Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth) is seeking reelection this November in what is expected to be a closely watched race. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)
In a move Republicans have decried as politically motivated, judiciary committees in both chambers of the Legislature approved a bill Thursday that would force Monmouth County Sheriff Shaun Golden to step down as chair of his county’s Republican Party.
The bill, which cleared both panels in strict party-line votes and now awaits full votes before both chambers, would bar county clerks, sheriffs, and surrogates from becoming chair, co-chair, or vice-chair of county political parties. The bill’s sponsors say it’s an effort to limit the influence — or appearance of influence — party officials have on elections.
Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth), the bill’s prime sponsor, said he worries constitutional officers moonlighting as party leaders could exert undue influence on elections or intimidate other public servants to gain an electoral advantage.
“We don’t allow judges to be political bosses. We don’t allow prosecutors to be political bosses. We’ve got thousands of Hatch Act jobs, federal jobs, where you can’t even be involved in politics, so this is simple,” Gopal said.
Critics say Gopal — whose bid for reelection this year in Monmouth County’s 11th district is expected to be one of the state’s most closely watched races — is merely trying to target Golden, the only constitutional officer in the state who chairs a county political organization.
Golden could be forced to step down as GOP chair in mid-September if the Legislature approves the bill and Gov. Phil Murphy signs it next week.
“The crux of this particular bill is targeting one individual, trying to trample upon my right of association, my First Amendment right in the Constitution of association,” Golden told reporters Thursday.
Concerns about the bill’s constitutional implications were echoed by representatives of the Constitutional Officers Association of New Jersey and the Sheriffs Association of New Jersey.
“To cut them off and to have no ability to associate as a chair or as a county officer — because they’re both — we think is unreasonable and does violate the Constitution,” said Dale Florio, who testified on behalf of the Constitutional Officers Association.
Of the three types of constitutional officers in New Jersey, only county clerks play a direct role in elections administration. Their offices are responsible for accepting certain candidates’ nominating petitions, designing and delivering mail-in ballots, and preparing sample ballots, among other things.
Sheriff’s offices provide security to courts and may assist in transporting some election materials or in resolving disputes at a polling station. They have no formal role in election administration, but some supporters of the bill still said they should be insulated from politics.
“I think this is about time. You have to have firewalls,” said Gary Rich, a former Republican Monmouth County freeholder. “I really think there has to be a firewall between the chairman and the sheriff.”
The Judiciary’s code of conduct already bars county surrogates from holding office with political party committees.
Gopal signaled he’d be open to amending the bill to include other elected positions, including legislators. Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) and Sens. Doug Steinhardt (R-Warren), Michael Testa (R-Cumberland), and Jim Beach (D-Camden) all chair party organizations in their counties.
“The bill is sheriffs, clerks, and surrogates. I’m open to anything if people want to start having dialogues who are concerned about the bill,” Gopal said. “Again, let me be clear, I have not heard from Sheriff Golden. He has my cell. He has not called me.”
It’s unclear whether the bill would force Monmouth County Clerk Christine Hanlon to step down as co-chair of the county’s Republican committee. Her position’s powers are not delineated in the group’s bylaws, and Golden said her position is not a formal one.
Gopal said some colleagues have suggested county registrars — a constitutional post that only exists in two counties — and members of boards of election be added to the bill. He left the door open to expanding the bill’s provisions.
Golden, in vague terms, accused Gopal of corruption related to the Vin Gopal Civic Association, a charitable nonprofit that funds scholarships and family assistance. Gopal, who denied Golden’s accusation, does not draw a salary from the nonprofit, according to IRS filings.
The civic association “has given out hundreds of thousands of dollars to local charities in grants, including organizations that Chairman Golden is a board member of, like the Monmouth-Ocean Foundation School,” Gopal said.
Gopal faces a challenge in November from Republican Stephen Dnistrian, a marketing executive. Dnistrian was among a bevy of Republican officials who used their testimony before the judiciary committees in both chambers Thursday to attack Gopal over education funding, car thefts, and sexual education curricula in Monmouth County.
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