispute the bottom-line role of money in a candidate’s pursuit of the party line.
“It’s, I mean, I don’t see any text in there … that shows anything showing ‘give me this and you get this,’ ” Gilson said last week. “It just shows the harsh reality that to gain support in politics, it takes money, and I don’t think this is a revelation to anyone.’
Still, the kerfuffle cast another unflattering spotlight on the county party machines, the corroded undercarriage of New Jersey politics.
Dangling the promise of winning the “line” has become the great source of power for party chairmen, who often have near-autocratic power to mobilize support behind preferred candidates. And candidates who come with bags of cash often walk away with the coveted prize.
Reformers say it is at the root of everything that is wrong and inherently corrupt with the political system. The arms race for support often leaves less-well-funded challengers outside the party door with no chance of winning.
It’s an anti-democratic relic that bolsters bossism, critics say. Candidates remain indebted to the county machines throughout their careers, from city council to the Statehouse. Staying in favor with the boss back home helps lock up the line for the next election. They become cogs in the machine.
And one way to get the line is to pay for it. It’s how New Jersey Democrats rallied around two exiles from Goldman Sachs and put them in the governor’s office.
Neither Jon Corzine nor Phil Murphy had ever held elected office, but they used their massive checkbooks to brush aside far more experienced rivals.
And Republicans also rallied around Bob Hugin, a wealthy pharmaceutical executive who had never held elective office but still seized the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in 2016. He lost to Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez in 2018, but is now the state Republican Party chairman.
“Maybe the language is different, but when they give county committees a lot of resources before the endorsement process, what is that except buying the line?” said Julia Sass Rubin, a Rutgers University professor who has researched the role of the party line and advocates for reform at the local level.
Change is sought, but unlikely
Attempts to change the system remain elusive.
Legislators won’t touch the issue. Most of them are byproducts and are indebted to the boss back home.
A lawsuit seeking to reform the ballot process by grouping candidates together by position rather than bracketed by organization has slogged its way through the federal courts.
And last year, Morris County Republicans chose to ditch the traditional, open ballot process and replace it with the organizational line system. Party leaders said it was necessary to counter Democrats, who have been steadily gaining ground in the longtime GOP stronghold.
Yet there are glimmers of change. And it’s bubbling up from the grassroots.
Party officials in the liberal stronghold of Maplewood voted in February to allow all candidates to share the same line, including those who didn’t win the endorsement of the Maplewood Democratic Municipal Committee. They are trying it out for one year.
Officials there feared that the traditional system was dampening competition. Candidates who failed to win the municipal committee’s nod simply ended their candidacies, figuring they simply had no chance.
In Red Bank, another Democratic stronghold, a study is underway to consider a switch to nonpartisan elections, which reformers say would reduce the need for primaries and open the process to more independent candidates. Frustration with the factionalism within the local Democratic Party prompted the push to consider changes.
And some locals in Holmdel, a Republican bastion also in Monmouth County, are pushing to replace the partisan, five-member Township Committee with a nonpartisan system in hopes of weakening the grip of the party machinery.
“I ran and I didn’t even get a sniff, a call, an interview, a peek into what I was all about from the local Holmdel Republican Committee,” Ron Emma, a onetime Holmdel committee candidate, said during a public hearing in February. “The party bosses made their decision, and I ultimately ended up in one election on line seven, which is, in other words, political Siberia.”
It’s a start of a simmering but small revolt. But perhaps that’s where it has to start. Starting from the top in Trenton is a waste of time.
As Ozzie Myers might say, money talks in New Jersey and machine candidates walk to Trenton. And they often stay there as long as the machine gives them the line.
Charlie Stile is a veteran political columnist. For unlimited access to his unique insights into New Jersey’s political power structure and his powerful watchdog work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.