By Nikita Biryukov, New Jersey Monitor, July 12, 2023
A new advocacy group is giving New Jersey lawmakers an average grade on racial justice and middling marks to many Democratic lawmakers, saying that few bills that would help the state’s Black communities saw so much as a committee vote in the Legislature.
Just 8% of the Legislature’s 120 members received an A grade from the group — the New Jersey Black Empowerment Coalition Action Network — while 25% received Ds.
Even the chair of the Legislature’s black caucus, Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Passaic), was not spared. The group handed Sumter a C overall, and an F for her support of education initiatives.
Tomas Varela Jr., the group’s executive director, said he wants the grades to act as a guide for New Jerseyans.
“We hope the scorecard becomes an educational tool for everyday citizens so, when they are looking to advocate, they feel more empowered and they feel more informed on what questions they can ask,” Varela said.
According to Varela, the New Jersey Black Empowerment Coalition, a charitable nonprofit, will focus on policies closing the racial wealth gap facing Black New Jerseyans, while the action network, an affiliated nonprofit focused on advocacy, will communicate the letter grades to voters, with other electoral advocacy expected in the future.
The group says legislation that lines up with its mission rarely advanced through the Legislature’s committees. Of the 997 bills they examined for their report cards, 75% never saw a committee vote. Those include bills that would bar police departments from hiring officers dismissed from their last job over official misconduct and a bill that would create a state-level voting rights act.
“Bills that would help support marginalized communities are being left and not being moved forward, and I think that is a concern, not just for African Americans and other marginalized communities, but for the state of New Jersey,” Varela said.
The action network found Black legislators more often sponsored legislation to help Black residents and said most Democrats in legislative leadership rarely sponsored legislation supported by the group, though Democratic leaders typically scored at least moderate grades.
How lawmakers were graded
The group compiled scores by looking at nearly 1,000 bills spread across seven topics — education, economics, housing, health care, criminal justice, environmental justice, and open and fair democracy — then averaging those scores into a final letter grade.
Lawmakers received points if they sponsored the selected bills or voted for them, either in committee or on their chamber’s floor. Legislators who voted against a chosen bill in committee could also lose points.
The group awarded an A to just nine lawmakers across both legislative chambers, while 41 received Bs.
Two lawmakers — Assemblywomen Angela McKnight (D-Hudson) and Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Mercer) — received As in all seven of the policy areas the action network examined.
“I’m thankful,” said McKnight, who is seeking a state Senate seat this fall. “You never know who is watching you. I appreciate the flowers.”
Thirty-eight legislators, including 18 Democrats, received Cs, while another 30 got Ds. The group awarded only a single F, which went to Sen. James Holzapfel (R-Ocean). Holzapfel did not return a call to his law office seeking comment.
“Folks are entitled to grade their legislators or elected officials in the manner they choose,” said Sen. Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen), who is Black and received a C grade. “I’ve not seen this report yet, but it just gives one an incentive to look at that and, going forward, to try to improve in certain areas.”
Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex), a Black lawmaker who won’t return to the Legislature in January after losing a primary challenge last month, received a D, the lowest score given to any Democrat.
Gill and Sumter did not return requests for comment.
Sen. Renee Burgess (D-Essex) received the same grade as Gill, but the action network acknowledged Burgess, who is Black and joined the Senate in late September to succeed the late Sen. Ron Rice, has spent too little time in the Legislature to build a track record.
It said the same of Sen. Doug Steinhardt (R-Warren) and Assemblyman Alex Sauickie (R-Ocean).
No Republican members in either chamber scored higher than a C. Assemblywoman Jackie Yustein (D-Essex), who joined the Legislature in late May, did not receive a grade.
The New Jersey Black Empowerment Coalition Action Network, a social welfare organization allowed by IRS rules to spend funds on electoral efforts, will not immediately move to oust candidates with low scores, Varela said.
The group will seek to fill spaces left empty by other racial justice groups in the state, many of which are charitable nonprofits barred by federal law from advocating on behalf of candidates.
“It is really important that we as an organization are able to try to address that gap,” he said.
The scope of the groups’ funding is not yet clear, but it appears well-resourced. The coalition’s charitable nonprofit reported receiving more than $500,000 in contributions in 2021, according to IRS filings.
Comparable documents are not available for the group’s political spending arm.
“It is imperative that Black and brown voters have a stronger voice in the electoral process in New Jersey,” Varela said. “As seen in this report card, we will have the dollars to have an impact and will be effective in addressing the goals of the organization.”
Editor’s note: This article was republished from New Jersey Monitor under a Creative Commons license.