Stateline Story

Mystery Web Site Tracks New Jersey Politics

  • October 10, 2002
  • By Herb Jackson
As he drove to the New Jersey governor's mansion to be named to replace the scandal-tarred Robert Torricelli as Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate candidate in the November election, former Sen. Frank Lautenberg got stuck in traffic and was a half-hour late.

Many political junkies know this because it was among the dozens of news items provided during that eventful day by an anonymously-operated web site, politicsnj.com.

News of Lautenberg's tussle with a traffic jam replaced an item that said he was in the running to replace Torricelli. This had replaced an earlier item that said Democratic Gov. James McGreevey and his advisers had offered the spot on the ballot to Rep. Frank Pallone, who initially accepted and then turned it down after his wife objected.

In times of political turmoil, which have been frequent in New Jersey this year, politicsnj.com's operators have been able to draw from a base of anonymous sources to scoop New Jersey newspapers and wire services, which have stricter sourcing guidelines.

Amid the dot.com meltdown, which has caused many online news sites to close up shop, politicsnj.com has grown from an Internet curiousity to mandatory daily reading for political junkies in the Garden State.

The site has built an audience by mixing anonymous and signed columns, including one by former Gov. James J. Florio, with news tips and features such as Internet polls, a weekly "winners and losers" list, and various rankings of the political elite. Also drawing readers is a list of links, updated daily, to politics news stories published in newspapers around the state.

"It's the first thing I check every morning," says Tom Shea, who moved this month from serving as chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine to be press secretary of the Lautenberg campaign.

The site's publishers use the same pseudonym, Publius, as the founding fathers who anonymously circulated the Federalist Papers. After launching in New Jersey, they are trying to transport the formula to New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont, with varying degrees of success.

Sam Hemingway, state news columnist for the Burlington (Vt.) Free Press, said politicsvt.com hasn't caused much of a stir and often has stale information.

"To me it's not required reading," he said.

In Pennsylvania's capital city of Harrisburg, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Tom Fitzgerald said politicspa.com is definitely a bookmark on political junkies' computers.

"People check it out a lot, and they've been fairly competitive on some breaking stories," Fitzgerald said. "It's not weighted as credibly as an actual journalistic organization, but if (someone is putting out) a nasty story that is going to fail the standards of newspapers, sometimes they can get it out on politicspa."

Brad Lawrence, a principal of the consulting firm Message and Media, which has run the campaigns of such New Jersey Democratic heavyweights as Corzine and McGreevey, said politicsnj.com provides a needed outlet for the relatively small community of political insiders.

"Since real voters may not pay close attention to it, sometimes it's used to send messages from one campaign to another, to play games, and affect insider and elite opinions," he said. Other political consultants said a well-placed story on the site can affect fund-raising, both positively and negatively.

In an exchange of emails with this reporter, politicsnj.com editor Wally Edge, a pseudonym that pays homage to a former governor and senator from New Jersey, said he takes pains to verify tips before posting them on the site. Edge said he had a huge database of contacts that he uses to check information before publishing, and has not had any major complaints. There is rampant speculation in New Jersey about who Wally Edge is, but so far his real identity remains unknown. Democrats say he's a Republican, and vice versa, while some speculate Edge is the creation of a Trenton consulting or lobbying firm with partners of both political persuasions.

Herb Jackson is a senior writer for The Record (Bergen County, NJ)