Burlington County Times

Activist's Removal From Statehouse Is Pattern To Silence Opposition, Advocates Claim

Leaders from several advocacy groups held a news conference Friday where they both condemned Sue Altman's removal and also expressed concerns about how other advocates have been treated at the Statehouse, particularly when they oppose leaders on controversial issues or legislation.

Burlington County Times — November 22, 2019

By David Levinsky

TRENTON — Camden activist Sue Altman's ejection from a Senate committee hearing room on Monday captured national attention, but fellow advocates and activists claim it's far from the only example of state legislators using what they describe as "un-democratic" tactics to silence or limit public participation and opposition.

Leaders from several advocacy groups, including New Jersey Citizen Action, New Jersey Policy Perspective, Environment New Jersey, Clean Water Action, League of Women Voters and the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, held a news conference Friday where they condemned Altman's removal and also expressed concerns about how others have been treated at the Statehouse, particularly when they oppose leaders on controversial issues or legislation.

The groups also released a letter they sent to legislative leaders that made many of the same points.

"The shocking, forcible removal of New Jersey Working Families Alliance Executive Director Sue Altman this week is the latest — and most egregious — example of the many attempts to silence and sideline our voices, especially voices of dissent," the letter said.
Photos: Norcross testimony in Trenton brings out protesters

Altman was removed by New Jersey State Police troopers during a hearing of a special Senate committee assigned the task of examining the state's now expired tax incentive programs administered by the state Economic Development Authority.

The hearing featured testimony from influential political boss George Norcross III, and drew both supporters and opponents of the tax incentives.

Altman, a Camden resident, has been among the most vocal critic of both the incentives and the influence Norcross appears to have with many members of the Legislature.

She was among a group of Camden residents who were removed from the committee room after some boos and cheers were heard during the hearing, prompting the committee chair to instruct state police to "remove the back row" from the room. Troopers responded by dragging out several people, including Altman, who was not seated in the back row and who objected to being forced to leave. Afterward she was charged with disorderly conduct.

Gov. Phil Murphy suggested that members of the Senate panel should apologize to Altman and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren tweeted that Altman's removal from the hearing was "outrageous." The Attorney General's Office also said the incident would be investigated.

Members of the activist group described her ejection as "appalling" and "stomach-turning" and said it symbolized a recent change in culture at the Statehouse where public input and dissent were not welcome.

"This week's events and the degradation of longstanding norms at the Statehouse would not have been tolerated in the years past," said Sheila Reynersten, a senior policy analyst with New Jersey Policy Perspective during the news conference at the League of Women Voters offices in Trenton.

"We are better than this. We cannot allow the erosion of the house of the people to take hold. Monday's incident must serve as a line in the sand," he said.

Others at the event echoed that sentiment and called for the New Jersey Attorney General to expand an investigation into Altman's ejection to other actions taken to silence public participation and dissent at the Statehouse.

"I thought when the Christie era ended the politics of 'sit down and shut up' also ended," said Doug O'Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. "What we saw on Monday was that the Christie-era politics is still with us."

The groups claim the problems began during former Gov. Chris Christie's administration but said they have continued and become more pronounced during the last two years.

As examples, they allege there have been multiple occasions when advocates were denied access to conference rooms for media events or had their testimony during legislative hearings curtailed. Some even claim they submitted slips requesting to testify on specific bills but were either ignored or had their request altered to reflect "no need to testify."

Advocates also blasted recent "invite-only" hearings like Monday where select individuals or special interests were invited to speak, as well as occasions when both Senate and Assembly committees meet at the same time to consider controversial bills.

Altman attended the press conference and stood with the other leaders but did not speak.

Afterward, she told reporters she was encouraged by the support she has received from other activists and leaders, although she noted that only one legislator, state Sen. Richard Codey, D-27 of Roseland, reached out to her personally along with the governor and first lady.

"I think it's been humbling but also inspiring to see so many people rally around a clear injustice," Altman said Friday, relaying that she received many "high fives and hugs" from people at the State League of Municipalities Conference in Atlantic City this week.

"There was an outpouring of support from people, not legislators but people kinda in that next lane down, like local city council members, committee members and mayors. This next level of people who are like this 'yeah needs to change' and 'I came into politics for what I think are the right reasons and this can't be the system I operate in to do my job well.' So I think that's a really good sign that there might be a layer at the top that's quite pleased with how things are but there are a lot of people underneath who are upset and ready for a change," she said.

Murphy has also condemned Altman's removal from the hearing and Altman said his administration's actions differ from the Legislature.

"We don't always agree with (the administration) but we go back and forth and have a dialogue and there's an opportunity for a dialogue in a way that isn't true with the Legislature and that contrast is really sharp," she said.

Altman also took issue with comments from Sweeney, who told reporters at the League of Municipalities conference that Altman "got the attention she wanted."

"I'm disappointed the way it happened. But she'd planned to be arrested, she even said that," Sweeney said according to reports from Politico and other news organizations. He referenced a tweet from Altman on Monday morning during the hearing where she wrote: "not arrested!! (yet)"

Altman denied her removal was premeditated.

"Like my mother said, you don't wear an outfit like that if you're planning to get dragged out of the Statehouse. You wear slacks," she said.

She also said she agreed with the other activists that a broader investigation into the atmosphere at the Statehouse is merited.

"I think there needs to be a dual investigation. How is it they went after me? Why? And also the issues coming out today that this is systemic. I think both need to happen."

Advocates at the news conference also said they hoped to meet with legislative leaders to discuss their concerns.

"I think there's a traditional culture at the Statehouse that's slowly being eroded. That's what we're pointing to," Reynersten said. "There used to be a culture of openness. We're talking about going back to a time when we had an open-door policy without intimidation."

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said he was open to speaking with the advocates.

"While I am confident that the Legislature already provides sound access to advocates and the public, I am always open to hearing ideas on how we can improve," Coughlin said. "To that end, I will be reaching out to these advocacy groups to begin a dialogue about possible ways to make the State House even more accessible to them and others who want to participate in the legislative process."

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