DDID Republican campaign workers in New Jersey make payoffs to discourage blacks from voting in last week's election for governor?
That's the hot question in the wake of remarks by Ed Rollins, who ran the victorious campaign of Christine Todd Whitman.
In a Monitor breakfast with reporters this week, Mr. Rollins said some of the campaign's $500,000 in ``walking-around money'' was used to make donations to black ministers' selected charities in exchange for an agreement not to rally their followers to vote for Democratic Gov. James Florio.
Rollins said payments were also made to Democratic Party workers to keep them home on election day.
The charges have caused an uproar nationwide and particularly in New Jersey, raising questions about the legitimacy of Mrs. Whitman's narrow victory and anger within the black community. The New Jersey State Democratic Committee has called for a criminal investigation.
Rollins is now backing away from his remarks. In a statement released Wednesday, he called them ``an exaggeration that proved to be inaccurate.''
This seems to beg the question: Did it actually happen, to even a lesser degree? And as Rollins said, is this ``the way the game is played in New Jersey and elsewhere''?
Analysts from both parties say they've never heard of a campaign paying people off to keep them away from the polls.
State Republican officials - and Whitman herself - deny Rollins's statement. Steve Salmore, a professor at the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University and a consultant to the state Republican Party, says the so-called walking-around money, known as ``street money'' in New Jersey election law, is used only to get out the vote, not to suppress it.
Dr. Salmore says he worked for the state committee in putting together the targeting plan for the get-out-the-vote drive. ``In fact,'' Salmore says, ``the get-out-the-vote [effort] was put together by people outside the Whitman campaign because the Whitman campaign wasn't up to it.''
Salmore says he can't swear that there were no attempts to suppress black turnout in urban areas, but he insists that it was not a state party policy to do so.
The Rev. Edward Verner, executive director of the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey, said he knows of no ministers who were either offered money or accepted money from the Whitman campaign, and he demanded an apology from Rollins.
``Our reputation has been impugned,'' he said.
Under New Jersey law, campaigns must report the name and address of any person receiving more than $25 in street money. But the report need not indicate the purpose of the money. It is also legal for a candidate to use privately raised campaign money to make a donation to charity.
``We are responsible for telling how money is used, not why,'' says Frederick Herrmann, executive director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. With the next campaign finance reports due on Nov. 22, the commission will refer any possible violations of law to the attorney general, he adds.
According to Jon Shure, a spokesman for Governor Florio, the State Democratic Committee is looking into possible criminal violations, such as whether the Whitman effort violated a consent rule prohibiting a 1981 GOP tactic of paying off-duty police officers to patrol polls in minority communities.
At the very least, says Herb Alexander, a campaign-finance expert at the University of Southern California, using campaign money that way is embarrassing -especially just after enactment of the ``motor-voter'' law, which provides for easier registration of voters.
At the breakfast, Rollins said: ``We went into black churches and we basically said to ministers who had endorsed Florio, `Do you have a special project?' And they said, `We've already endorsed Florio.' And we said, `That's fine, don't get up on the Sunday pulpit and preach.... Don't get up there and say it's your moral obligation that you go out on Tuesday and vote for Jim Florio.' ''
Rollins said that, if they cooperated, ministers were told the campaign would make contributions to their ``favorite charities.''
In other cases, he said, some urban Democratic workers were asked, ``How much have they paid you to do your normal duty?...We'll match it. Go home, sit, and watch television.''
The result, Rollins says: ``I think, to a certain extent, we suppressed their vote.''
The question is why Rollins - an experienced consultant who ran President Reagan's successful 1984 campaign - would openly discuss information that could be harmful to his former client. One answer is that Rollins says he doesn't believe the use of ``walking around money'' was wrong, legally or morally.
The consultant also may have been trying to boast about his political acumen. ``It was not the stupidest campaign ever run, as some people wanted to write,'' Rollins declared. ``In the end, it was a fairly smart campaign.''