There was an era when New Jersey Republicans could be proud of their party’s role in furthering the cause of ending discrimination against African-Americans. And the high-water mark of that era in Garden State politics was the election of 1985.
That was the year in which incumbent Republican Governor Tom Kean scored a landslide reelection victory over Democrat Essex County Executive Peter Shapiro. Going into 1985, Shapiro was viewed as THE coming superstar in the Democratic firmament of New Jersey politics.
In the 1985 gubernatorial general election, however, the Shapiro supernova was irrevocably extinguished, as Tom Kean carried every county in the state and actually won an astounding 60 percent majority of the African-American vote. In the words of that great political sage, Lorenzo Pietro Berra, a/k/a Yogi Berra, it never happened before, and it hasn’t happened since.
The GOP 1985 triumph among Black voters was a tribute to three individuals: Governor Tom Kean, the then Department of Energy Commissioner Lennie Coleman, and the late New Jersey GOP State Chair Frank B. Holman, Jr. In the second Kean term, Coleman served as the Commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs.
Each of these three individuals served separate distinguishable roles in that memorable 1985 campaign. Since the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s, no Republican trio in any state has more effectively conducted outreach to and dialogue with the African-American community in any state in the nation.
Tom Kean set the tone of this relationship with his slogan, “The Politics of Inclusion.” For Tom, this was more than a mantra: it was a determination to have government decision making include in its process those ethnic groups and economic sectors that had been traditionally excluded. This was a key factor as to why Kean will rank in history as New Jersey’s greatest governor of the Twentieth Century.
To me, Lenny Coleman is an authentic New Jersey hero. He is a proud African-American who overcame the most severe obstacles of racism to achieve outstanding success in the arenas of academia, government, and business. He was the ideal ambassador of the Kean administration to and from the African-American community.
My only regret: Lenny Coleman was a superb president of baseball’s National League, but he should have been the Commissioner of baseball as well.
Frank Holman, a great patriot, was a Brigadier General in the US Air Force, serving during the Korean War. He had a gruff voice and a tough way of presenting himself, but that was all a cover for a heart of gold. His heart and strength made him the greatest street politician I ever saw in either party during my nearly four decades of involvement in New Jersey politics.
And as Tom Kean put it in his book, The Politics of Inclusion, Frank Holman was “absolutely committed to reaching out to the people Republicans have always ignored.” This made Frank a beloved figure among all New Jersey racial and ethnic groups.
Frank was a dear friend of mine, and I have often compared him to my all- time favorite baseball manager, Leo Durocher. Leo was a virtual father figure to Willie Mays, and like Frank Holman, he didn’t care what was your race or creed, as long as you helped his team win. When Southerners on the Brooklyn Dodgers in spring training in 1947 circulated a petition in opposition to Jackie Robinson playing, Leo awakened his team at 1:00 am and screamed, “I don’t care what color Jackie Robinson is – I don’t care if he has stripes like a f__k__g zebra! The man is going to win us a lot of ball games!” Then Leo proceeded to tell the racist players on the Dodgers, in most colorful terms, that they could use that petition for toilet paper.
I could have seen Frank Holman doing the same thing if he had been the manager of the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers!
The triumvirate of Kean, Coleman, and Holman made me proud to be a New Jersey Republican. It was truly a party promoting racial and ethnic understanding.
Today’s New Jersey Republican Party, however, under the leadership of Republican State Committee Chair Mike Lavery, is now marching in lockstep with the national Republican Party in a determined effort to suppress the African-American vote.
My hero of the 2020 presidential election was the African-American voter. The increased participation of African-American voters, men and women, was the key factor in the defeat of Donald Trump, an authoritarian racist who would have further destroyed the social fabric of America during his second term.
A major factor in the increased African-American vote was the passage of state statutes throughout the nation enhancing and protecting the ability to vote by mail. Republicans opposed passage of these statutes, claiming that they would result in voter fraud. This proved to be nonsense. Trump’s own director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Chris Krebs, called this 2020 election “the most secure in American history.”
The leadership of the national Republican Party knows this, and they are hellbent on suppressing the African-American vote wherever possible. They are engaged in massive efforts to erect barriers to voting by mail, and they also are trying to get states to require voter ID, which severely impacts the ability of African-Americans to vote.
Minority voters disproportionately lack government issued identification cards. Nationally, up to 25 percent of all African-Americans lack government issued identification cards, compared to only eight percent of whites.
And requiring these African-American voters to obtain voter ID places a further impact on their exercise of the voting franchise. They have to bear the cost of obtaining the underlying documents necessary to support the application for the ID, the expense of travel to the place of filing of the application, and the decrease in income attributable to the lost time at work spent in pursuit of the application.
There was a time nationally when the Republican Party could well be proud of its effort to both protect and enhance the right of African-Americans to vote. In 1965, one of the truly good and great men of American history, Republican US Senate Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois played a vital role in the shaping and passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Today, the national Republican Party, massively infested with the racist cancer of Donald Trump, is led by a pusillanimous collection of morally myopic fools dedicated to the maximum possible vitiation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They are at war against the passage of House Resolution One, the For the People Act, a vitally needed set of measures that will honor the heritage of those who heroically marched on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965 and provide a permanent protection of the hard won African-American right to vote.
In the era of Tom Kean, the New Jersey Republican Party would have stood in firm opposition to the national Republican Party’s effort to suppress the African-American vote by the erection of barriers to vote by mail and the implementation of voter ID requirements. Today’s New Jersey Republican Party, however, has rejected Tom Kean’s Politics of Inclusion and replaced it with the Politics of Exclusion.
The new NJGOP Politics of Exclusion first manifested itself during the 2020 campaign when the New Jersey Republican State Committee, under the leadership of former Chair Doug Steinhardt, in a despicable act of blatant attempted racial voter suppression, joined Trump for President, Inc. and the Republican National Committee in filing suit to invalidate New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s Vote-by-Mail plan. I authored a column at that time denouncing the suit, “No White Republican will be Elected Governor or U.S. Senator in N.J. for at Least a Decade.”
The lawsuit failed, and I hoped that the New Jersey Republican State Committee would thereafter refrain from further efforts to Suppress-the-African-American vote.
The Politics of Exclusion reigns supreme at the New Jersey Republican State Committee, however, and on March 2, 2021, the New Jersey Republican State Committee issued a report drafted by its dubiously named “Election Improvement Committee,” which advocated both the enactment of Voter ID and making the exercise of vote-by-mail more burdensome. The report had the endorsement of both Chair Mike Lavery and National Republican Committeeman Bill Palatucci. The link to the report follows:
I cannot say whether or not Doug Steinhardt, Mike Lavery, or Bill Palatucci are personally racist. Yet it strains credulity to believe that either the aforesaid lawsuit or this “Election Improvement Committee Report” is anything but a blatant effort to suppress the African-American vote, motivated by the fact that the African-American vote leans so heavily Democratic.
During the era when the Tom Kean Politics of Inclusion prevailed in the New Jersey Republican Party, the message to the New Jersey African-American community was a positive one: We want to facilitate the exercise of your right to vote, and we hope that you will vote Republican.
Under the Politics of Exclusion which now prevails in the Republican Party both nationally and in New Jersey, the message to the African-American community is a negative one: We know you vote Democratic, and we will do everything possible to suppress your right to vote.
The Republican Party has been irrevocably poisoned by Trumpian racism. The party of Lincoln is now the party of hate mongers like Ron Johnson, QAnon, and Marjorie Taylor Greene. In New Jersey, it is also the party of State Senator Mike Doherty, who denies the existence of systemic racism. The profoundly anti-racist brand of conservatism of a William F. Buckley is totally ignored in today’s Trumpian-dominated Republican Party, both nationally and in New Jersey.
No thoughtful right-of-center voter who rejects racism can any longer maintain allegiance to today’s Trumpian Republican Party. The creation of a new center-right political party is sorely needed, both nationally and in New Jersey. How this could come about will be a focus of my future columns.
Alan Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.