Hoatson files lawsuit against allegedly unfair conventions

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange native running as a Democratic candidate for governor of New Jersey has filed a civil motion against the Bergen County Democratic Committee in the chancery division of New Jersey Superior Court seeking to nullify the committee’s convention results after he was not invited to participate.

Robert Hoatson wrote in his Feb. 1 motion that the Bergen County Democrats “deliberately and with malice” excluded him and several other Democratic candidates from their Jan. 26 convention en route to “fraudulently, prejudicially and unfairly” selecting gubernatorial front-runner Phil Murphy as their “predetermined” candidate. Hoatson has alleged that the committee did this because Murphy, a multimillionaire and former Goldman Sachs executive, used his wealth to buy the candidacy.

After filing the motion, Hoatson told the West Orange Chronicle that he learned the Monmouth County Democratic Committee had also chosen Murphy at its Jan. 22 convention without inviting him. As a result, he said he plans to ask the judge at his Feb. 9 hearing to nullify those results since no candidate should benefit from what Hoatson called a biased process.

However, the Democratic committees do not believe the convention process has been unfair. In a Feb. 3 statement to the Chronicle, the Monmouth County committee stressed its convention was no secret.

“The Monmouth County Democrats promoted the convention on our website and to our email membership,” the statement read. “(Hoatson) did not contact us for details on the convention nor did he file.”

Furthermore, the committee said it has never heard of Hoatson and never received any letters from him.

The Bergen County Democratic Committee and Chairman Lou Stellato did not respond to requests for comment before press time Feb. 7. But Stellato similarly told NJ.com that it was Hoatson’s responsibility to know when the convention was being held, pointing out that no candidate receives invitations.

Hoatson’s goal is to eventually have the Monmouth and Bergen committees vote again to decide which candidate’s name will appear at the top of the ticket in their counties’ Democratic primary elections in June. Murphy overwhelmingly won at the conventions, earning 202 of 233 votes for Monmouth County and 637 of 733 votes for Bergen County. State Assemblyman John Wisniewski received the second-most number of votes with 22 at the Monmouth convention and 72 at the Bergen convention, while social activist Bill Brennan also scored eight votes in Monmouth County and 24 votes in Bergen County.

Hoatson believes he is on firm ground to make such a request, arguing in his motion that the Bergen committee violated multiple provisions of the New Jersey Democratic Party’s constitution by not inviting him to its convention. For instance, he wrote that the committee did not “assure the fair selection of candidates for public offices throughout the state” since it “ignored” him even though he said he sent letters to all 21 county Democratic committees asking to discuss his candidacy with them. He also wrote that he is being denied an “equal opportunity” to participate in the Democratic Party because he does not have the same “economic status” as Murphy, who is shown by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission’s contributor database to have donated thousands of dollars to New Jersey Democratic campaigns in the past.

The Murphy campaign did not respond to requests for comment before press time.

Hoatson hopes a redo is possible, telling the Chronicle he simply wants to let New Jersey Democrats know there are other options than the current “ordained” candidate Murphy. He said he is about to launch his own website where people can donate to his campaign. He said he has also done some fundraising, collecting around $1,000 so far.

“My issue is that if I can get around to different people and get invited to these places and just get a foot in the door, then hopefully they’re going to see someone who has skills and abilities and talents that the state might be able to use,” Hoatson, a former Catholic priest who now runs the Road to Recovery nonprofit assisting victims of sexual abuse, said. “And that doesn’t happen right now. It’s all image and it’s all money. We’ve got to take the money out of politics and allow people’s skills and abilities to rule the roost.”

This is not the first time the convention process has been criticized during this election cycle. Most notably, the Wisniewski campaign recently accused the Democratic Party of rigging the conventions to ensure that Murphy comes out victorious. It also claimed Murphy and his campaign have donated a total of $116,850 during the past three years to the Bergen County Democratic Committee, which represents the largest constituency of Democratic voters in the state. It even started a petition calling for the party to hold candidate debates instead of “shilling for one wealthy candidate.”

But the Murphy campaign has fired back, calling Wisniewski the “poster child for special interest politicians” and even created a website promoting the message that the assemblyman used his political influence to benefit the private clients his law firm represents before municipal governments.