Cast Away

Elected officials give PBA members reasons to make their votes count

Your vote counts to General Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, who knows that representatives look to the leadership for views on the impact of proposed legislation. When that legislation affects law enforcement, the Speaker often hears, “Have you talked to the PBA about this?”

Your vote counts to Assemblyman Dan Benson from the 14th District, who has had the privilege of chatting with law enforcement officers when he makes a morning stop at his local Wawa. “Just a chance to ask them, ‘What does this mean to you?’ he relates. “Having members talk about their personal experiences; I can’t say how important that is.”

Your vote counts to 16th District Assemblyman Roy Freiman, who just recently called NJSPBA President Pat Colligan for some talking points about legislation he is proposing

Your vote counts to Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, whose connection to law enforcement runs as deep as anybody. Many years ago, Bramnick met Plainfield Local 19 member Tim Mulhall walking the beat outside his law office. Now retired, Mulhall is Bramnick’s chief of staff.

Your vote counts to 11th District reps Joann Downey and Eric Houghtaling. When the infamous use-of-force reports came out in the media in 2018, they called Monmouth County Conference Chair Mike Tardio, the Local 50 State Delegate, to get the real facts.

Your vote counts more than ever this year because the Nov. 5 election features the general assembly elections at the top of the ticket. With your vote, you can elect representatives who will work to make sure your job is easier not harder. Without your vote, you sit back and keep your fingers crossed that whoever is elected is on your side when it comes to pension, pay and benefits decisions that all go through the state legislature in one way or another.

“I think it is incumbent upon any leader to develop a good working relationship with the important stakeholders in the state because the issues that affect them have a ripple effect on the people within the state,” Coughlin confirms about how he perceives the PBA’s impact on governing. “By being able to work together, we are able to craft meaningful legislation that will serve the public best and recognize the unique circumstance of the group you are dealing with.”

Voter instigation

Yes, unique circumstances. Who in the state legislature recognizes the unique circumstances that continue to wash over law enforcement officers? And who will speak out about it?

Bruce Land, a Democratic assemblyman from District 1 in South Jersey and a longtime state corrections officer and State Corrections Local 105 member, advocates that a group of legislators in Trenton support law enforcement because they want to bring respect from government leaders and the public back to the profession.

“We have to finish up some things we have started, and we can’t do that unless you go to the polls on Election Day,” emphasizes Land, a Democrat.

As the General Assembly’s Republican Conference leader, Anthony Bucco interprets the prevailing unique circumstance as urgently as Land.

“This November, the safety of our communities is on the line,” Bucco states. “If you want legislators who will continue to fight on your behalf, when seemingly nobody else will in this day and age, every single vote counts.”

PBA members working a unit in corrections facility or sitting in a patrol car on midnights might not like the political facts of life. But you either take political action or watch the process and keep your fingers crossed.

“And cross my legs, arms and what’s left of my hair,” PBA President Pat Colligan says for more than effect. “The unfortunate fact is that everything that affects us is done in the legislature.”

The great success story, of course, is the PBA’s ability to push through the bill that made PFRS independent to achieve full funding for the pension system. Members might have heard that example again and again, but that makes it no less impactful.

“That’s not happening by keeping your fingers crossed,” the PBA president adds. “It happens by investing lobbying and political clout.”

Voter declaration

Any guess about what the capital investment that leads to political clout includes?

While you ponder that question, consider that the PBA’s political prowess does not just consist of Colligan, Executive Vice President Marc Kovar, and Director of Government Affairs Rob Nixon speaking to legislators in Trenton on behalf of the 33,000 members.

It’s the 33,000 members showing up at rallies, events – and the polls – who send the message to elected officials that the PBA is an active, unified organization. As election day approaches, members should remember that what they have done at the Local levels resonates all the way to the state legislature in Trenton.

By the way, the capital investment is votes.

“There’s a real palpable sense that votes equal results,” Nixon reasons. “The reality of it is that there is nothing more important to elected officials than votes. They know our endorsement comes with thousands of votes, and in a year like this when the turnout will be low, they will know who has delivered for them and who hasn’t. Being able to prove you have delivered on behalf of the people who support us in Trenton is measurable. The elected officials know, and we know it.”

You’ve heard about the importance of voting from Pat, Marc and Rob and seemingly every Tom, Dick and Harry. So hear now it from those who know how much your vote counts:

Start with Bramnick, a Republican from the 21st District: “Legislators have to make your job easier, not harder,” he says. “We have to work hard to block legislation that is not supportive of law enforcement officers. To make sure the right things are done for you means you have to get out and vote.”

Downey, whose father was state trooper and who represented the NJ State Police when she worked in the attorney general’s office, explains that voting is the mechanism by which PBA members show their support for the causes they care about. “It’s your duty to vote and it can easily be taken away from you if you take it for granted.”

How much your vote counts ripples all the way to the top of the General Assembly.

“Whoever you vote for, just vote. That’s the way your voice can be heard,” Speaker Coughlin implores. “That’s the way we choose who gets to set the direction of municipal, state and federal government. If you don’t vote, you’re ignoring your duty to one another, particularly law enforcement officers who live in and serve in the community.”

Voter designation

Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro, a Democrat from the 33rd District who lives in Hoboken, lived in a community that didn’t always view law enforcement officers favorably. The housing authority she lived in as a kid did not put a premium on the perspective she has since gained.

As a result, serving on the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee is on Chaparro’s legislative bucket list. She represents a faction of elected officials who have learned what law enforcement has to endure, and it has impacted her representation.

“You just don’t know until you walk in someone’s shoes,” Chaparro praises. “It really humbled me. You really take it for granted how much comes under the umbrella of public safety.”

So she makes a pledge that many of the PBA-endorsed candidates echo:

“No matter which side of the aisle, we look to you for safety,” Chaparro announces.

PBA members might wonder if they are the chicken or the egg in the rise of the union’s political influence. But when going to the polls, members should know what they have hatched.

The PBA has cell phone numbers for virtually every legislator. “And they pick up,” Colligan declares.

Now, it would be unrealistic to think that legislators are always going to agree with the union or that the union is always going to agree with legislators. But it never becomes a game of chicken because PBA leaders have built a relationship with elected officials in which they can agree to disagree.

“That’s the result of the members’ work,” Colligan confirms.

Want more evidence of what the members’ work has done?

Legislators are calling for advice, explanation and to request help. Senate President Steve Sweeney rang up Colligan on a recent Sunday morning to ask about a consolidation of public safety services for two neighboring towns. Colligan was able to take the pulse of the members who advocated that it was a good move. The president also reports that the speaker has also recently visited the PBA office in Woodbridge to make a request.

“That’s how intimate it’s gotten,” Colligan details. “And it’s a definitive statement of what we have achieved with our political action efforts.”

Bramnick notes that the PBA’s political action has put a premium on keeping legislators informed by staying ahead of the curve. It’s not unusual for elected officials to hear from the PBA before they even see the legislation the union wants to discuss.

“They have the experience, knowledge and common sense,” Bramnick continues. “By talking to the PBA president or anyone in his circle, we have a full understanding of what it means to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on a bill.”

Voter appreciation

Before voting yes or no on a bill affecting law enforcement, other Assembly reps will consult with Land, who has certainly walked in those shoes. Perhaps this is how state legislators have evolved the past five years. “I might have some answers they haven’t thought of,” Land comments.

Bucco tries to bring similar input to the floor. He submits that it is part of the duty of elected officials to not only maintain a working relationship with law enforcement officers, but to stick up for them in Trenton. Consequently, He makes the rounds at PBA beefsteaks, charitable events and dinners to gather that information.

“It is important for me to be there to show my support is more than just words,” Bucco believes. “Their opinions on the legislation that impacts the law enforcement community is important to me, and it is my job to convey those positions to the Republican members in the Assembly.”

Beyond the speaker and the minority leaders, the person in the Assembly in best position to advocate for – or against – law enforcement is the chair of the Law and Public Safety Committee. As a longtime chair of the committee, Benson has become one of law enforcement’s strongest allies in the Assembly.

He no longer chairs the committee, but if the PBA vote continues to count, whoever the chair is will develop the same perspective Benson has.

“Make the job of a law enforcement officer better,” he begins. “Having been a councilman, a freeholder and an assembly rep, I never want to forget my local roots. Being able to work with PBA Locals, I have been able to see what their needs are on the ground. When you build relationships with rank-and-file officers, you get a sense of how their job impacts their family life. And having a solid job to raise a family is what we want for everybody.”

The payoff on investment of votes certainly has been valuable in the 11th District, where the Monmouth County Conference came out to help Senator Vin Gopal get elected in 2017. And Downey and Houghtaling reelected. The return on investment has been a gateway for Tardio to call Gopal to help ignite contract negotiations that stalled or block a shared services agreement that didn’t make sense.

“We have found that local politicians are guided and supported by assembly reps and senators,” Tardio says. “Having those good relationships motivates the local politicians to support the PBA. We make it a point to mention to all members that this is why we got involved in politics.”