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>Imputations of North Jersey: Political games in Hudson and Bergen

>Imputations of North Jersey: Political games in Hudson and Bergen
by Thurman Hart
Monday March 10, 2008, 1:21 PM

I don’t normally get into political theory in this column. There are few theories that one can do justice to in 800 words, much less explain and then demonstrate how they operate. However, there are times when the effort is needed because nothing else will suffice to explain a problem or puzzle. So I’m reaching into game theory and pulling out the concept of grand alliance and imputation. Then I’m going to show you how these games are playing out to the detriment of the taxpayers in Hudson and Bergen Counties.

A grand alliance is formed when the major players in an oppositional game (some claim it must have all players, but that is disputed by most who seek to apply the theory to reality) begin to work together. There can be any number of reasons for doing so – during time of war, for example, when the threat from outside the system is of more importance than the internecine competition. But one of the characteristics of a grand alliance is that it distributes benefits at a higher rate to participants than competition does. In other words, every gets more out of it by working together than they do by competing with each other. As long as that is true, the alliance holds together because it is individually rational to each participant. An imputation is simply the means by which the collective booty is split.

So in a grand coalition of Democrats and Republicans, an imputation is simply a functional example of how they work together to enrich themselves rather than against each other to prevent the other party from abusing the powers of office. This is not, by the way, a slap at bipartisanship. A grand coalition is one type of bipartisanship and can be necessary and beneficial. But, like pretty much everything in politics, it has a dark side. That’s where Hudson and Bergen Counties come in.

In Hudson County, the single best example of the functioning of a grand alliance lies in the person of Carl Czaplicki. Czaplicki is the former Chief-of-Staff for Jersey City’s mayor Jerramiah Healy and the current head of the Housing, Economic Development and Commerce Department. He is also a high level officer in the Hudson County GOP.

In some ways, it is refreshing to see a Democratic administration reach across party lines and utilize members of the opposition. This is, of course, supposing that Czaplicki is qualified for his job and good at it. There is no reported instance of Czaplicki being incompetent (though, like every public official, it is possible to find someone who will talk about it). There is also this little problem noted by the weekly Hudson Reporter:

However, while Czaplicki has an administrative background, he does not have an economic background. That is usual for the HEDC director’s post, which entails heading one of the most important departments in Jersey City government.
So there is at least some evidence that the position is a political consideration, not a policy consideration. The fact that he will not be allowed to make economic decisions without consulting Rosemary McFadden – the new Deputy Mayor – indicates that he is in over his head.

To understand why this is potentially a destructive grand alliance, it is necessary to understand that one of Mr. Czaplicki’s jobs within the Hudson GOP is to find, recruit, and fund candidates to challenge Mr. Healy. That Mr. Czaplicki’s $100K+ job with the city creates an automatic conflict-of-interest with his GOP job is a conundrum for the GOP alone – unless you actually consider contested elections to be of benefit to the public (I do). In that case, the six figures Mr. Czaplicki gets from the city is actually a very nice payoff for recruiting second-class candidates or making sure that first-class candidates can’t compete. At the very least, we would expect to get a Republican candidate that would allow Mr. Czaplicki to retain an important job for which he appears to be unqualified.

In this imputation, Mr. Czaplicki gets an impressive job title, bereft of the responsibility it would imply, and a nice income while Mr. Healy gets some measure of political insurance. Clearly, without this sort of alliance, neither would have the benefits that they enjoy collectively. To the degree that Mr. Czaplicki is out of his league, the taxpayers of Jersey City are footing the bill for a Deputy Mayor to hold the hand of what should be an autonomous Department Head. Of course, those people who depend on services from that Department are also losers. Too bad they aren’t part of the alliance (or are so far down they don’t really matter).

In Bergen County, the imputation includes the Board of Chosen Freeholders, controlled by the Democratic Party (controlled, many say, by Joe Ferriero), awarding multiple no-bid contracts to a Republican power-broker. Bob Pimienta gets up to $10,000 a year for doing research on real estate, plus 10% of what he says the county has saved by using his services (that last part was added as an amendment to his contract just in time for him to get paid $91,000 for a single property seizure). Oddly, it is from a member of the Republican Party that we get a sort of questioning criticism of the deal:

“I wasn’t quite certain why we needed to hire [a real estate adviser] in general terms, without having a special project,” recalled former Republican Freeholder Elizabeth Randall, who voted against retaining Pimienta in 2003.

“I don’t remember having a clear understanding of the individual projects that this individual would be working on. This, to me, was a very vague assignment.”

In contrast to Hudson, where it looks like the grand alliance has taken a party official to a job for which he isn’t qualified, in Bergen, it has taken a financier in for a job he is qualified (Pimienta is also head of the state Real Estate Commission), but would not have if the alliance did not function. So what’s the payoff for Bergen County Democrats?

There is none, according to Pimienta. He has, of his own will and out of the goodness of his heart, given more than $75,000 to Bergen County Democrats since 1999. Well, to be fair, it wasn’t his money, the money belonged to the PAC that he founded with an almost identical name as his non-political business. But this begs the question of why a registered Republican would found a PAC that funnels tens of thousands of dollars to members of the other party.

Just to give an indication of how separate Impact Realty is from Impact PAC, Pimienta (understandably) serves as chairman of the PAC, which shares an office with his realty business. Also the VP of his realty business is the treasurer of the PAC. But there is no relationship between them – no “legal” relationship, that is.

For the players, the grand coalition functions similarly as it does in Hudson. Bergen Dems get a form of political insurance that their opponents will be missing a very well-heeled source of funding. Mr. Pimienta, as should be obvious, is making money hand-over-fist in this deal. And taxpayers? Well, that money has to come from somewhere. Cogs in the machine only get respect when they don’t function properly.

So long as we retain our winner-take-all, first-past-the-post system, we will have a two-party system – a principle known as Duverger’s Law. Just as our court system is built on the principle of oppositional justice (opposing lawyers help discover justice by arguing against each other), so is our political system dependent on oppositional elections and parties holding each other accountable. Such things would not be necessary if men were angels, but, as James Madison said, if men were angels, no government would be necessary. Or, to trot out still more platitudes, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

For all its faults, a two-party system is better than a one-party system. Two parties can offer legitimate choices and quality candidates and the minority party can still hold the majority party accountable – if they try. Grand coalitions and bipartisanship are a necessary part of the compromises within our governmental system that allow it to function properly and for the benefit of all. They are not automatically the enemy of the people. But neither are they automatically our friend.

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