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“Pay-to-Play” Restrictions Debated in Newark: Unfair Advantage for Popular Mayor?

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Critics of “pay-to-play” restrictions have long come from throughout the political spectrum, raising concerns ranging from free speech to ballot access. But the recent “pay-to-play” proposals in Newark, NJ have been criticized by some public officials for a rather novel reason: they can’t pick up the phone and call Oprah for a contribution like their popular Mayor, Corey Booker, can.

While the proposed legislation in Newark is in its infancy and is likely to change, it appears to be aimed at limiting contributions from local redevelopment companies. Specifically, the Star Ledger reports that the legislation’s current language, “would bar contributions to city candidates from redevelopers, their subcontractors and their consultants starting the moment there is interest in an area for redevelopment.”

This concept is not a novel one, particularly in New Jersey, which has arguably the toughest “pay-to-play” laws in the country. In fact, numerous localities in New Jersey have similar laws on the books. And as we detailed previously, Governor Chris Christie has proposed a wave of robust reforms that would further regulate the political law environment in the Garden State.

What is unique here, however, are claims such as the ones contained in the Star Ledger article:

As “pay-to-play” legislation limiting campaign donations from local redevelopers wends its way through City Hall, some city leaders are saying the proposed fundraising restrictions would create an unfair playing field for candidates who don’t have Oprah Winfrey on speed dial.

“I am not a rock star councilwoman,” said at large council member Mildred Crump this week. “We have a rock star mayor.”

Indeed, candidates without nationwide networks would be more directly impacted by the current Newark “pay-to-play” proposals than a national figure like Mayor Booker. Yet another reason for some to dislike this sort of piecemeal “pay-to-play” regulation. Nonetheless, reports on the ground indicate that passage of some form of this legislation is likely.

In any case, New Jersey continues to be a focal point for developments in the “pay-to-play” arena. We will monitor such developments closely as the end of 2010 nears.