Buy the line’: Text messages in 2020 NJ primary raise questions about Bergen ballots
For any political candidate in New Jersey, getting the so-called county line on the ballot is invaluable, all but assuring victory in the election.
But the line — which bundles candidates endorsed by county political organizations in one easy-to-spot location near the top of the ballot — can apparently have a monetary value, too.
A series of text messages between Republican Frank Pallotta and political consultant Matthew Gilson in the run-up to the 2020 Congressional primary offers an unvarnished glimpse of how money can influence which candidate gets prime billing — “the line” — and who is cast into what’s commonly known as “ballot Siberia.”
The messages are part of a string of texts that have been truncated because of screen size.
“Buy the line,” Gilson told Pallotta in a text message in May 2019, more than a year before the Republican primary for the U.S. House of Representatives 5th District.
Other messages show Gilson, who was based in Bergen County, warning Pallotta: “if you don’t put the money in now u will lose.” Gilson also tells Pallotta that his primary opponent John McCann “is smart enough to see the value in buying support.”
In another message about an “endorsement” by the Bergen County Republican Organization, Gilson told Pallotta: “I’ve told u the price tag and u don’t like so u don’t listen.”
Gilson, who was a member of the organization and consultant to Pallotta, said in an interview the “buy the line” message was an inside joke that referred to Democratic candidates. Gilson said his other messages were meant to convey the importance of Pallotta financially supporting other Republicans to show his commitment to the party.
Gilson also said Pallotta “wanted a price” and he responded that “you can’t buy the line, the best you can do is support local candidates.”
“Is it an unfortunate symptom of politics that people who donate money tend to do better? Perhaps,” Gilson said. But “the reality that exists,” he added, is “if you want to be taken seriously as a political person, for better or worse, money talks.”
Still, Gilson insisted, “It’s not a quid pro quo.”
Pallotta, who again did not win the Bergen County line in next month’s House primary for the 5th District, said in an interview Gilson “was asking me to buy the line” and tossed out figures of up to $37,000, the state contribution limit to county organizations.
Bob Yudin, the former chairman of the Bergen County Republican Organization, said the messages show “it’s more than criminal.”
“If you give $10,000 or whatever to the Bergen County Republican Organization with the understanding that you’re going to get the line, that’s bribery,” Yudin said.
Jack Zisa, the organization’s current chairman, called it “laughable and absurd” that the line can be bought and said any suggestion it can is because “desperate people do desperate things.”
At the very least, the text exchanges show how money has the potential to undercut the will of voters in New Jersey, which stands alone in the United States by bracketing groups of candidates on primary ballots, said Julia Sass Rubin, a Rutgers University professor whose research in 2020 detailed the power of the line.
“This speaks to how broken our system is, how transactional it is,” she said.
The county line and how it is awarded, Rubin added, “is the reason New Jersey continues to be controlled by political machines instead of by the people of New Jersey, and it is the reason why we have a very transactional political system that is open to corruption. It undermines small “d” democracy in our state.”
The text messages have circulated for several weeks and were published by Pallotta’s campaign on a website that isn’t widely known. Pallotta’s campaign provided the USA TODAY Network New Jersey with those messages and others with Gilson, who is also an attorney at the Weiner Law Group.
Gilson did not dispute the authenticity of the messages and, in some cases, provided screenshots of his own to offer more context to his conversations with Pallotta. But the thrust of his correspondence with Pallotta is clear: The more money he spent, the greater the chances of him winning the line.
Gilson said it’s “very concerning” Pallotta is not focused on winning next month’s primary but rather “to concoct some elaborate fantasy that a random volunteer on his last campaign who has never been an officer of the Bergen County Republican Organization could rig an election.”
“Frank is giving me far too much credit,” Gilson said.
The messages are coming to light as a federal judge is considering a lawsuit to eliminate the line and declare the state’s primary ballot layout unconstitutional. Such a ruling would upend decades of a practice that critics argue gives too much power to local political bosses.
Attorneys for county clerks named in the lawsuit said in federal court filings that, even if New Jersey is unique in its balloting, it has withstood several legal challenges and “each registered New Jersey voter, regardless of a candidate’s location on the ballot, can choose to vote for whomever they please.”
How ballots are organized
Sample ballots for the primary should be arriving in mailboxes now. Most voters likely have no clue how they are designed, but it’s the result of a kind of campaign within a campaign with huge implications.
In the 5th District, whoever wins the Republican primary next month goes on to face Democratic incumbent Josh Gottheimer. The district stretches from Bergen County across parts of Passaic and Sussex counties.
In all but two counties in New Jersey — Salem and Sussex — county parties hold conventions to vote on which candidates run on their slate, or get “the line.” In Bergen County, those endorsed candidates appear under the slogan “Republicans for Responsible Government.”
The endorsed candidates then get “bracketed” in one column or row, “which nudges voters toward selecting these county line candidates,” the federal lawsuit said. Candidates who don’t get the line are scattered in other areas determined by county clerks — what’s known as “ballot Siberia.”
This year Bergen County Republicans elected Nick De Gregorio, a former U.S. Marine, to run on their slate.
De Gregorio’s campaign said he “was never approached about this alleged scheme” and he won the party’s support “by running a disciplined campaign.”
But to illustrate how important the line is, no state legislative incumbent who ran on the line lost a primary election between 2009 and 2018, according to an analysis by the Communications Workers of America union.
Gov. Phil Murphy’s election in 2017 offers another striking example of the line’s power. All 21 county organizations endorsed the Democrat’s election that year. He won the primary in all but one — Salem, which does not organize its ballot around the county line.
Murphy is also an example among many over the years of candidates who have spent heavily to get elected.
When Republican State Committee Chairman Bob Hugin ran for U.S. Senate in 2018, he sent $37,000 checks to all 21 county committees and received all their endorsements. Former Gov. Jon Corzine gave maximum contributions to county parties to win the line over former Gov. Jim Florio in his successful U.S. Senate bid in 2000.
Pallotta, a former Wall Street executive, donated about $7,000 to local candidates or the Bergen County Republican Organization in 2019 and 2020, campaign finance records show. He said in the interview he “refused” to spend more for the line.
The committee did not hold a convention in 2020 because of COVID-19, so the chairman, Zisa, awarded it to McCann. He donated $3,000 to the county committee, campaign finance records show.
McCann said he “never heard anything” about buying the county line and found the suggestion he may have tried to insulting. He pointed out that he won the vote of the county policy committee, which typically precedes the full committee vote, before COVID struck.
“That has nothing to do with money. That is knocking on committee members’ doors and asking for votes,” McCann said.
Zisa said the committee’s bylaws make it clear the members of the committee have the final say on who runs on the county line.
“We have a very open process whereby every single county committee member has one equal vote to decide who the candidates of choice are,” he said.
Dustin Racioppi is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited access to his work covering New Jersey’s governor and political power structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.