WNYC Thursday January 31, 2019
New Jersey Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll has long been known in state political circles as one of the most socially conservative, and outspoken, members of the legislature. Over the course of the years, the Morris County Republican has made controversial comments on immigration, urban poverty and public education, among other issues.
But it was a comment that Carroll made about slavery in 2008 that briefly made national headlines. At the time, the New Jersey legislature was weighing whether the state should issue an official apology for slavery. Carroll opposed the measure, and said that African-Americans should actually be grateful for slavery, because it was the means by which they eventually gained American citizenship.
“If slavery was the price that a modern American’s ancestors had to pay in order to make one an American, one should get down on one’s knees every single day and thank the Lord that such price was paid,” Carroll told the Associated Press at the time. He went on to say he was descended from Irish ancestors who fled their country in the 1850’s, during the potato famine, which he said was exacerbated by the British.
“Far from holding it against the modern British, I delight in the cruelty of their forebears. Without same, I might be hanging around in Inisfree,” Carroll said, referencing an Irish island.
The controversy around Carroll’s comments died down fairly quickly, and his legislative career carried on much as it had been. He was even nominated for a judgeship on New Jersey’s Superior Court by former Gov. Chris Christie (before Christie pulled the nomination after one week, when the State Bar Association said it did not have enough time to vet the nominee).
Now, Carroll is planning to step down from his seat in the Assembly — he says he’s frustrated serving in the minority — and will instead run for the job of Morris County Surrogate, the county official charged with overseeing the probate of wills, management of estates and determining guardianship issues.
The seat has been held by a Republican for 25 years — nearly as long as Carroll has held his seat in the legislature — and Democrats see an opening. That’s because they say Morris County’s political profile has seen a shift in the 24 years since Carroll’s first Assembly race, as more Democrats move into the one-time bastion of Garden State Republicanism.
“The county is changing,” said Chip Robinson, chairman of the Morris County Democratic Committee. “As a result, elections have gotten a lot more competitive, and I anticipate this election for surrogate will be very competitive as well.”
Robinson acknowledges Republicans outnumber Democrats among affiliated voters. But he has seen that margin shrink, from 50,000 down to 30,000.
Carroll’s margins have also shrunk. When he first ran for his seat, in 1995, he had a 7,000 vote lead over his Democratic challenger. In 2017, Carroll won by a 2,000 vote margin.
And – Robinson points out — Morris County voters helped put two Democrats — Mikie Sherrill and Tom Malinowski — in Congress during last year’s Midterms.
Reached at his office, Carroll said he believes all men are equal, making race and gender distinctions irrelevant. He also stood by his decade-old comments about slavery.
“Would you rather be the American child of a person who suffered great indignation? Or would you rather be an Irish or a Kenyan descendant of a person who never did [immigrate to the US]?” he asked. “Your call. But I think being an American is a huge benefit. And if your ancestors had to pay a high price to get to that…I mean, many of them fought like hell to get here.”
Carroll attributed his smaller victory margin in 2017 to voters being angry with Donald Trump, not the strength of the local Republican party.
Jon Bramnick is the Assembly Republican leader. He said Carroll was likely trying to make an intellectual argument in his slavery comments, but he said they don’t represent the GOP’s views.
“These comments surely are not helpful to the Republican Party” or its “agenda of equality and fairness,” Bramnick said.
Morris County Republican Committee chairman Ronald DeFilippis declined to comment on Carroll’s slavery remarks, or to endorse him this early in the electoral cycle. But he does challenge the idea that party is in any sort of trouble, pointing to the GOP’s sweep in most local elections.
So far, Carroll is the only Republican seeking the surrogate’s seat, but that could change. The filing deadline for candidates is April 1. New Jersey’s Primary Election is June 4.