Politics and the NJSPBA: Action over rhetoric

Richard KovarAt the beginning of a big election year in New Jersey, where every seat in the state legislature will be on the ballot along with a vote for the next governor, I think it is important that we address the question of why we get involved in politics with endorsements and volunteer efforts.

It is a question many members bring up regularly, particularly when politicians are tripping over themselves to get to a microphone, join a media scrum and issue whatever rhetorical soundbite will get them into the issue of the day.

During frustrating and difficult times, we may find ourselves asking how we can be perceived as heroes on the front lines fighting through COVID-19 to protect streets and neighborhoods one day and then lumped together with individual examples of criminal behavior even as we are the first in line to denounce that behavior.

But that disappointment and anger in those moments cannot ever deter us from making sure we take every step to secure a bright future for members and their families. And that is why we need to always engage in this political process.

More tangibly, we engage so we can finally get control of our pension system. We engage so we can get increased accidental death benefits for our surviving spouses and so that we can correct the huge mistake of putting prisoners before law enforcement in the planned phases of COVID-19 vaccination distribution.

Because we ignore the rhetoric and work toward action, we are able to achieve results that benefit every NJSPBA member, along with members’ families. Years ago under the leadership of longtime PBA President Anthony Wieners, the NJSPBA endorsed Governor Corzine for re-election against the strong objection of a many members. The candidate he ran against, Chris Christie, promised time and again to not touch our pensions and some of our members organized “Cops for Christie” to support his candidacy, as was certainly their right. A smaller group of members even endorsed Christie for re-election in 2013.

Of course, once Christie took office, he implemented the 2-percent cap and Chapter 78 that required healthcare contributions from each of our members. Given a choice, it would always be easy to make a decision based on rhetoric. But the long-term consequences of the wrong decision can result in tremendous negative impact on each of our members. In the case of Chris Christie, it took almost a decade to right those wrongs. Under Governor Murphy, we finally gained control of our pension (PFRS) and the 2-percent cap was allowed to expire.

The Murphy administration also recently signed into law a bill that helps public safety officers affected by accidental deaths. The “Dominick Marino PFRS Enhanced Benefits for Surviving Spouses Act” provides financial security for a public safety officer’s family by assuring that the accidental death benefit provided by the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System (PFRS) cannot be less than $50,000 annually.

Dominick Marino was a former firefighter and past President of the Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey (PFANJ), who died in the line of duty earlier this year. Oftentimes, he stood with us for legislation that supported public safety officers, whose job it is to risk our lives to keep our communities safe. Dominick’s family remains in our thoughts and prayers.

As a COVID-19 vaccination update, we had serious concerns about reports of prisoners being positioned ahead of law enforcement in the planned phases of vaccination distribution. It is hard to imagine who thought it was a good idea to prioritize criminals ahead of corrections officers whose job it is to watch over them. However, [NJSPBA President] Pat [Colligan] and I strongly objected and, to their credit, the administration corrected the mistake by moving law enforcement into the Group 1A vaccination distribution list.

I believe strongly that the positive gains we have made could not, and would not, happen if not for our involvement in politics and our willingness to prioritize actions over rhetoric. While we do not win every political battle, the relationships forged have created much more opportunity for our members. And that is our priority.

I will be the first person to acknowledge how frustrating the political process can be at times, and we will always be first in line to denounce harmful rhetoric and take politicians to task publicly in defense of law enforcement. I didn’t understand as a law enforcement officer in Passaic how important a seat at the table is for our membership. Looking back, I completely understand now why Rob Nixon, our Director of Government Affairs, repeated this important saying over the years: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

Choosing the right table gets us the seat we need to keep pushing for policy and legislation that improves the lives of each of our members and their families.

Happy New Year! Stay safe and look out for each other. Here’s to believing that 2021 will be better a better year for all of us. In closing, I would like to extend our condolences to the family of State Corrections Local 105 member Vincent Butler, who was lost in the line of duty earlier in January due to COVID-19.