With New Jersey’s Nov. 7 election fast approaching, voters’ mailboxes, televisions and webpages are starting to fill with political ads pushing them on how to vote and attacking the opposing party’s candidates.
While some ads are self-explanatory and clearly come from candidates and their political parties, others include disclaimers that say they are paid for by vaguely named groups that don’t give much indication to voters about who they are and why they are driving a particular message.
In the past, most of these independent groups’ backers remained a mystery. But under a controversial campaign finance overhaul law Gov. Phil Murphy signed in April, these so-called super PACs and political nonprofits are required to disclose information about their larger donors and spending leading up to elections.
The Elections Transparency Act requires disclosure of donations worth more than $7,500 to outside groups — or independent entities that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, unlike candidates and parties, which are more strictly regulated and face limits on how much they can raise.
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The law includes loopholes, as Politico reports. For one, a group such as the Republican “Patriots for Progress” raised $69,000 through the beginning of October, but since it says the checks were all worth less than $7,500, it didn’t list any of its donors in its report. And unlike candidates, political parties and PACs, outside groups don’t have to file certain time-sensitive reports cataloging large contributions and spending in the days leading up to the election.
But New Jersey residents are now armed with more information than in the past, in an election season when all 80 seats in the Assembly and 40 seats in the state Senate are on the ballot. And more money is in play than in the last state election. According to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission, the top 14 groups spent almost $9.4 million, compared with the $2.3 million they had spent through mid-October in 2021, which included the governor’s race.
Here are some of the biggest spenders so far, according to disclosure reports they filed this fall:
Middle Ground was the biggest independent spender by the beginning of October, pouring nearly $1.6 million into surveys, ads and mailers in the 11th, 16th and 38th Legislative District races and spending more than $2.1 million total.
The messaging boosts Central and North Jersey Democrats in swing districts, including state Sen. Vin Gopal and candidates Luanne Peterpaul and Margie Donlon in the 11th District, encompassing Monmouth County; state Sen. Andrew Zwicker, Assemblyman Roy Freiman and candidate Mitchelle Drulis in the 16th District, covering towns in Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex and Somerset counties; and state Sen. Joe Lagana and Assembly members Christopher Tully and Lisa Swain in Bergen County’s 38th District.
The group is chaired by Scott Snyder with SJS Consulting, top adviser to the Middlesex Democratic Committee. The treasurer is Christina Gawler of MCF Consulting Group.
Middle Ground raised more than $2.1 million between June and September from:
- Garden State Forward, a group funded by the teachers’ union New Jersey Education Association: $900,000.
- C&D Growing Economics, which has the same address as LIUNA, the Laborers’ International Union of North America, which includes construction workers and others: $400,000.
- Greater NJ Carpenters: $250,000.
- Planned Parenthood: $139,975.
- American Federation of Teachers Solidarity: $100,000.
- United Food and Commercial Workers International: $100,000.
- Transit worker union ATU-COPE Special Holdings: $100,000.
- HNTB Corporation, a Kansas City, Missouri-based design firm: $50,000.
- New York Hotel Trade Council Committee on Political Education: $50,000.
- Angelo Genova, co-founder and chairman of Newark-based Genova Burns: $30,000.
- James Burns, co-founder and managing partner of Genova Burns: $20,000.
- Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 9: $2,000.
But not all the funds are accounted for. Middle Ground also received a $60,000 donation from the nonprofit New Jersey Leading Together, which was formed in February 2023 by Scott Snyder and lists a Monroe property owned by Snyder as its address. It’s unclear, however, who contributed to New Jersey Leading Together.
Trustees for New Jersey Leading Together include Snyder, Michelle Timoni, a former press secretary for the New Jersey Assembly office and chief of staff to Democratic Assemblyman Roy Freiman; and Yasmin Brissac, a former operative with the Middlesex County Democratic Organization and aide to Chairman Kevin McCabe.
Dan Bryan, president of Bryan Strategies Group and a former top aide to Murphy, declined to say who funded the nonprofit. “New Jersey Leading Together has and will file all disclosures as required by law,” Bryan said.
“New Jersey Leading Together is a nonprofit corporation dedicated to promoting the common welfare throughout New Jersey, by advocating policies that support the well-being of our families, ensure the future prosperity of our community, and protect the freedom and just treatment of all New Jerseyans,” he said in a statement. “In 2023, New Jersey Leading Together has primarily focused on promoting the newly signed into law ‘StayNJ’ program through town halls across the state. The donors to New Jersey Leading Together are those that believe in the core mission of the organization.”
Prosperity Rising NJ Inc.
Prosperity Rising NJ spent more than $1.6 million, boosting Democrats in the same races as Middle Ground in the 11th, 16th and 38th districts. The group is running ads labeling Republicans such as Steve Dnistrian, Kim Eulner and Marilyn Pierno as “slimy politicians” and “extremists who want to ban abortion.”
The super PAC is run by Doug Heyl, who managed former Gov. James McGreevey’s failed 1997 campaign for governor. The chairperson is Jim McManus, and the treasurer is Mark Antonucci of MDA Real Estate Services.
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Prosperity Rising raised $1.7 million from:
- Garden State Forward (NJEA): $850,000.
- Growing Economic Opportunities, Laborers Union: $450,000.
- Greater NJ Carpenters: $250,000.
- Planned Parenthood: $99,975.
- New York Hotel Trades Council Committee on Political Education: $50,000.
- Anheuser-Busch: $25,000.
Women for a Stronger New Jersey
Women for a Stronger New Jersey spent more than $300,000 boosting Republican candidates, including Assemblywomen Marilyn Piperno and Kim Ulner in the 11th District, Assembly candidate Grace Zhang in the 16th District, and state Senate candidate Michelin Attieh and Assembly candidate Gail Horton in the 38th District.
The group raised $160,000 each from chairperson Laura Overdeck, a philanthropist founder of the Bedtime Math foundation; and founding board member Kathy Hugin, the wife of Bob Hugin, chairman of the New Jersey Republican State Committee and a former pharmaceutical executive who ran for U.S. Senate and lost to Sen. Bob Menendez.
It was founded in 2019 and has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars each year backing female Republican candidates.
Throughout October, the group paid for more than $14,000 worth of ads on Google in support of parental notification policies that would require schools to alert parents if their child changes their gender expression of identity and asks to change their name or pronouns, or asks for accommodations in the bathroom, locker rooms or sports.
Brighter Future Forward
While voters are seeing hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of ads bashing Republicans, New Jerseyans won’t find spending disclosures by the nonprofit Brighter Future Forward. It didn’t turn in a 29-day preelection report, which covers spending between June 24 and Oct. 6.
The next report includes spending through Oct. 24, and it will be made public online on Oct. 31. Reports to the Federal Communications Commission show that the group has spent at least $260,000 on TV ads, according to an analysis by ELEC.
The group is airing ads criticizing Sen. Ed Durr, who unseated former Senate President Steve Sweeney in 2021, for a post about abortion he made on Facebook in 2020, when he wrote, “A woman does have a choice! Keep her legs closed,” and liking a post that suggested women should be “spayed, like dogs.”
The ad also attacks Republican candidates Sen. Vincent Polistina, Assemblymen Michael Torrissi and Brandon Umba, and Senate candidate Christopher Del Borrello for not calling out Durr for his comments. The candidates told Politico that Durr’s posts were “offensive” and “unacceptable.”
The group is chaired by Patricia Egan Jones, a Democrat who represented the 5th District in the Assembly from 2015 to 2020. Other names listed on the group’s filings include William Tambussi with Brown and Connery, and John Connors and Melissa Pollitt of RP Consulting LLC.
In IRS records, the contact person is Alexis Degan, former communications director and chief of staff for 5th District lawmakers and current vice president at Volunteers of America Delaware Valley.
Strengthen Our State Inc.
Strengthen Our State spent more than $200,000 on the 11th District backing Republican candidates Stephen Dnistrian for state Senate and Luanne Peterpaul and Assemblywoman Kim Eulner for Assembly, and opposing Democratic state Sen. Vin Gopal.
According to March 2022 incorporation documents, the group’s board members are Robert Delcalzo, owner of Equity Real Estate Valuation & Advisory; attorney Brian Heun; and Vincent Maffucci, managing partner at Cadia Private Client, an investment management firm. Staci Goede of Sage Advisory Group is treasurer. Republican strategist Stacy Schuster serves as executive director.
The group’s funders include:
- Bob Hugin: $400,000.
- Alan Fournier, founder and chief investment officer of Summit-based investment firm Pennant Advisors LLC: $300,000.
- Samuel Cole, co-founder of private equity investment management firm Stonecutter Ventures: $50,000.
American Representative Majority
American Representative Majority spent more than $200,000, focusing on helping Democrats in South Jersey, in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 8th districts.
South Jersey power broker George Norcross III lent the group $550,000 in October 2021. The chairperson is Sean Kennedy, director of IT firm CGI and a former senior adviser to the previous New Jersey Senate president, Steve Sweeney. The group’s filings also include names affiliated with other outside groups, including Patricia Egan Jones, William Tambussi, John Connors and Mellissa Pollitt.
The group’s recent donors include:
- Jim Beach for Senate: $50,000.
- Lou Greenwald for Assembly: $50,000.
- Nilsa Cruz Perez: $50,000.
- IBEW Local 351: $50,000.
- Law firm Archer & Greiner, P.C.: $25,000.
- Bill Moen for Assembly: $25,000.
- Pamela Rosen Lampitt for Assembly: $25,000.
- William Spearman for Assembly: $25,000.
- Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 322: $25,000
- Remington & Vernick Engineers: $25,000.
- William Tambussi: $25,000.
- Carol Murphy for Assembly: $15,000.
- Troy Singleton for Senate: $12,500.
- Concord Engineering: $10,500.
- Consulting Engineers Services: $10,500.
- Friends of Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts: $10,000.
Jersey Freedom, a shadowy group with a Jamaica, Queens, post office box address, is sending out mailers attacking Republican state Senate candidates in the South Jersey 2nd and 4th districts and urging residents to vote for third-party candidates.
Jersey Freedom has not filed with ELEC or the state Treasury. An IRS form filed on Sept. 11, 2023, lists the contact person for the 527 political organization as Eric Peterson, with no@email as the contact.
The group sent out flyers telling conservatives to support Libertarian Shawn Peck over Republican state Sen. Vince Polistina in the 2nd District and Giuseppe Costanzo of the “Conservatives South Jersey Party” against Republican Chris Del Borrello in the 4th District, according to the political site New Jersey Globe, which first reported on the group.
Peck said he was dropping out of the race and “proudly endorsing Polistina.”
“I will not be used as a pawn for the left,” Peck said in an email to NorthJersey.com. “Our real adversaries are the radical leftists that are seeking to sow division. I condemn the actions of this shadow group.”
Fourth District Republican candidates Del Borrello, Matthew Walker and Amanda Esposito urged U.S. Attorney Philip Sellinger to investigate the group to examine whether there was coordination between the group and Democratic campaigns and other Democratic outside groups.
Democratic Sen. Vince Polistina is running for reelection in the 2nd District and Democratic Assemblyman Paul Moriarty is running for the 4th District Senate seat alongside Dan Hutchinson and Cody Miller for Assembly.
The Camden County and Atlantic County Democratic Parties did not return requests for comment.
In an interview with NorthJersey.com, Del Borrello, a former council member of Washington Township in Gloucester County, said the independent candidates running in the 4th District, Costanzo and Maureen Dukes Penrose, “have no digital footprint and have not campaigned in any way whatsoever.”
Del Borrello notes that Jersey Freedom’s mailer attacking him includes messaging and sources similar to those of American Representative Majority, with both listing bullet points including that Del Borrello’s family ran a stripper service called Tasteful Temptations, his family business was investigated by the FBI Organized Crime Task Force and his brother was convicted of financial fraud.
Del Borrello said he didn’t have a role or stake in Tasteful Temptations as he was in high school, and after his half brother “went rogue” as chief compliance officer at the family business, Del Borrello left medical school at Drexel University and “cleaned everything up.”
“These dark shadowy super PACs are attacking everybody else except me,” Del Borrello said. “It’s all a deflection of what the real issues are for New Jersey voters this year: parental rights, pro-law enforcement and offshore wind.”
The Republican candidates also sent the letter to New Jersey Attorney General Matt Platkin and ELEC commissioners.
“Given the fraught national dialogue around the integrity of our elections and the importance that all citizens and voters have confidence that our elections are fair and free of interference, we believe it is imperative that you investigate,” the candidates wrote in a letter provided to NorthJersey.com.
Polistina also sent a letter to Platkin requesting an investigation, writing, “Someone’s efforts to defraud the public, hide money and affect the outcome of what should be a fair election are a threat to democracy.”
A spokesperson for the Office of the Attorney General said in a statement to NorthJersey.com, “Our office does not confirm or deny the existence of particular investigations. We are committed to ensuring fair elections, protecting the integrity of the process, and preserving the rights of all New Jerseyans. As we have said in the past, we will continue to hold accountable those who seek to disrupt this integral process that is a cornerstone of our democracy.”