It’s no secret that a Republican administration means a great deal of influence for the NRA and a mobilization of efforts to weaken gun regulation – and this administration has wasted no time in launching its ambitious agenda to. Some highlights:
- House Bill 38 and Senate Bill 446, both introduced in January and currently in committee awaiting a vote, would allow concealed carry reciprocity – meaning that anyone who possesses a concealed carry permit on one state, would be able to carry a concealed weapon in any other state. For example, someone who has a concealed carry permit from Utah, where you can apply for a permit through the mail without even being a resident, could legally carry a concealed weapon in NJ, where we currently have some of the toughest gun regulations in the U.S. Tom MacArthur, Congressman from NJ District 3, is a co-sponsor of the house bill. Moms Demand Action is currently focused on phone banking to states where Senators are undecided, as well as to women in Missouri who have expressed interest in MOMS, and to registered Democrats to have them get the word out to ask their senators to vote NO. To get involved, go to www.Everytown.org to get information on Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
- In February, the House voted to overturn an Obama administration rule designed to keep firearms out of the hands of some people deemed mentally ill. The measure being blocked from implementation would have required the Social Security Administration to send records of some beneficiaries with severe mental disabilities to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System. About 75,000 people found mentally incapable of managing their financial affairs would have been affected. The NRA had pushed for the repeal, and Republicans argued it infringed upon Second Amendment rights by denying due process. The ACLU actually supported the measure, expressing concern that “it advances and reinforces the harmful stereotype that people with mental disabilities, a vast and diverse group of citizens, are violent.” Among the concerns of those who oppose the overturn is the fact that at the same time, the GOP is working to reduce access to mental health care.
- There is evidence, though, that gun sense has not gone out the window. Republican State Sen. Anitere Flores has declared she will not support most of the gun bills up for debate in the Florida Senate that are designed to weaken the state’s gun laws. Earlier, in November, several states elected gun sense champions. New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, who repeatedly voted against expanded background checks, lost her Senate seat. Gun Sense champion Maggie Hassan was elected; gun safety ballot measures prevailed in Nevada, Washington state and California; gun sense voters supported elected officials who will stand up to the gun lobby and take action to protect New Mexico families and communities from gun violence. In Kansas, State Representative Janice Pauls, who was backed by the gun lobby, was defeated and gun sense candidates were elected to the state legislature.
- Here in New Jersey, in January, Governor Chris Christie has signed the domestic violence bill that will help law enforcement remove firearms owned by abusers upon conviction. The bill will now become law and help to protect all victims of domestic violence. As far as the future of gun control here in New Jersey – state lawmakers have indicated that if concealed carry reciprocity passes at the federal level, the state legislature will take it to the courts to maintain our state laws, and all of the Democratic gubernatorial primary candidates have expressed support for strong gun regulation.
To find out how to get involved with advocating for gun sense here in NJ, go to www.momsdemandaction.org, our contact STAND CNJ member Felice Ockun (email@example.com), who is the the Middlesex County Ambassador for the NJ Chapter of Moms Demand Action.
Since our election last November, millions of Americans (including STAND CNJ’s leaders and members!) have dipped their toes into the unfamiliar waters of activism and civic engagement. Some of us have even jumped completely in! As a result, many of us are realizing there is a lot more to government than we thought. Suddenly, people all over New Jersey are wondering, “Who exactly are my state legislators?”, “What is a freeholder? , and “What do we need to do to pass or defeat a bill in the state legislature?”, among many other questions.
STAND CNJ was proud to host the first of several teach-ins last Saturday, March 4th, to help us begin to answer those questions. Featuring a group of experts in New Jersey politics, the teach-in introduced attendees to the basic structure of New Jersey’s state and local government, discussed ideas for organizing and activism, and reviewed health care in our state.
Ingrid Reed, of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, mapped out for us the many levels of state government, from the Governor’s office and the State Legislature, all the way down to Town Councils or Committees. Each person in New Jersey is represented by an elected Governor and Lieutenant Governor, one State Senator, two State Assemblymembers, a County Executive, a Board of County Freeholders, a School Board, and a town or city council or committee. Counties and municipalities in New Jersey can choose their form of government, so the size of councils and committees and the process of choosing a mayor will vary from county to county and town to town. Reed also described the structure of the Democratic and Republican parties in New Jersey, and urged us to get involved in our local party district committees (each voting district elects 2 district committee persons, one male and one female, for each of the two parties—and often no one is running for these positions).
Dena Mottola Jaborska, Associate Director at New Jersey Citizen Action, continued Reed’s introduction to state government. Both Jaborska and Reed highlighted the perhaps-too-great power granted to the Governor by our state constitution. In New Jersey, numerous important positions in agencies, boards and commissions are appointed by the Governor, whereas in other states around the country these positions are elected. This means that citizens in New Jersey have fewer representatives to contact, influence, or vote out of office if they are unhappy with the decisions of a commission or agency.
Jaborska’s presentation also highlighted some surprising facts about New Jersey voters. According to Jaborska, the largest category of voter in the state is not Republican or Democrat, but actually “Unaffiliated.” She also cited estimates that 1 million eligible voters in New Jersey are not registered to vote. Furthermore, voter turnout in “off-year” elections (like the one coming up this November) is terribly low—only 38% of voters came to the polls the last time we elected a governor in an “off-year”, compared to 68% turnout for the 2016 presidential election. In years when we are only electing state assembly members, the turnout is even lower!
The experience of Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, a Democrat from the 16th legislative district, reflects the low level of citizen engagement at the state level. In the election in which he won his seat, Zwicker reported only 22% voter turnout in his district! He won by less than a hundred votes, and is now considered a target for Republicans in the election this fall. According to Zwicker, Democrats historically do not turn out for mid-term elections. This explains the fact that Zwicker is the first Democrat to represent the 16th district, despite the greater numbers of registered Democrats in the district than Republicans. (Zwicker is also the first physicist to serve in the General Assembly!) The information provided by Zwicker and Jaborska reaffirm the importance of getting as many people to the polls this November as possible. In 2017, only New Jersey and Virginia will have elections, and the eyes of the country will be on us.
In addition to learning about how our government works here in New Jersey, Saturday’s panel of experts also highlighted effective strategies for communicating with representatives and organizing our activism. According to Assemblyman Zwicker, the best way to have an impact on your representatives is to meet with them in person to discuss issues of concern. This strategy is largely ignored by constituents, who have made up only about 15% of the people scheduling meetings with Zwicker since he’s been in office. The rest are representatives of special interest groups! If meeting in person with your representative is not possible, Zwicker emphasized the importance of writing a customized, personal letter or email. Apparently, form letters or form emails (like those you can find on the websites of many advocacy organizations) are nowhere near as effective as a unique letter written by YOU!
Jaborska, trained as an advocate and organizer at the Midwest Academy, provided a brief introduction to using the Academy’s well known Strategy Chart. Based on her training, she recommends that every grassroots campaign clearly define its goal, its target (the person you want to influence), its strategy (the general theory of how you can make your goal a reality) and its tactics (specific activities your group will engage in, such as a rally or meeting with representatives).
Besides grassroots campaigns to influence local and state government, teach-in participants also learned about the power of activism that connects you to various other community stakeholders. Becky Taylor, press secretary to former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and community relations specialist at BTaylor Public Affairs, recommends “win-win” activist strategies that make connections between your grassroots organization and other groups in the community such as non-profits, neighbors, religious organizations, public safety providers, environmental groups, business groups and schools. Her experience creating the Lawrence-Hopewell Trail with a diverse group of representatives from often-conflicting “sides” served as an example of how gathering different people around the same table can improve relations between different community stakeholders, as well as improving the community itself.
As a case study, the teach-in considered the state of health care in New Jersey under the Affordable Care Act, led by Heather Howard of Princeton University. Why should you care about the ACA and the possibility of its repeal, even if your health insurance is not at risk? Howard’s presentation demonstrated the large influence that health care has on the state budget, and its connections to many other areas of life. According to Howard, 30% of the state’s budget goes toward healthcare. The ACA and Medicaid bring $3 billion a year in federal money for the state to cover its health care costs. A complete repeal of ACA would leave a $3 billion-a-year hole in our budget. Since the inception of the ACA, 300,000 New Jerseyans have gained health insurance, and most of those 300,000 have also received federal subsidies to pay for the cost of their insurance. In New Jersey alone, 550,000 people gained coverage thru Medicaid (a program for low-income families).
The effects of repealing the ACA, cutting Medicaid, or instituting Medicaid block grants could have negative effects on the state’s finances, and eventually, on the family budgets of New Jerseyans, Howard warned. Because of the state’s Balanced Budget Amendment, which requires the state to balance its budget every year, there is little flexibility in the state’s finances to deal with unexpected crises such as an economic downturn, a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy, or a public health crisis like a disease outbreak. If less money is available from the federal government thru Medicaid or the ACA, then the state will have to pay for the costs of such emergencies by cutting funding from other state programs or changing the coverage available for different groups of people, as the state of Arizona had to do in 2010, when it announced it would no longer pay for organ transplants for people on Medicaid. Currently, the state of New Jersey spends a lot of money paying for nursing home care for the elderly. Should this support disappear, many middle-class families could find themselves having to decide between paying for their parents’ nursing home expenses or paying for their children’s college educations.
If you missed the teach-in and would like to watch it, a video of the teach-in presentations is available here. You can watch a video of the Q & A here. Notes taken by participants are also available for download in the Files section of our Facebook secret group.
To find out who your state legislators are, visit click here. To find a map of your legislative district, check out this. To find a map of your Congressional district, check out this. Don’t miss our next STAND CNJ education event on March 31st, “How to Talk to Your Legislators Effectively.”
We (Marsha and I) are no strangers to activism; we fought long and hard, both in the legislature and as plaintiffs in the Lambda Legal suit, for marriage equality in New Jersey. For that reason, we expected this first blog entry to be light and fun: An intro to our journey as “accidental activists.” Given the events of the last week, however, we felt that such an entry would fail to reflect the depth of our feelings. Therefore, unfortunately, we will save the “light” blog for another time.
We read many commentaries on the Joint Congressional Address this past week. Not one spoke of a fact that infuriated us. For the first time in 8 years, a major Presidential address neglected to specifically mention the LGBTQ community. This omission spoke volumes regarding intent. As AIDS activists in the Reagan area said: Silence=Death. Why is it that, to the best of our knowledge, none of the pundits mentioned this? Is our community that easy to forget?
Then over the weekend, we learned that that Garden State Equality’s (GSE) main headquarters had been the target of a hate crime. Their glass door was broken at the exact spot where the rainbow flag, symbol of LGBTQ pride and diversity, was affixed. This is all too reminiscent of Kristallnacht: the Nazi pogrom in which windows of Jewish-owned businesses, homes and synagogues were broken. GSE represents the NJ LGBTQ community. (It’s the leading advocacy organization and works tirelessly to ensure that this state’s LGBTQ citizens are protected.) Thus, symbolically, by breaking the entrance to their main office, all in our community have been violated.
Marsha and I experienced both Trump’s omission of our community and this bias attack on a very visceral level, but to paraphrase the name of the TV documentary on Cleve Jones’ life: “We will rise.” The current administration may want to make us invisible and reverse the progress that has been made, but they will soon find out that we will not fade quietly into the night. As our brothers and sisters did in at Stonewall in 1969 , we will fight back. With our allies at our side, we will triumph.