As a major municipal election that will determine which party will control Brick Township’s government draws closer, political mudslinging is reaching its peak from every direction. But while members of the two major parties traded occasional barbs at a township council meeting Tuesday night, it was one political advertisement that raised the ire of both parties for vastly different reasons.
It is no secret that former Mayor John Ducey held a high degree of popularity in town for keeping a stable tax rate, being a constant presence at local events and for his willingness to publicly oppose policies favored by his own party that he felt would not be in the best interests of Brick. After achieving a lifelong goal of becoming a Superior Court judge earlier this year, his successor, Councilwoman Lisa Crate, was selected by her party to take Ducey’s seat for the remainder of 2023 and to run for this balance of Ducey’s term in November. Her rival quickly emerged as state Assemblyman John Catalano, who served a short stint on the council as an appointee to fill a vacancy in 2011. Catalano went on to overwhelmingly win his legislative seat, however Democrats, drawing on Ducey’s popularity, retained control of the local government and have for more than a decade.
With Ducey now serving as a Superior Court judge in the family division in the Ocean County vicinage, politics – partisan or non-partisan– are off-limits for the former mayor. Still, most township residents over the last week received a mailer prominently featuring a smiling Ducey in two photographs standing next to Crate, with a banner below displaying an unflattering photo of Catalano declaring that he “hates” Ducey, an accusation the GOP candidate has denied.
The mailer was sent by the Crate campaign, leading Republican leaders to write a letter to both Ducey and Superior Court Judge Francis Hodgson, the current assignment judge who is responsible for supervising the county’s judiciary.
State judiciary rules covering judges’ involvement in politics are codified in Rule 1:17, which was referenced in the letter sent to Ducey and Hodgson. But while the rule prohibits judges from involving themselves in politics, it does not preclude others (outside of some judiciary employees) from invoking the names, photographs or other facts about judges from their former careers in campaign literature. As long as Ducey himself did not collude with his successor, which has never been so much as alleged in this case, the rule was not violated.
Republicans, however, claim that Ducey should have actively tried to stop the campaign from using his likeness in advertisements. They argued that, legal or not, a sitting judge should not be featured in campaign literature and they may file an ethics complaint of some kind.
“The information is misleading and violates the judicial code of conduct,” the letter from Republicans, as read by council candidate James Palmisano said. “We kindly ask that you instruct those in the Crate Team for Mayor campaign to cease and desist using your picture by shutting down their Facebook page and creating a new Facebook page devoid of any other previous endorsements or imagery associated with Judge Ducey.”
“This will prevent any potential misinterpretation or confusion about Judge Ducey’s involvement in any political activity,” the letter went on to say.
Had Ducey carried out the request, ironically, he could have found himself effectively forced into the politics surrounding his former office – which could have been construed as an ethical violation. Instead, Ducey submitted a reply consisting of just two or three sentences, indicating that he could not respond to the letter nor become involved in the matter. The short reply was copied to Hodgson.
Ducey’s short response was read by Township Attorney Kevin Starkey, who said he felt it was necessary to do so in post-meeting comments since Ducey “cannot be here to defend himself.” He also clarified how judicial policies affect political candidates.
“Mayor Crate is entitled to say that she is following in the footsteps of Mayor Ducey, and Judge Ducey cannot be involved in politics,” Starkey said. “Those two things can exist at the same time.”
Starkey also delivered a rebuke to the Republican organization – a rarity for Starkey, whose comments are almost always limited to routine legal questions involving the council or municipal government.
“I’ve known John Ducey for a long time. I consider him a good friend,” he said. “He is one of the most ethical and honest people I know. He does not deserve to have a letter sent to him accusing him of an ethical violation when he can’t respond to it. I think people should recognize that and be better than that.”
“It’s not something that’s warranted, not something that should be done,” he continued. “Judge Ducey has been respectful, throughout the time I’ve known him, to everyone he’s met. He’s a good person, was a great mayor and a great man, and I urge you to leave him out of this.”
No formal legal complaints have been filed in the matter, nor have any judicial orders been issued. Meanwhile, visceral campaign literature continues to flow into Brick Township mailboxes, with Republicans also criticizing a multi-page cartoon booklet sent out by Democrats that parodied a children’s Dr. Seuss poem with the aim of attacking Catalano. Republicans, for their part, have sent numerous mailers linking Crate to controversial Democratic policies such as bail reform that many believe is behind a recent crime wave, and limitations on parental notification rights in education. Crate has previously said she disagrees with many of the policies favored by the New Jersey Education Association, a major source of funding for the Democratic party in which she serves as a representative in Jackson Township. She decried several of the controversial policies as an “assault on parental rights.” Crate has also defended her record on public safety, saying the police department is better staffed than any time previously and congratulating detectives on nabbing a suspect in a major string of burglaries and auto thefts in the township.