What small ‘d’ democracy in Camden County looks like and why it matters

I had a conversation with an activist this week who told me that she was conflicted. She’d been doing local and issue-based activism for a decade. Now, she told me, it feels small. There are so many other, bigger things.

I thanked her for her activism — because I increasingly think it’s important to do both. There is danger that we’ll lose sight of local participation, local policy, and local political struggles as energy and attention are sucked up the the vortex of Washington. The converse is also true, that we can fight the big battles while also fighting the small, local ones.

In that spirit, I want to pick up on a story I wrote last week about the resignation of my (now former) assemblyman Arthur Barclay. He resigned after a domestic assault charge that involved punching his girlfriend.

This isn’t the first time that LD5 has had controversy. Angel Fuentes, another Camden County insider, was accused of inappropriately using state resources to support an advocacy event for a group her founded. But that wasn’t the reason he ended up vacating the seat, he allegedly left because his position at a politically-connected hospital kept him from voting on key legislation to support the politically connected hospitalIn other words, it’s ok for a legislator supported by Camden County Democrats to inappropriately use state resources for political purposes. The line is being unable to support pet-legislation for a politically connected hospital.

Just like the line for Arthur Barclay resigning wasn’t when he had to be physically separated by police from a community activist at a neighborhood meeting, or when the county was informed of his dispute with his girlfriend — both of which Camden County Democrats had information on. The resignation only happened after it became public, embarrassing the party — which still covered for Barclay saying that he was leaving for “health” reasons.

This backroom politics isn’t working.

That’s the context of last Wednesday’s meeting to appoint Barclay’s replacement. Watch the video below — which includes 100% approval, the nomination of only one candidate, and no acknowledgement that this system is broken or needs to be better. The appointee was leaked almost a full week before the public meeting. Try to square the celebratory approach, the “fighting fifth” language, and the obvious fact that every part of this was predetermined in a backroom before anyone arrived for the first “public” part of this process, with the fact that the last person handpicked by this process just had to leave the seat because of domestic assault charges. Is this the best New Jersey Democracy can be?

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