In New Jersey, being progressive is becoming increasingly mainstream. Governor Murphy identifies as a progressive. Senator Booker has more vocally embraced progressivism and resistance. Senator Menendez has looked to progressives to be allies in an increasingly ugly race against Bob Hugin. In South Jersey, Congressman Don Norcross has embraced a more progressive policy agenda — after years of fighting for policies more aligned with centrist democrats such as corporate tax subsidies, school choice, and even locally opposing minimum wage increases. All of this is good; it’s an example of how powerful the progressive left and its policy ideas can be, and how the progressive movement has improved the party even as its struggled to elect its own candidates. But under the hood of this progressive shift are real tensions within the progressive and Democratic communities about how to handle the coalition. This past week at the New Jersey Democratic State Conference, the progressive caucus opened up the hood for everyone to take a look.
Chairman Currie: “NJ Democrats just showed what a united grassroots movement for progressive change looks like. The energy we saw throughout this event to put this country back in the right direction is unprecedented, and as a party we will be working non-stop to channel it”
— NJ Dems (@NJDSC) September 24, 2018
It would be funny if it wasn’t so bizarre. Though Chairman Currie centered “progressive change” in his comments, the actual progressive caucus was fraught with a bizarre conflict. Here at Blue Jersey, we caught it on film:
Progressive Caucus of 2018 Democratic State Conference in Atlantic City
Posted by Blue Jersey on Friday, September 21, 2018
There’s a lot to discuss here, including the prominent role “the line” played in the conflict, first as an applause line, and later as the fulcrum for a conflict in which Jim Keady interrupted the panel to challenge Chairman Currie on the same issue. Currie responded, “the line is not undemocratic, it’s our system in New Jersey.”
The panel left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. It was bizarre at best and ugly at worst to have a panel full of women dominated by two men who had already spoken at length at the conference making impromptu appearances and controlling the airtime. It was frustrating for progressives looking to caucus and move forward on issues to be beaten over the head with the “unify” message — too often it seems the very real stakes of mid-term elections are actually being used as a way to silence progressives. And the progressive community was split-at-best about the tactic of yelling down party leadership to make a point about the line — there was real concern that it was counterproductive and let off the hook the two male politicians who shouldn’t have dominated a panel they weren’t a part of, but could instead complain they were the injured party.
Lost amidst the conflict was the opportunity for the progressive caucus to take more ownership over the progressive turn of the party. That’s a strategy question that has been brewing underneath Murphy’s first year as governor — when should progressives push and when should they unify? Is it good that the progressive mantle is being adopted by more New Jersey Democrats? Or are their challenges and the potential to be co-opted?
For one day, at one panel, those tensions were on display for everyone to see.
*Note: my wife, Sue Altman, is a board member of South Jersey Women for Progressive Change and was on the above panel.