(This article is based on an interview. There are many topics in the audio interview that aren’t covered in the article.)
LUMBERTON, NJ — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Zinna and his communications director, twenty-three-year-old Harry Manin, strode into Dadz Bar & Grill, but Citizens’ Media TV lead correspondent Jeff Epstein was already outside on the deck. It was drizzling last Sunday evening as Epstein was setting up microphones for the interview. A band was tuning up inside Dadz, so Tenafly Councilman Zinna joined Epstein outside under the patter of rain and the shade of an awning. Their table was tucked in a corner of the patio, which looked out on a weirdly quaint view of Route 38, where a frenetic, orderly highway slices through edges of forests that eventually trickle into the sandy Pine Barrens. Jim Filler owns this view and this bar, and CMTV would like to thank him for accommodating us on such short notice, as he has accommodated us several times before.
As Zinna began to speak into the CMTV microphone, his intonation revealed traces of another prominent progressive, Bernie Sanders. Birthed in the Bronx, Zinna’s second-generation Italian-American accent can just barely be distinguished—based on a set of subtle differences—from the Brooklyn working class features of Sanders’s speech. Zinna speaks in slight variations of themes: harping on ideas but never precisely repeating himself, repeatedly coming back to hammer home his most vital points—another Sanders parallel.
New York Progressives
Just as Sanders moved from New York to a bluer state, Zinna, after studying political science and history at SUNY Albany, eventually ended up in New Jersey. Sanders settled in liberal Vermont, and much like Sanders, Zinna went on to make progressive principles work at the local level in his community. While Sanders’s Burlington, VT was hampered by decades of establishment Democratic control, Zinna faced down the Republican Party in Tenafly, NJ. According to Zinna, “about ten or twelve years ago, when my wife and I moved to Tenafly, most of the town was Republican council-people, and had been Republican-controlled for about a hundred years.”
The owner of a small data management firm, Zinna utilized a methodically-maintained surplus to capture a majority of the independent voting bloc in Tenafly, turning the town blue for the first time in a century. Under Zinna’s watch, Tenafly has had six straight years with “a surplus every year of three million dollars.” According to the councilman, every year, half of the surplus is used “to help lower the burden on taxpayers,” and the surplus is built up over the next twelve months. While the old Republican leadership was largely ineffectual, Zinna boasted, “the reality is that we keep getting elected because, in our town, we keep delivering.”
Though Zinna is now in his second term as a councilman and has been Acting Mayor for six months, he has not always been accepted by the Democratic establishment in Tenafly:
When I first came on the scene in Tenafly, the Tenafly Municipal Committee basically said, “Who are you? You’re relatively new to town.” A couple people said, “Why don’t you go out and run for Congress? Why do you want to be a councilman in Tenafly?” So, I didn’t get the nomination the first year, but I came back the second year, and the committee, after I spent a year with them, supported me and nominated me.
Of this unique history on both sides of the county line, Zinna said, “It’s one of the messages in this campaign,” before offering some advice to would-be politicos, saying, “Before I won my first Council seat, I lost three elections and I just kept on running,” and advising potential candidates to follow his lead: “If you’re in a town that’s controlled by Republicans where you want to get elected to office, and you’re Democrats, you have to keep running, you have to keep trying; you have to not give up.” Zinna’s message for the future is that “if [activists] keep fighting and they keep trying, they can get elected.”
State of the Governor Race
As to why Zinna initially decided to run for governor, he said, “After the results of the presidential election last year, […] I couldn’t just sit there, be angry, throw my shoes at the television, and have my wife yell at me because she’s tired of hearing me yelling.” Zinna announced his candidacy for governor in January and launched a series of fundraisers and public forums to address “a singular, fundamental, overwhelming issue” illustrated by all the “fights and arguments going on in people’s homes” at Thanksgiving. Zinna called the arguments between friends and family a sign of dysfunction.
Despite the atmosphere of discord in politics today, Zinna tries to keep a positive view of his platform. Summing it up, Zinna said that “public service is very important, and it’s probably the thing in my life that I am most successful at. That’s why I’m here and why I’m in this race: to serve the people of this state.” Channeling a familiar progressive sentiment, Zinna sympathized with the voters of New Jersey, even those who have chosen other candidates: “People want to have their voices heard. People in this state are very frustrated. They feel a little bit neglected; forgotten.” Nevertheless, Zinna went on to say that campaigning is “exhilarating” and that he “can’t even count how many people I’ve met, how many groups I have spoken in front of; how many places I’ve been in New Jersey.”
However, when Epstein’s interview touched on the subject of Zinna struggling to gain traction in the election, Zinna deferred, “Of course. I’m also a realist, just like you mentioned before. We all look at the polling numbers, we look at the endorsements, we see what’s happening; we understand what’s going to happen on June 6th. So we’re looking at the next election. We’re looking at helping getting Democrats elected at the municipal and legislative level throughout this state, so [that] we’re ready to announce our next campaign.”
Asked if his intent was to win the election or merely to play spoiler, Zinna replied, “No, […] I don’t think negatively like that. It’s about me saying I want to win, and then, by the way, what’s my campaign for the future?”
The ABM Movement
In spite of this, Zinna has been recently promoting a policy of Anyone But Murphy; perhaps a straightforward reference to the 1972 Anybody But McGovern campaign, which opposed the eventual Democratic nominee (who dished out an electoral softball that Richard Nixon took yard-long for a home run in the form of the largest presidential victory since Roosevelt).
While McGovern’s demise was brought on by an inexorable primary campaign where he was repeatedly put on the defensive by “fake news” accounts alleging that he supported “acid, amnesty and abortion” (a policy platform that, frankly, sounds more promising than most campaigns in the modern era), Zinna’s objection to Phil Murphy as the nominee is not policy-driven. Zinna explained his own version of the ABM movement:
The issue is about money, unfortunately. The gentleman has poured about eighteen million—fifteen of it his own cash—into this campaign, and I think that’s a real problem; the way a candidate is able to effectively buy the election….
So, when I talk about “anyone but Murphy,” [it’s because] he is the least qualified candidate for governor. He was ambassador to Germany, which is fantastic, but he got that ambassadorship because he raised three hundred million dollars for the DNC, and he got the reward, so what’s the message to all of our children?
Zinna went on to speculate about how the nomination of Murphy could end up failing:
The voting public is very flexible right now, which makes them unpredictable. I can see a scenario, […] that the Lieutenant Governor could win in November if people are unhappy, because Republicans are going paint Mr. Murphy as a billionaire—another Goldman Sachs guy who wants wants to sell the Turnpike; that it’s the same sort of craziness, it’s another billionaire, and why does this guy want to be governor?
Let’s remember something. When Democrats don’t love their candidate, what do they do? They stay home. When Republicans hate their candidate, they go out and vote for their candidate. It’s a fundamental difference between the Republican [and Democratic parties]…. We saw that with Hillary Clinton, and we could see that with Phil Murphy.
How often, then, does Zinna actually see the man he is criticizing so sharply? Out of thirty or forty events that Zinna has attended with other candidates, he says that Murphy only attended county conventions; “most of the other forums, he did not attend.” Zinna said that Murphy sometimes will send someone to sit in for him, but for most of them, Murphy simply does not show up. Zinna speculated why:
[Murphy has] risk on his side in [attending]. He doesn’t want to spend his time and energy if there’s downside for him.
The more he attends, the more the public sees him and meet him; the more they’ll realize what he’s all about. To us—to myself and the other four candidates [below Murphy]—it’s all upside. We want to see as many people as we can, so people can see who we really are. But for Mr. Murphy—he has the county line for all twenty-one counties, so if people really learn about him, the risk is all downside for him. He has no upside benefit.
Zinna bolstered his argument for the “ABM” movement by analyzing the strengths of each candidate besides Murphy:
Mr. Wisniewski, he’s been in the Assembly for twenty years. We’ve been together on stage a lot…. I have a lot of respect for him, and if you want a candidate who has a strong understanding of how the legislature operates, has put bills before it, has been at the lead of the things he believed in, and was out there carrying the torch in terms of the things that Christie was doing wrong, very early on—if that’s what you want in a governor, he’s the type of guy you should be voting for.
We have Senator Lesniak running. He’s been a Senator for thirty years, he’s been at the forefront of women’s issues, of the environmental issues, of social justice issues, criminal justice reform, and if that’s important to you, then that’s the person you should be voting for.
Jim Johnson has experience as a secretary of the treasury; he’s an attorney. He’s a brilliant guy. He has a very deep understanding of public policy issues, and he’s able to intellectually grasp the strong issues—the important issues of the day—and if that’s your type of person, you should be voting for him.
And when I talk about my friend Bill Brennan—I mean, this is a guy who speaks truth to power, and he’s not afraid of anyone. That’s the bottom line with him: he talks about issues that everyone talks about around the dinner table—at home or at the barbecue this weekend—it’s like Bill Brennan’s one of the guys who’s sitting right there having the conversation with you, and if that’s the type of candidate you want, then you vote for him. [Later, Zinna shared an anecdote about a time at a forum where Bill Brennan “wasn’t feeling loved, so I told him I loved him—in public, in front of a thousand people.”]
Now, for myself, I have to give myself a couple of points too, right? I’ve been on both the legislative side and the executive side of governing, which none of the other candidates have, and I understand how difficult it is to use and administer scarce public resources, which are taxes. I’ve made hard decisions, and I do it, actually, very well, and if I’m your type of candidate, then you should be voting for me.
On Johnson and the ELEC
Though he offered some unconditional praise for Johnson in the course of his argument for voting ABM, Zinna was less effusive when Epstein showed him a video of Johnson being asked why he failed to sign on to a letter penned by the Zinna campaign.
The letter requested that Zinna and Brennan be allowed into the ELEC debate. The letter was ultimately unsuccessful, so Zinna and Brennan were forced to quickly arrange an Outcast Debate (moderated by Epstein and hosted by CMTV) outside the ELEC debate venue, alongside two Republicans. Zinna described the process of drafting the letter:
All six candidates—myself included—have met all the Constitutional requirements to be on the ballot in June, but the ELEC rules say you only get to be in a state-sponsored debate if your checkbook is big enough, and there’s something fundamentally wrong with that….
There’s six of us; there’s not six hundred candidates. We went over a lot of bars and hoops to get ourselves on the ballot, and Bill Brennan and I should have been allowed to participate in those debates. Senator Lesniak and Phil Murphy signed a letter that my staff had authored… in support of us participating in those debates, so [they] get credit for doing that to [try to] allow us onto the debate stage.
Here is Johnson’s response—during his own forum at Dadz—to Epstein asking him why he did not sign:
The one time I was definitely going to have the opportunity to deal with [Murphy] directly—to confront him on some of his issues, to ask him what it was in his Goldman Sachs history that reflected progressive values—he then signed onto a letter that would dilute anyone’s opportunity to directly confront him….
Once again I would be told, “You followed the rules, but we’re going to change the goalposts,” and what did following the rules mean? It’s not easy to raise the money that I had to raise to qualify….
So, no, I didn’t sign the letter, and I was very polite in that, but the rules ought to apply to all of us. I wasn’t going to let Phil Murphy, who—in particular—decided that he was going to participate in this debate, all of a sudden become a champion of the rules of democracy, even as he’s spending eighteen and a half million dollars in this election. So, no sir, I did not sign.
Zinna’s response was thorough and direct:
My staff penned this letter, and then we discussed it with Mr. Brennan. Bill and I agreed on providing this letter to the other candidates to get them to sign on. Mr. Murphy signed on first, and [there were] no conditions that he put on it. Mr. Johnson is insinuating there’s some condition to the debate. Mr. Murphy agreed to have us included in that ELEC debate—immediately—with no conditions, and so did Senator Lesniak.
So, when Jim Johnson speaks about Mr. Murphy leading this change-of-the-rules plan and wanting to change the terms of the debate, that is not accurate. That is not how it played out. Jim Johnson’s campaign refused to give us an answer other than to the extent that [they weren’t] ready to make a commitment on that at this time.
Zinna sounded almost amused by Johnson’s complaint that he worked hard for the donations he earned, launching into another pointed retort:
Let’s just talk about the type of donations [Johnson] received. He has a wealthy group of friends, mostly attorneys from his legal career, and they all wrote maximum-amount checks to get him into the debate. It’s certainly not some groundswell of support from people writing three-, five-, and ten-dollar contributions.
Epstein asked Zinna if Murphy might have signed on to the letter only because he knew Zinna and Brennan would not get onto the debate stage in the end, and Zinna was quick to rebuke him:
Look, I can’t get into his head, right? I don’t know what he was thinking at the time. But being a political animal myself, he had nothing but downside risk by saying no. He would look bad, and if we did get on the debate stage anyway, it would have been an issue we would have attacked him on. So he made the right political choice…. He’s already got the twenty-one county lines. Statistically, the people’s vote doesn’t even matter.
Elaborating on why the vote might not matter, Zinna said:
Whether Democrats or Republicans, you’ve got a whole group of voters who vote the line. That line is all-powerful. That line is dictated by who you’re friends with and how much money gets brought to bear. The higher up you go in the political process, the more important that becomes.
The 60’s, The 20’s, and the 1850’s
When asked about social justice, Zinna stated: “I’m a very strong believer in the legalization of marijuana for both medicinal and recreational purposes.” He went off about the effect of prohibition on minorities:
The war on drugs has basically served to incarcerate black men, Latino men, and we’re missing a million and a half black men out of our society because they’re in prison. It has criminalized poverty and it is simply wrong.
There is nothing morally different between when someone goes home and they decide to smoke a joint, and when I go home and I have a glass of Jack Daniels—sometimes with ice, sometimes without ice.
Zinna added, “Of course [addiction is] a medical issue,” and went back to the subject of prisons:
The way we’re handling it is fundamentally wrong, but we have a prison-industrial complex and we like putting people in prison, and we need to stop doing that. People who should be in prison are people who have committed violent crimes against other individuals… Not people who use drugs. It doesn’t make any sense, does it?
Returning to his alcohol metaphor, Zinna hearkened to the 1920’s:
When alcohol was illegal, all the gangsters ran the business, because there was a lot of money to be made. People didn’t stop drinking…. [Today] it is easier for your kids to get cocaine and heroin than it is alcohol. It is simply easier. Because alcohol is regulated, they can’t get it.
You want to get rid of the drug problem in this country? We treat it the same way we treated Prohibition. Drug dealers will be the people who are most against the legalization of drugs, because you’ll put them out of business overnight.
Zinna then progressed into the 1930’s, addressing Reefer Madness propaganda:
Marijuana is not a gateway drug to heroin. You know what the gateway drug to heroin is? It’s the Oxycontins and the Percocets that are in mom and dad’s medicine cabinet—that they didn’t throw out and their teenagers are using….
You want to talk about a whole drug culture? We don’t need to look any further than Purdue Pharmaceutical and the Sacklers. They falsified the addictive nature of Oxycontin. The FDA fined them 600 million because of their false reporting, and then what has happened? They make billions a year getting a whole country hooked on prescription drugs. The 600 million was just an amount that they took out of the E-ZPass account.
Continuing on the topic of the War on Drugs, Zinna unloaded on United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions:
Jeff Sessions? He’s my favorite Confederate general. Him, his father and his grandfather were named after Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, and his middle name is Beauregard.
T. Beauregard was a Confederate general, of course, who wanted to keep people in slavery, much the same way Jefferson Davis did. So his parents, and his grandparents, and his great grandparents were so enamored with Southern Jim Crow behavior that they named all the men in their family Jefferson.
I see him as a racist. I don’t know any other way to call it, when he came out two weeks ago to double down on the War on Drugs—because he wants to put black men in prison.
Right now in the South, they’re tearing down monuments to the Confederacy. We should be tearing down Jeff Sessions, because he also is a monument to the Confederacy.
Zinna’s comments about Sessions contrast interestingly with another statement Zinna made, that “the state of the United States right now reminds me, not of the 1960’s with all the Civil Rights and social unrest, but of the 1850’s, just prior to the Civil War.” One must hope the similarities between that era and our own start—and end—there.
The Limitations of Term Limits
The interview took an interesting turn when Epstein brought up the issue of term limits. Just prior to the interview, Epstein had found out that Zinna supports term limits. Epstein doesn’t support the concept, so he challenged Zinna on the subject, and Zinna defended himself:
First, let me put my money where my mouth is. I’ve been a councilman for two terms in Tenafly and I made a conscious decision [not to seek a third term]. My colleagues on the town council, frankly, wanted me to run for another term as a councilman, but I said, “No, I’ve already done two terms. It’s time for some new blood.”
Epstein responded by asking how term limits are justified if the voters like what the term-limited politician has been doing. Zinna clarified:
I believe in consecutive term limits. So, if you’re in the state legislature, you’re in for three or four terms, and you’re really wonderful, but you’re limited to your four terms, [then] you sit out a term. If you’re so magnificent, two years later, you can come back, run again, and the people can put you back into the position that you were term-limited from.
Ever the Berniecrat, Epstein remarked that term limits would have benched Sanders long ago. Zinna wasn’t shaken. “He’s included just like myself,” Zinna said. “How do you justify [it]? Obviously a lot of people would choose for [Sanders] to not go away,” replied Epstein. Zinna had an expansive response:
Because it’s for the greater good, frankly; because the system we have now—the process we have now—is not working. Money controls every aspect of the political process….
[It’s] not that Senator Sanders or any one individual themselves are bad actors or problematic. What I’m saying is that, because the money has corrupted the process so much, we need to do something to counter-effect that, and I think consecutive term limits is a good start…. The problem is, if we keep electing the same people over and over again, the message is [that] they’re doing everything right.
Epstein responded directly to Zinna:
Incumbents keep on winning because they keep on getting voted for, but it is in a system where we do not truly have “one person, one vote.” So, I see term limits as being a misguided way of dealing with the true problem—setting aside money in politics—which is truly changing our voting rights, so that it is “one person, one vote.” If we had “one person one vote,” elections would be the only term limits that we needed.
Zinna had a counter-argument of his own:
But there isn’t “one person, one vote.” Bernie lost because there’s not “one person, one vote.” So the question becomes, “How do we get there?” There are multiple ways of getting there. If we want to have “one person one vote,” which I 100% agree with, we need to completely change how we finance political campaigns, and it should only be public financing. We have to end party chair control over the primary process… in the state of New Jersey. So, there are multiple institutions we have to address: first Amendment rights; people putting their own money into campaigns.
Epstein deferred to Zinna on that point but pressed him for an answer to the question of whether term limits would be necessary if we could ensure that every vote counted equally. In turn, Zinna conceded Epstein’s point:
If it’s all about the ideas and the individuals, then we don’t need term limits.
It’s not about fighting for term limits; it’s fighting [to get] it right for the people. [The plan] may include ten different steps, or it might have… one step, and there’s practical aspects to both. But the root of the problem is “one person, one vote,” at the end of the day.
The Bernie Effect
Emboldened by the mention of Sanders, Epstein asked Zinna how Bernie has influenced him. Zinna said that, as far as policy, he’s “gone left of center” on healthcare and that healthcare is “a fundamental human right.” Zinna finds it absurd that “[when] you go to the hospital, […] your health insurance company decides what kind of care you’re going to get. Not your doctor, not your nurse, not your pharmacist.”
When Epstein remarked that universal healthcare is one of a number of redistributive policies Bernie has suggested, Zinna walked the sentiment back slightly, saying, “My goal isn’t to have approximately the same wealth. I would say my goal is [to have no ridiculous disparities].” He then refuted an admittedly dated right-wing talking point about “healthcare takeover“:
I’m not talking about the government taking over your healthcare process. I’m talking about the government managing the money….
I’m a capitalist. I own a small business. I’ve worked in corporate America.
But if you’ve ever read The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith—who is the go-to capitalist—Adam Smith talked about, and I’m going to paraphrase, the issue that, if you’re a capitalist, you’re still responsible for your community. You have to make sure the people who work for you, the people who live in your community, are able to eat, are able to buy a home; are able to live safely.
Even Henry Ford, who was no friend of labor—he was violent toward labor—even he understood [that] you have to pay people enough that they can buy your products and live some sort of comfortable life…. I’m coming full circle here: Bernie Sanders understands that message that if everyone doesn’t have a meal on their table every day and everyone doesn’t have a fair opportunity, we’re gonna have real problems in this country.
Zinna went on to list some of the benefits of his business-based approach, bolstering his defense of capital:
I’m a practical businessperson. [If] I’m governor and I sign [a pipeline moratorium, for example] into law, [investors] are going to wake up and say, “Alright, this guy Zinna is governor. He’s not gonna let us build our pipelines. Let’s go out and make money in the solar industry….
Whatever regulation government comes up with that hurts me as a businessman, guess what? I’m smarter than the government guys—the bureaucrats making those rules…. They’ll figure it out. They’re smart guys.
Shifting the topic to Sanders himself, Zinna said, “He’s fundamentally an outsider. This is an individual who’s not afraid of anything.” Zinna described the effect the Bernie campaign had on him:
I’ve become much more progressive. I would have previously described myself as a moderate Democrat in the late 80’s and early 90’s, […] and I’ve become more and more progressive as time has gone on….
He raised my consciousness, my social awareness; that we’re here to help and to be our brother’s keepers; to help each other in this life we’re battling through. I’m fifty-six years old, but every day, I learn new things, because I keep my mind open to new concepts….
The biggest lesson I learned was the way he was treated, which was fundamentally unfair. It is a complete understatement, but his treatment was disgraceful…. Donald Trump is President of the United States, because of the way the DNC treated Bernie Sanders, and the DNC’s attitude toward candidates in general.
By the time Zinna finished fielding questions and discussing policy, the sun was gone and the drizzle was only picking up. In the last stretch of his conversation with Epstein, summarizing his campaign in the last week of the primary, Zinna said, “My view of the state is that we need to think about the future. We need to think about the people of this state; our children and grandchildren.” He closed out, “I’m asking the voters on June 6th to vote for me for Governor,” and all four of us—Zinna, Epstein, Manin, and myself—hurried inside the bar to flee the rain and track down some warm food.
(The interview spanned several other topics too disparate to daisy-chain here. The entire conversation was illuminating and Zinna’s policy platform can be heard more fully there.)