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There's nothing wrong with exercising party discipline

Democratic Mercer County Freeholder and Vice Chairman Sam Frisby made a prudent political decision not to challenge his party’s choice to replace Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman in the New Jersey Assembly. The Democratic Party leadership had all but promised the seat to former freeholder and current Mercer County Democratic Chairwoman Liz Muoio who, aside from being qualified and experienced, has labored successfully for a number of years in the vineyards of Mercer County party politics.

From the leadership’s perspective, she had paid her dues and earned the seat.
Frisby was sent a message by the Mercer County Democratic Party that it was not pleased with his interest in filling Watson Coleman’s District 15 Assembly seat. That message was delivered by Freeholder Chairman Andrew Koontz, who told him that if he sought the seat, he would not be promoted to freeholder chairman — a clear deviation from traditional freeholder leadership succession protocol.

Frisby was miffed. He released a letter he sent to Koontz expressing his concerns about being passed over for chairmanship of the freeholder board. Frisby wrote: “Your comments to me that if I choose to run at the [Democratic] convention that more than likely the votes for the chairmanship would not be there, but if I choose not to run, that I could secure the chairmanship, that sounds and feels like party bossism to me.” That’s not bossism. It’s simply hardball politics.

The fact that Frisby went public about the way he felt he was treated says a lot about Mercer County politics. In counties where greater party discipline is the norm, up-and-coming talent like Frisby would have thought long and hard about going public with what is essentially an internal party matter. Clearly, Frisby is not afraid that any political boss in Mercer County will retaliate against him in any meaningful way.

In Democratic counties with powerful political bosses, elected officials would be fearful of the consequences of publicly bucking the party hegemony by airing dirty laundry in the press. This, fortunately, is not the case in Mercer County, which does not have a strong autocratic back-room political leader. In fact, since the days of party strongman Dick Coffee, Mercer County has had a series of elected officials who, because of their personal popularity and individual support, transcended party, such as Barbara Sigmund, Shirley Turner and Rush Holt.

Lack of rigid party discipline is generally a good thing, as it promotes independence and differences of opinion, but it can be an impediment when the party is seeking to fill a county vacancy and elect a Mercer County candidate to an office whose political boundaries extend beyond Mercer. For example, were it not for a brilliant primary campaign mounted by Watson Coleman, the Mercer County Democratic Organization’s inability to get all of Mercer County’s key elected officials behind a single candidate to replace retiring Rep. Holt could have resulted in the election of a non-Mercer County candidate. Had the Watson Coleman campaign not formed a strategic alliance with Assemblyman Jerry Green of Plainfield, a non-Mercer County candidate might have slipped in among the three high-quality Mercer County candidates.

When it comes to party politics, it’s OK for the party to periodically flex its muscle and send a message to a prospective candidate that now is not his or her time.

It is important to point out the difference between a party enforcing discipline and a party acting in an inappropriate, threatening, insulting or disrespectful manner.

All organizations have rules and norms. Effective organizations enforce them. The rules of the game should not include coercing elected officials to vote in a manner that is contrary to their conscience or conviction or to accept the appointment of someone for a position for which they are not qualified.

There is a clear distinction between basic party discipline and bossism and we know it when we see it. No law was violated by indicating that Frisby might not become chairman of the freeholder board. What occurred was tough infighting, but it was not corrupt.

No doubt Frisby, whose mother, Jeannine Frisby LaRue, one of the most respected and astute governmental/political gurus in New Jersey, has been well-schooled in the intrigue and nuance of party politics. With this in mind, it’s surprising he went public with how he believed he was being intimidated by his party.

Frisby’s decision to drop his bid for the 15th District seat in order to “be a party builder and not a party divider” and to obtain his master’s degree was a wise one. Down the road, if and when Sen. Turner decides her highly distinguished career in the Legislature is over, there will be an opening for a Democrat who has earned his or her stripes. The Democratic Party leadership has sent a clear message to those who might seek that office that a combination of competency and contribution to party are the factors that it will look at in determining whom the leadership will support.